You can decide that you will live a happier life, starting right now. I think I can tell you how to live a happier life, unfailingly, in less than 900 words. I also believe that you can take this transformative step without medication, psychotherapy, coaching, or anything other than a decision. What’s not to like?
There is a continuous cycle between our mindset (our expectations of the world), our behavior (how we act based on our mindset), our experience (how our world responds to our behavior), and our mood (the emotional tone that describes how we feel about ourselves and our world). Our mood in turn colors our mindset, and the wheel turns again.
This is a much reduced version of the 12-fold chain of becoming; a representation of karma. This isn’t rigorous philosophy. It’s a simple representation of something we all learned from our parents or our Sunday school teachers. As ye sow, so shall ye reap is one way to put it. Another is What goes around comes around. My point is that while we don’t “create reality” in an over-simplified sense, we do impact our world. And we do have control over our experience of our world.
The secret: How to live a happier life
Which brings me to this quote from His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama:
I believe that our life’s purpose is to be happy. From the very moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering. Neither social conditions, nor education, nor ideology affect this. From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment. I don’t know whether the universe, with its countless galaxies, stars, and planets, has a deeper meaning or not, but at the very least, it is clear that we humans who live on this earth face the task of making a happy life for ourselves.”
The Dalai Lama, one of my unabashed heroes, delivers a very simple two part message, wherever he goes. Part one appears in the quote above: every one of us desires to be free from suffering and to be happy. Part two is captured in another of my favorite quotes:
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Compassion for others (the desire for another to be free from harm and suffering) and love of others (the desire for others to have well-being and happiness) is the key to ending our own suffering, and replacing it with happiness.
There it is, the secret to happiness. Compassion for others.
Are you disappointed? Did you read this post, as I suspect I would have, skeptical but hoping against hope that I had found some secret elixir for happiness that wouldn’t require anything of you?
Instead here’s a simple old truth: If you want to be happier, focus outside yourself on the well-being of others.
Science points the same way
If you think this is a platitude, consider what we know about happiness from the recent research in positive psychology. To oversimplify, positive psychology takes the position that mental health is more than freedom from pathology. Positive psychology suggests instead that the goal of mental health is to understand how we can become truly happy or, as Mihaly Csikszentmaihalyi described it, in a state of flow – that mental state in which a person is fully immersed in what they are doing. Flow is invariably accompanied by a deep sense of contentment. Ever been there? Of course you have, and positive psychology says you can spend more time in that state by making choices to deliberately enter it as often as possible.
Today I listened to a TED lecture by Stefan Sagmeister entitled 7 rules for making more happiness – I highly recommend it. In part Sagmeister describes his own review of the research on happiness, which concurs with my own. It turns out that neither geographic location, gender, age, race, or physical attractiveness make a significant difference in happiness. Health problems, as long as they are manageable, do not interfere either. Each increment of income above $50,000 annually makes a miniscule difference, but no more. In other words, an African-American woman making $50,000 a year, 60 years old, ugly and overweight, and living in Buffalo is just as likely to be happy as an attractive white male, 35, living in San Diego, making $350,000 a year. Even odds.
We’ve known for year that what does matter is how many friends you have, and whether you are married. The one thing that consistently matters in research on happiness is the quality of your connections with other people.
The strongest force in the universe
So there it is, how to live a happier life: connect with, and focus on, the well-being of others. Altruism, it turns out, is the strongest force in the universe, and it is also the tie that binds us together.
Again, His Holiness:
In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principle source of success in life.”
Dr Les Kertay
Originally published on this blog as “Don’t worry, be happy” in 2011, adapted
“Morning Mist” photo credit – Fran Dwight
Portrait of the Dalai Lama photo credit – Copyright: 123rf.com, by license