Newcastle — There seems to be a lot of attention paid to “happiness” these days. OK, I’ll bite. I’ve started reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, and I listened this week to the NPR Ted Radio Hour that consolidated five TED speakers who contemplate different paths to finding happiness. The more I learn the more skeptical I become.
It’s claimed that happiness is our right. Wrong. We are only promised the pursuit of happiness and that turns out to be a long, dark tunnel, and the light at the end is just illuminating the entrance to the next tunnel. It’s claimed that seventy-five percent of us are happy. Obviously whoever came up with that hasn’t ridden on the same subway trains I have. I make it a point to look at my fellow passengers, specifically to see if anyone is smiling. Nobody ever is, with the rare exception of couples actively engaged with each other. Indeed happiness depends a great deal on interaction with others.
Personally I am unhappy about sixty percent of the time, indifferent thirty percent, and happy ten percent. I may be somewhat more morose than most, but I don’t believe markedly so. I further believe that the more intelligent you are the more likely you’re unhappy. I base this mainly on my experiences with Mobius. The people there may have mental disabilities, but they appear to be universally, obviously happy. Nobody’s contemplating walking into the river with their pockets full of rocks. Lucky them.
What I hear from the Ted speakers are ways to be less UNhappy. Chief among these is mindfulness, something the Buddha figured out about 2600 years ago. Keep focused and do not let the mind wander. Note that anguish is the first noble truth; we must accept this and seek the path to its relief.
Slow down! The frenetic pace of life fueled by the electronic communication revolution is not cheering us up. Are we living our lives or racing through them? Speed breeds mindlessness. I was unhappy (Oops!) to hear that a few years ago Matt Killingsworth (one of the Ted talks) came up with a Track Your Happiness app for your smart phone. His purpose was to accomplish a PhD research study on happiness among the general population. To this end he established the site www.trackyourhappiness.org. You go to this site, answer a few questions, and supply your phone number. Thereafter, at unpredictable moments, your smart phone will offer text to demand that you call and respond to a series of questions like “how are you are feeling?”, “what you are doing?”, “are you thinking about something other than what you are doing?” Aside: this is one of the many reasons I don’t have a smart phone. F..k Off!
Sorry, I’m letting emotion get the best of me. How did Matt’s study turn out? One conclusion: mind wandering is associated with unhappiness. But we know this. As Danger Lampost (really, that’s the name he gives) commented in response to Matt’s talk, the Dali Lama frequently makes the same point. Matt’s contribution is the observation, from studying 650,000 responses to that nagging text, that mind wandering leads to unhappiness not at the present but later. Apparently in moments of inattention we tend to think about problems and anxieties rather than fondling our favorite pet. This should be controllable; think positively!
Brother David Steindl-Rast provided the last Ted talk on happiness; the one I liked best. His contention: whereas it is true that we are grateful when we are happy, the greater truth is that we are happy when we are grateful. He was the only speaker to take “me” out of the focus and point out that compassion for others is the true happiness; the Bodhisattva. However, rest assured that any happiness, just as any sorrow, is fleeting. Emotions do not maintain themselves, happily and unhappily.
Where does this leave me? It is self-evident that happiness cannot be assured. Best not to worry about it. Nothing is permanent. As Nagarjuna put it almost two millennia ago:
"In seeing things
To be or not to be
Fools fail to see
A world at ease."