We are clearly living through a time of transition. Many are realizing their authentic selves and claiming their truth. Such quests should go hand-in-hand with the pursuit of happiness. In my last blog I quoted the first line of the Desiderata. The very last line is equally valid: Strive to be happy.
Last week, the Melbourne Institute (University) released its annual report known as HILDA: Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia. It aims to measure the material factors of our lives, such as finances, work, health. The latest survey shows that over the past two decades, Australians’ life satisfaction has been fairly constant at relatively high levels, driven by basic factors such as health, safety and social contact.
Does satisfaction equal happiness? In an attempt to find out, researchers need to know not just what people have and don’t have, but how they feel – what they call subjective well-being (SWB), including happiness, life satisfaction, and positive affect.
Life satisfaction, as one measure of subjective well-being, is measured in HILDA by asking Australians: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life overall?” Responses range from 0 to 10, with the higher score indicating greater life-satisfaction. I admit I did not read all 171 pages of it, I just leafed through it. But many of the results are counter-intuitive and sometimes contradictory. A couple of examples: higher levels of education are related to lower reported life satisfaction; having children is associated with greater life satisfaction for men, but for women there is no relationship between children and life satisfaction.(?)
The “insights” gleaned by these researchers seem to be entirely based on material values. It stands to reason that if all your aspirations in life are material, the outcomes will likewise be material – in other words: temporary and subject to change or loss, sometimes unexpectedly and painfully.
One of the greatest texts about happiness and living well wasn’t written by a self-help expert, spiritual leader or psychologist. It was written by the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who is widely regarded as one of the most respected emperors in Roman history.
In 167AD, Marcus wrote The Meditations, a 12-book compendium of his personal thoughts, which is based around a single, simple precept: You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
Marcus Aurelius had a deep understanding that happiness and peace do not lie in the outside world. Life’s happiness, he said, depends upon the quality of your thoughts. The crux of his philosophy is the notion that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control our reactions to the events of our lives – and this gives us immense strength and freedom.
It’s easier said than done, but Marcus’ own life is proof positive of this maxim. His brother and parents died at a young age and he experienced how people could be selfish and hurtful to others. His reign was marred by wars, uprisings and disease, yet he chose not to let the actions of others get to him. Instead, he always remembered that there is some of the ‘divine’ in each of us:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.”
He accepted that trials and challenges were an unavoidable part of life, but his belief that life and the universe were fundamentally good helped him to accept the tough stuff. Then, taking it a step further, he argued that obstacles are actually our greatest opportunities for growth and advancement. They force us to re-examine our path, find a new way, and ultimately empower ourselves by practicing virtues like patience, generosity and courage.
Marcus Aurelius wrote: “This, in a word, is art – and this art called ‘life’ is a practice suitable to both men and gods. Everything contains some special purpose and a hidden blessing; what then could be strange or arduous when all of life is here to greet you like an old and faithful friend?”
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
Perhaps the Melbourne Institute should consider the philosophy that guides the government of Bhutan: Gross National Happiness (GNH). It includes an index which is used to measure the collective happiness and well-being of a population. The GNH Index was enshrined in the Constitution of Bhutan in 2008.
In 2011, The United Nations General Assembly passed the Resolution “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development” urging member nations to follow the example of Bhutan and measure happiness and well-being and calling happiness a “fundamental human goal.”
In 2012, Bhutan’s Prime Minister and Ban Ki-Moon of the UN convened the High Level Meeting: “Well-being and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm to encourage the spread of Bhutan’s GNH philosophy.” Shortly after the meeting, 20 March was declared to be International Day of Happiness by the UN.
Life-goals will vary from one reader to another but, I submit, if achievement of your goals is not accompanied by happiness, it may be time to review them, to ensure they are your truth, and not what has been suggested to you by others.
On my bookshelf I have a copy of The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The opening paragraph of Chapter 1 says, “I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we are all seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness…”
That sums it up neatly.