Sunday, 12 November 2017

Happiness Part 1: What Happiness Is: Are you happy? T2 (Telegraph India) article dated 3rd September 2017


One thing most people will agree on is that we all want to be happy. The problem is, we often don't know how to be happy or what makes us happy. What is happiness, after all? Sometimes, we are happy when we feel pleasure. Sometimes, a restless mind is happy when it experiences a certain feeling of 'rest', or peace, or solace. We also feel happy when we are grateful, or in awe of something, or simply humbled by an experience, or when we laugh over something, especially with friends and family. The emotions are so diverse that each one of us has our own definition of happiness.

What is important to understand is that happiness does not mean never experiencing negative emotions — pain, sadness and even anger are also important feelings. When we suffer an irrevocable loss like the death of a loved one, being sad is natural. We all need to know what sadness is, but having that experience doesn't take away our ability to be happy, neither does it make us unhappy as a person. In fact, it is quite the opposite. In order to have sustainable happiness, we perhaps need space to engage with other kinds of emotions as well.
June Gruber, a psychologist at Yale University, has shown in her research that having excessive positive emotions, or fervently seeking positive emotions all the time, or even expressing positive emotions in the wrong context is associated with being at risk for mania: a psychiatric disorder.
And at University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Dacher Keltner has discovered that pride — one of our often sought- after positive emotions — is easily confused with being in an excessively happy state, which can actually make us unhappy in the long run.
Pride can give us all the euphoric certainty that we perhaps long for in ourselves with a desired sense of confidence and well- being.
Dacher has shown that when one has too much pride or is seeking
pride too frequently, he or she is actually suffering socially, in the long run, creating a really unhappy state. Too much pride makes one come across as conceited or somehow inaccessible.

We often think we can be happy... .. only when our needs and desires are met .. when we are satisfied every moment with how things are going .. when we feel pleasure all the time Well, we can't function that way. The constant euphoric state is not normal, neither is it normal to expect that things will or should always go as we want. These, ' only when', ' every moment', ' all the time' are not practical contexts for happiness. We need to look at happiness from a broader perspective and as a realistic, wholesome experience.


According to positive psychology thinkers, we can divide happiness into three categories. First is the pursuit of pleasure, which is short- lived. It is what we get when we buy a new car or have a bar of chocolate. It's a hedonistic sense of quenching the desire. The problem is, often the same object which is made accessible loses its ability to give us the same pleasure time and again. Next is a more subtle form of happiness — the happiness of flow. Flow is when we are content and fully engaged in doing something, like when we are painting or dancing, when, perhaps, we even tend to lose track of time.  In the happiness of flow, contentment comes from being fully engaged in doing something, such as a Sufi dancer whirling in a trance. Here, one is not focused on the outcome, one is not trying to create a great piece of work; one is just enjoying the process, fully engaged. The happiness of flow is more sustainable and fulfilling than the happiness derived from the pursuit of pleasure.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University has extensively contributed to the understanding and use of this phenomenon of 'flow' in creating a more resilient state of happiness.
According to him, we can train ourselves to experience flow often and, as a result, be happy.
The third kind is the happiness of meaning. We experience this when we feel we have a meaningful life or a purpose in life. We all want to be a part of or be connected to something bigger than us; be relevant in the bigger scheme of life. We want to contribute to a larger cause. This is a way of affirming ' I am', beyond mortality. Doing something meaningful, according to our own ideas of ' meaning', can make us feel connected to society at large or humanity itself and create a sense of belonging. Being a parent, being a part of a community, attending Sunday meetings or group prayers, participating in festivals, supporting our favourite soccer club, joining a cause.... All these are perhaps ways of being a part of the collective.
We also have a sense of touching something larger than life and hence connected to something bigger when we experience awe, for example, when we are awed by nature or see a great piece of art. We also feel this, humbling feeling, though more subtly but more intimately, while actively contributing and adding value to something beyond our own selves. This feeling is altruistic in nature and also humbling at the same time. This is the most fulfilling and long-lasting form of happiness.
Loving-kindness meditation or 'act of kindness practice' has been clinically proven to be of help in cases like depression, bipolar, borderline personality disorder and anxiety — perhaps because these tools and practices help us nurture the feeling of meaningfulness by contributing to a larger identity.
Ultimately, we are all trying to be at peace with ourselves, so that we can feel good. In a way, we all are seeking assurance that we matter in the larger scheme of things.

Dr Sangbarta Chattopadhyay and Dr Namita Bhuta 

are medical practitioners and practising psychotherapists.
They are trained Family and Structural Constellation Facilitator

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