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How to Experience Happiness

        Mahatma Gandhi played a significant role in India’s struggle for independence from British rule.  On one occasion during that struggle, while Gandhi was on a speaking tour for the cause, something happened that has since become famous for what it says about Gandhi’s character.

        He was traveling by railroad, the only means of transportation he could afford.  At the time, in order to save money, the British rail company had adopted a general policy of not stopping at a station when there were only Indians (i.e., no white people) waiting to board the train.  Instead, the train would slow down, giving the Indians a chance to run alongside it and hop aboard.

        On this occasion, Gandhi was running to catch a train and as he jumped up to board it, one of his sandals slipped off his foot.  He tried to grab it as it was slipping off, but to no avail – the sandal fell down onto the tracks….

                                                  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

        Alvin Ung recounts this incident in his book, "Barefoot Leadership," and has personally told the story to hundreds of people.  Each time he tells it he asks the same question,  “If you were Gandhi, what would you do?”

        Before telling you what Gandhi did, we’ll let you think for a while about how you would answer that question.

The Secret to Happiness – Is it Getting What We Want?

       Sonja Lyubomirsky has been conducting scientific research on the nature of happiness for many years. She recently published a very interesting book entitled, “The Myths of Happiness,” in which she describes a number of “myths” or misunderstandings about what it is that makes us happy.  However, she says they all boil down to two essential myths:

   Gandhi was known to have worked tirelessly for the cause of Indian independence, periodically spending time in prison for his defiance of British policies he deemed unjust. 

    A journalist who once interviewed Gandhi asked him the following question: “You’ve been working at least 15 hours a day for 50 years now. Don’t you think it’s time you took a vacation?”

   Gandhi’s replied: "I'm always on vacation." 

  1. I can’t be happy because of bad things in my life that make me unhappy.  
    (I can’t be happy because people don’t treat me the way I’d like them to, because I don’t have enough money, because my car broke down, etc.)

  2. I can’t be happy because I don’t have the good things I need to be happy.  
    (I can’t be happy unless people love me, unless I have a million, 100 million, billion dollars, etc.)

           Lyubomirsky refers to these as “myths” because, according to her research, our happiness does not depend on what we have or don’t have.  It depends on our outlook and expectations regarding what we have or don’t have.

          So it’s not by getting what we want, but by lowering our expectations about what we should have, that ultimately frees us to experience happiness.

          Since most people do tend to believe that their happiness depends on getting what they want and avoiding what they don’t want, if they were to change their view about what it is they need to have or avoid, it makes sense that they might be more content with whatever it is they do have.

But does the secret of how to be happy depend on our outlook and expectations regarding what we have?

The Secret to Happiness – A Positive Outlook?

 “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as  Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

        Barbara Fredrickson has been studying happiness and other positive emotions for many years. Research conducted by Fredrickson and others show that people who have a positive attitude do better in school and in their profession, have better relationships, better physical health, are less prone to depression and anxiety, and may even live longer.

        There’s a school of thought, known as Positive Psychology, which suggests that cultivating a positive outlook will improve every aspect of our life and ultimately lead to happiness.

        So our happiness has to do with cultivating a positive outlook and more realistic expectations.  But is that the whole story?

The Secret to Happiness Lies Within?

The Ancient Traditions

       The teachings of spiritual traditions around the world have long claimed that, ultimately, happiness “comes from within.”  

       These same teachings make another, rather confounding claim: that you can only be happy when you stop trying to be happy.

       What could this possibly mean? 

       Is there anything in contemporary neuroscience that might shed light on these strange notions about happiness?

       Well, it turns out that the ancient teachings and the modern science of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB), which is the source of much of the brain research on our site, do have a lot in common.

     The Dalai Lama was once asked, “Can you tell us what was the happiest moment in your life?"

     After a brief pause, with a twinkle in his eye, he responded, “I think…. now.”

The Neuroscience

          IPNB, summarizing a wide range of studies in neuroscience and related fields, tells us that it is possible to have a deep experience of peace and contentment simply by observing calmly all that happens to us, without judging or reacting to it.  This includes being able to calmly observe our thoughts, feelings, moods, memories, and everything else going on in our mind.

          That may sound way too simple to be true.  But imagine for a moment what it might be like.

 Remember the two essential myths of happiness?  Well, if you were anchored in a state of peace and contentment, and could calmly observe both your outer situation and the inner content of your mind, how would you feel when

                                          a)    you don’t get what you want, or
                                          b)    things are happening that you don’t like?

          You’d remain calm, peaceful, and quietly happy.

          But what if you can’t get in touch with that core of peace and contentment?

          Then Lyubomirsky’s recommendation to change your outlook and expectations can be very helpful.  It will help you to feel more content with the circumstances you’re in, and that will make it easier for you to get in touch with the core.  We'll be talking more about how you can adjust your expectations in future pages.

          What about Barbara Fredricksson’s recommendation to develop a generally positive, constructive outlook? 

If you’re in the habit of focusing on negative thoughts and feelings, and your consciousness is often filled with irritation, depression, or anxiety, it’s going to be very difficult to get in touch with that inner, quiet core.  But as you practice developing a more positive outlook, you’ll find that it becomes more easily accessible.  (More to come about cultivating a positive frame of mind in future pages.)

Remember to Breathe

          The core of peace, calm, and contentment is always potentially present – it’s not something you need to search for.

          Imagine for a moment that this calm state of mind is like a light in the depths of a deep, still lake.  When you’re too busy searching for it, you stir up the mud on the bottom of the lake making the water so muddy that you can’t see the light. But when you stop stirring, there it is.

          IPNB tells us that when we develop our mid pre-frontal cortex (MPFC), it will naturally integrate the different parts of our brain and body, bringing our thoughts, feelings, instinctive urges, and our actions into harmony. With greater harmony, the waters of our mind and emotions naturally become clearer, making it much easier to contact and stay in touch with the core. And the more we experience the core, the more the natural process of integration can take place.

          The more we’re centered at the core, and the more integrated we are, the more we naturally appreciate and enjoy what we’re doing, no matter how “important” or “unimportant” it may seem to be.  (Recall Dr. Martin Luther King praising the work of the dedicated street sweeper as equal in value to the work of a Michelangelo or a Beethoven.)

          And the more integrated we are, the more we spontaneously live in a way that is supportive of others because one of the strongest characteristics of the core is a deep sense of empathy and connection with others.

         All the techniques you can learn on this site are dedicated to one purpose – helping you develop your MPFC which will integrate and harmonize the different parts of who you are, and make ever more available that core experience of calm, ease, contentment, and harmonious connection to others.
          Which brings us back to the beginning of the page and Gandhi’s lost sandal.

          If you remember, Gandhi was running to catch a train and as he jumped aboard, one of his sandals fell off.   Alvin Ung made a point of asking hundreds of people the following question:

                                         If you were Gandhi, what would you do?

           Ung reports that people usually respond in one of the following three ways:

  1. They focus on the loss of the sandal, thinking, “I’ve got to get my sandal back.”
  2. They resign themselves to the loss, thinking, “Oh well. That’s life."
  3. They’re not sure what to do, and may go on for hours trying to figure out the best course of action.

          Ung goes on to say, “Everyday, we face mini-dilemmas like Gandhi's lost sandal. Should I reply to the email or should I wait? Do I shout back or do I keep quiet? Do I do this or that? Quite often, we respond in one of those three ways.”

          And Ung concludes: “Is there a better way to respond? And what did Gandhi do?”

          You’ll find the answer here.