During my final exams I saw a lot of students being stressed and kind of unhappy about that particular week as they had to do many things in little time and things weren’t going as planned. One of the days I was taking a break from my study, I came across a TED Talk’s playlist about happiness and I decided to see them all to see if I could understand better what was what was making them feel gloomy. Particularly, if something could be done against it to be able to overcome that specially bad week and stay calm and in a good mood or “happy”.
Those 9 videos were extremely helpful as, if you put them together, you can get a really good idea of what happiness looks like (more or less, let’s not be too presumptuous). If you understand this, is easier to get into that state.
Difference between mood/state and emotions
That’s probably one of the most important things that we should understand about it: Happiness is a state, a mood. It’s totally different from emotions like being angry, sad, jealous, euphoric. The main difference is how long these two remain in our mind. While happiness is a state and it last for longer no matter what happens, emotions are more short-time lived and usually related to circumstances from the outside. So, we should see happiness as that way of being when you are somewhat calm, confident, relaxed, even when something bad happens. In one of the talks, the monk Matthieu Ricard compares it to an ocean. The ocean’s depth is the same no matter if it’s a sunny day or a thunderstorm with heavy rains are going through it. That sense of depth is what we call happiness.
Does that mean that we won’t feel sadness anymore? Not at all. It just means that even when that sad thing happens we will be able to keep in a kind of state that will let us to take that bad thing with relative less importance than if we were not happy. For most of us who won’t keep hours and hours meditating about these things, those evil feelings will stay occur, but with a bit of training and experience we will learn how to not let those feelings control us.
I need to be bit personal now: When I was younger and still a teenager, like 7-8 ago, I was really pessimistic. Not only that, I also thought that bad things happening were much more important that they really were. There came a point when I realized that I couldn’t stay like that anymore. I wasn’t happy with that situation so I decided to change it bit a bit. And now, some years later, I think I can say I made a good job in that aspect. Like almost everything in life it required to do small things day by day so at the end of the trip the effort worth it and without even realizing you got your objective. Like Will Smith said in one of his interviews, the objective is not to build the perfect wall. Don’t think about that. Instead, put a brick day by day, as best as you can, and sooner than you think you will have the perfect wall you wanted at the beginning. The secret to keep this kind of thoughts in mind, and not just feel surprised by them in the moment and not remember them a week later, is to know that it actually works and it has an incredible effect. In my case, I started to see things more positively.
There are some problems that have solution so you just have to take the courage and willing to solve it, even if it’s troublesome or tiring. As it has to be done either way, just do it. Because no matter how free we are, we all need to do things that we don’t really want to do but that anyway has to be done. In those cases, just try to enjoy the process if you can, and if you can’t… Really, just do it. Once is over, you’re free, you know you will feel well, so look forward that moment while working on it.
Other problems… they don’t have any solution mainly because they are not under our control. A rainy day that spoils your plan of going outside to have a picnic, arriving late to a meeting because the subway is under maintenance in that exact moment or tragic events like a beloved family member passing away. What we can do in these cases to keep peaceful with ourselves and not let our emotions take the control? I would say that the best way is to embrace that situation. As you can’t do nothing about it, you know you have to live with it. If you have to live with it… why not trying to do it in the best way possible. Enjoy your time at home with someone you want to be on rainy days, read that interesting book you have with you while waiting for the subway (Text or call the person you are meeting with first to let him/her know you’re going to be late!) and… as hard as it seems, as hard as it really is… keep going with your life even in the case of a tremendous lose. And yes, this is probably the hardest of the situations we can go through, and in fact is one of the situations where I could understand people losing control, as we are still humans after all. Me myself can’t be positive all the time.
How to be more positive?
What I learnt is to do something that we can see in the first talk, Dan Gilbert’s one. We can build happiness ourselves as everything we need is in our mind. Yes, we really can. It is a kind of “false” happiness that is not well seeing among other people as they think is not the right kind of happiness. Why? Because they think that happiness should happen when you get something you want, or when you achieve something. What is the problem about this way of thinking? That we put a lot of weight on external factor like right timing, resources or even “luck”. In the moment that one of these things fails and we cannot do anything about it, it seems that we don’t have the right of being happy. That shouldn’t be like that in my opinion, everyone should get that chance of being in that state no matter the conditions surrounding us. So as we saw, if we shouldn’t trust on external factor to keep our “happy mood”, then we have to trust ourselves, the power of our mind to look at things in different ways and make them be less harmful to our state of being (like the rainy day example, keep positive).
That fake happiness is real in the moment you think it is and you’re ok with that. At first, when you try to do this, you will realize that you are trying to cheat yourself, you will have thoughts like “Who am I trying to trick, I’m deeply sad” or “This is not working, I know I should be happy but I’m not”. That’s completely normal: Remember the “brick by brick” lesson! It won’t happen overnight, it will take you time to actually be able to unconsciously do the process requires to turn your point of view of things. The secret is keep trying even though it feels unnatural and you’re fully conscious of what you’re trying to do with your mind.
So… can I just settle and do nothing and still be happy?
