When asking people “what do you want from life?” the most common answer is “just to be happy”. Let me start with the oxford dictionary definition of happy: “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment”. Happiness is defined as a feeling not a state of existence. Negative emotions are not only guaranteed in life, they are also essential for our learning and growth. Pain, grief, disappointment and anger are all normal, healthy emotions. It is in fact our lack of tools and acceptance to deal with these negative emotions that create lasting discordance. Emotional pain is one of life’s few guarantees (unless you are a psychopath and feel no emotion). I wonder if we changed the way we perceived and managed our pain, would our world feel consistently happier?
Instead, we pursue the feeling of happiness. The problem is that when we “seek” happiness directly and desperately due to its absence, we are energetically pushing it away because we are expanding on an energy of lack. Law of attraction: what you resist, persists.
In Buddhism, two kinds of happiness are described. The first is called Pamoja, happiness with a cause. Short term gratification like enjoying a meal, a hug from a loved one or a compliment. The second is Sukha, happiness without a cause. Where a state of peace and contentment exists without an external cause. While both types of happiness cultivate positive feelings, the state of Sukha is, I suspect, what we are seeking. Yet, we find the relief and the target to be the Pamoja. Indeed, the Pamoja has the potential to become a place of resistance in and of itself, where we come to rely on the instant gratification of validation, other people or external sources of pleasure. This creates a loop of seeking, finding, expiring, seeking again, with a constant need and feeling of lack.
So how do we achieve Sukha? If we want a state of Sukha, then we must cultivate the foundations of our lives with purpose and meaning, not just dopamine driven short term relief. Through my research on happiness, I have found some common factors that have been proven to contribute to a meaningful life and increased feelings of happiness. Of course, nothing comes easy in this life. Meaningful living requires effort and attention. But the reward is all you could ever dream of in this life.
Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, author and scholar, outlines 5 pillars of happiness with a handy acronym of SPIRE.
Happiness is not something you find, it is something you create.
Dr Lisa Miller, author of The Awakened Brain, researched the neuroscience of spirituality. Reduced activity in the occipital, parietal and precuneous regions of the brain are associated with depression. Neuroimaging showed that the brains of people who had strong faith (religion or alternative spirituality), had healthier brains and not only suffered less depression, but these very areas that are suppressed in depressed people, were highly active in spiritual people. Miller identifies biological pathways of spirituality as the other end of the spectrum of depression. Could spirituality act as a protective barrier to the damage or effects of depression? Could depression actually be our call to awaken? Find our faith? Miller hypothesised that those subjects with a sensitivity or genetic propensity to depression, were the most protected by cortical thickening through faith. It is suggested here the shamans, healers, musicians and artists, those particularly sensitive to experiences of a deeper nature, while more prone to depression, are most protected by their faith. Even those not at high risk of depression, showed positive neuroanatomical changes if they practised faith, compared to those that did not.
You do not need to rush out and join the church. Having good spiritual health does not require a rigid set of beliefs, it is about faith. Having faith is about trusting in the process. Whatever that looks like for you. Understanding the ebs and flows of life, so that you trust all that comes and goes.
Professor Datcher Keltner speaks on the practising of awe. We are so wrapped up in grandiose things such as technology and big ticket events that we miss the happiness that comes from just being still and in awe of the simple things, like a flower blooming, or the contemplation of how a tree has grown from a tiny sapling, or how the moon controls the tides. Keltner reports that practising awe for just 2 minutes per day calms stress in the brain, reduces inflammation, activates the vagus nerve and improves digestion (Daltcher Keltner, Awe 2023).
Having good physical health is without a doubt a contributor to a healthier and happier existence. One little google will give you all the evidence you need that physical activity supports immune health, brain health, heart health, you name it. Of particular interest to me is that physical exercise triggers the release of endorphins and catecholamines that improve attention and productivity (Dr Tara Swart, The Source 2019). From an energetic perspective, the movement of the body is essential to mobilise stagnant energy. Yoga has been a staple ancient practice that promotes overall health and well being but that also has a direct link to the improvement of symptoms and relief of depression (Dr Bessel Van der Kolk, The body keeps the score 2014). Connecting the mind and the soul back into the physical body has repeatedly proven to relieve the effects of trauma and improve mental health (Levine, Van der Kolk, Porges).
Our personal relationships are ultimately the biggest indicator of happiness. Those with good networks of friends, family, colleagues and recreational acquaintances are happier and healthier overall. Loneliness is considered to be the most detrimental indicator of poor health. Dr Mark Hyman states that the poor health caused by loneliness and isolation is the equivalent of smoking two packets of cigarettes per day. Humans are pack animals and require relationships. It is in our biology to need social networks and interactions, otherwise we would have failed to survive. With society the way it is now, there is so much less need for other humans for survival. This has been catastrophic for our species as we are seeing more loneliness than ever with 40% of people in globalised cultures claiming to be lonely (Keltner, 2023). It is no wonder therefore, that our health suffers without the relational nurture and stimulation our biology demands. Areas in the brain such as the default mode network and the dopamine system are reduced in the brains of lonely people, causing reduced cognitive function and reduction in motivation and energy. There is a reported increase in activity of the amygdala, an area associated with stress and danger. Loneliness literally causes brain damage.
This is not a reflection of romantic relationships either. Any form of friendship or community serves to reduce loneliness and improve health. In fact, studies have shown that people in unhappy or abusive relationships show far more detrimental effects than someone that is alone. Robin Williams is quoted to have said “I would rather be alone than be around people that make me feel lonely”. So the pursuit of companionship in a romantic relationship is not necessary. Finding hobbies, walking groups, fitness classes, library groups, anything that offers a source of connection will ultimately reduce the long term effects of loneliness.
This is not to say that periods of solitude in your life are bad. On the contrary. Part of our soul journey in each life is to experience certain pain. I know for me personally, my periods of solitude have been dark and sometimes lonely but were absolutely necessary for me to take the next step in my journey. There are times where the Divine removes you from everyone and everything in order for you to understand, to experience, to evolve, to be. Alone and lonely are not the same thing. Leaning into a solitary time or dark night of the soul is not the same as chronic loneliness.
In any case, cultivating a regular practise of gratitude, awe, exercise, relational interaction and filling ones life with meaningful pursuits, all contribute to a happier and healthier life.