Jun 07, 2013
Seven qualities that science says make us happy (Day 56)
The practice of mudita, or appreciative joy, is summed up in these words from the first century:
When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: “Sadhu! Sadhu! May he continue joyful for a long time!”
We’re focusing on the good qualities that people have, as well as the peace and joy that those good qualities bring. I want to focus today on those good qualities, so that we may more readily detect them in ourselves and others. We can’t rejoice in what we do not see.
Dr. David Myers, professor of psychology at Hope College and author of the Pursuit of Happiness, identified a number of qualities shared by many people who tend to be happy. From his research, several characteristics of happy people have become clear:
Happy people have self-esteem. They like themselves. They are more likely to agree with statements like “I’m fun to be with” or “I have good ideas.” They appreciate their own good qualities. Of course some people over-estimate their good qualities, but Myers points out that healthy self esteem is “positive yet realistic.” Anxious self-praise is fragile, and doesn’t promote long-term happiness. This kind of confidence is called saddha in Buddhism. Saddha is often translated as “faith,” but it’s not “blind faith” — it’s confidence based on experience, and on self-awareness. This kind of confidence in ourselves leads to happiness.
Happy people are optimistic. Optimists are more cheerful and upbeat. They expect to do well, and they expect good things to happen. They’re physically healthier, and they are actually more successful, because our expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies. Pessimists see set-backs as signs that they shouldn’t have tried in the first place. Optimists see set-backs as anomalies — stumbling blocks on the road to success. This is another form of saddha, but this time it’s confidence in life itself that enables happiness.
Happy people feel a sense of personal control. The happiest people are the 15% of the population who feel in control of their lives and who like themselves. People are happier when they make conscious choices about what they do with their lives — including basic things like their leisure time. The Buddhist term for this kind of engagement is viriya, often translated as “energy.” Viriya is our active engagement with life — our willingness to shape our own destinies.
Happy people are extroverted. No disrespect intended to introverts (I’m an introvert myself), but extroverted people are on average much more cheerful. They’re more likely to find satisfaction in life through rewarding jobs and relationships. As an introvert I’ve had to work at becoming more outgoing, and making progress in that regard has been rewarding. Introverts can be friendly too. In fact I’m going to suggest that it’s overt friendliness — metta — that’s the key thing.
Happy people have close, supportive relationships. “Those supported by intimate friendships or a committed marriage are much likelier to declare themselves ‘very happy,’” Myers says. And indeed, recent research has shown that feelings of isolation and loneliness are as bad for our health as smoking. So the qualities that support close relationships — the ability to be open, to be kind and nurturing, to take an interest in another person — all help us to be happier. Many of these qualities come be summed up in the term anukampa, which is often rendered as sympathy, but which literally means the ability to “resonate with” or “vibrate with” others.
Happy people have a spiritual orientation. Happy people have a sense that their lives have purpose and meaning beyond accumulating wealth and spending their leisure time in enjoyable ways. People who have a spiritual foundation to their lives are twice as likely to report being “very happy” as people who don’t. This quality of having a spiritual orientation is what the Buddha called “right view” (samma-ditthi), although this doesn’t imply taking on board a collection of second-hand spiritual ideas, but having a basic openness to life and its possibilities.
Happy people experience flow in their work and play. When people perform ordinary tasks in a mindful way, they become un-selfconsciously absorbed, lose their sense of separateness, and cease ruminating. And ruminating is one of the things that makes us most unhappy. “Flow experiences boost our sense of self-esteem, competence, and well-being,” says Myers. Mindfulness and the ability to pay sustained attention (samadhi, or concentration) are essential for entering a flow state.
This list is by no means complete, and it’s very much a broad-brush outline of the qualities that lead to happiness. (Wildmind’s most popular article, read to date by more than a quarter of a million people is on 10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy, and is rather different.) But it gives us an idea of some of the things we can look for in others when we’re appreciating their goog qualities. It can also, however, give us an idea of what we need to work on if we wish to have joy-filled lives.
When you’re doing the mudita meditation practice, you might find it useful, when you can, to actually name some of the qualities that you admire in yourself or others. I’ve previously suggested using phrases such as “May my/your good qualities increase”; may my/your happiness continue and increase.” But “good qualities is rather vague! If you’ve picked someone like the Dalai Lama as your “admirable person” (this is the second stage, the way I’m teaching the practice here) then you could perhaps name the qualities you admire in him: “May your compassion increase”; may your happiness continue and increase; may your good humor increase; may your happiness continue and increase. may your curiosity increase; may your happiness continue and increase.” You could name several qualities, but don’t worry if it gets repetitive. Repetition is what makes the practice work.
This approach could be more difficult for the neutral person, if it’s someone you really don’t know. But there’s often something that strikes you about a person when you meet them, and when I think of the cashier at the post office, I recall her friendliness and good humor, and I esteem those qualities and imagine they lead to happiness for her. So I could say “May your friendliness increase,” etc.
This could be even harder for the difficult person, depending on who you’re focusing on. I often choose a person that I basically like, but who may have some habits that are abrasive. So I’m well aware of their positive qualities, and can name and rejoice in those. And the benefit of doing this is that it balances out the focus I tend to have on the few things they do that rub me the wrong way, and makes those things less conspicuous in my mind. But if there’s someone you really can’t stand, this could be more difficult, and it would be fine to stick with the all-purpose, one-size-fits-all “May your good qualities increase”; may your happiness continue and increase.”