Ok, theoretically yes. But you will probably feel empty because applying all these things is a lot harder in an “amateur” level than in those levels some people get in which they can live without nothing at all, just themselves. We should still be ambitious, as it’s not a bad thing at all. Personally, I think I deserve the best of the best in my life and I always work for getting it. That motivation keeps myself active and that’s what makes me satisfied and contributes to my happiness. Though we shouldn’t get obsessed with something as that obsession will become the source of our happiness and we learnt that putting too much weight in outside things or just one thing is dangerous as it might fail. There is a balance in the middle point that we should embrace. In fact, in most aspects of life, a balance and a middle-of-the-road focus is the best way to see things. Extremes are often not good advisers.
Modern society and few things to take into consideration
In his talk, Barry Schwartz explains the bad consequences that modern society and the increase of choices is causing in our life. Being able to take decision is a good thing as we should be able to choose by ourselves what’s best for us. But if we have a ton of choices, our brain gets stuck and it’s unable to make a decision. The best example I can come with is what happened few days ago with one of my friends. We went to a Bagel’s place where they have all kind of flavors and all kind of bagels, and the amount of combinations is so high that we had no idea what we wanted. My friend finally got so overwhelmed by all the choices there were that he actually didn’t order anything. This situation is surely not helpful to create a feeling of happiness. And I know my friend is not alone in this issue, as I’m sure there are a lot of people having the same problem. If it’s not with bagels and flavors, then it will be with the kind of sandwich you want, what to put on it, or what kind of bread get in the supermarket or if choosing this or that deodorant.
Let’s think what would have happen if my friend ordered something. He would taste it, and it would probably be really good, but… what if he has tried one of the many others flavor, or what if he would have put his flavor in other type of bagel? Surely it was better! This happens because in our mind is really easy to imagine that among the quantity of other choices we had, there should be the perfect one, a better one than what we took.
Which leads us with the problem that because of all these choices our standards and expectations are higher than ever. We want things to be perfect and the bad thing is that most of the times we don’t have the time nor the money to compare all the choices available in most of the products nowadays. So we will always live with the feeling that we are missing something really good, even though what we already have is good enough.
And lastly, there is another component that makes taking a decision now with many choices that can destroy our inner peace and harm our happiness. And that is that now we blame ourselves way more than we used to when we take what we consider a “bad” decision. When there were few choices, let’s say, 2 kind of oils. If none of them were good or we got a bad one, we could easily blame someone else for not making oils good enough. Our decision is bad but we didn’t feel responsible for that. What happens now? With all the amount of products we have available, we are sure deep inside that, if we take a bad decision, is entirely our fault. Because, of course, there should be the perfect oil, right? So the high expectations mixed with the high choices we have creates on us an uncomfortable feeling that everything we do is wrong.
Even though I overall agree with this talk and I also consider that sometimes, less is more, I would also like to talk in favor of the current situation. I think if we could start value what we have instead of constantly thinking about what we could have got, that will help enormously to our happiness. Again, we should still have a bit of ambitious or willing to improve in order to not get stuck in the same point all the time as that will cause eventually not being happy with what we currently are.
Surely one of the most external factors that society in general takes into consideration to measure the likelihood of being happiness. I would like to mention few things about it.
First one is that we actually need money to survive. What a surprise, right? Of course, you can be one of those hermits that live without anything at all, but let’s be honest: Most of us are not ready to be that guy. As one of my favorite singers says in one of his songs: Money can’t buy happiness, but poverty even less.
But anyway, we have seen in many studies that there is a point when more money usually doesn’t mean more happiness. This is good news as we can be sure that there is no need to be obsessed with money (as we explained earlier, obsession is one of the happiness’ enemies). But, in fact, sometimes this is because we don’t spend our money in the right way.
Michael Norton teach us with a good number of examples how money can actually makes us feel better if spent wisely. The main point of it is that spending money in other people and not in ourselves will increase our overall satisfaction (both in that exact moment and over time). Some people thinks that doing that just looking for your happiness without really caring about others is a bad idea, but… we shouldn’t care as long as both parties are happy and it will be a win-win situation anyway. Furthermore, this kind of acts (buying a present to someone, inviting a friend to dinner, getting tickets for a show your girlfriend/wife wants to see, donating money to charity) will eventually be part of yourself and you no longer will do it for yourself but you will really think about the persons/organizations you’re helping with it.
Neuroscience: Expressions and mood
The last thing I would like to talk about and that can help us on being happier with our life has to do with recent discoveries in how our brain works. In the past we thought that whatever we were feeling and whatever our mood was is reflected by our external expressions (gestures, poses, facial expressions). For instance, if you were enjoying and having good time you would be smiling, and if you are sad you would be crying.
But recent studies have stated that the relation between mood and expressions can be reverted. Simply put: If we smile, we will eventually feel better. This is because the act of smiling is deeply written in our system so the brain interprets it like if you were actually fine even though at the beginning you were not feeling ok. This also works in other ways like for instance keeping an open position (in opposition of close posture like with your arms crossed) in order to feel more outgoing and courageous. So if we practice enough and adapt these little changes in our daily life we will eventually feel better and be less predisposed to negativism.
Even though we have a lot of things to take into consideration, we saw many small things and details we can do day by day to start building that sense of happiness that will accompany us for long time. Because true happiness is something that cannot be destroyed easily, as it should be able to resist the bad emotions we will experiment in our daily life. Happiness is a mental state that will make us able to endure everything happening. So it really worth the try and the effort of trying to build a positive wave in our mind.
Watch the 9 videos at: http://www.ted.com/playlists/4/what_makes_us_happy.html