SIX STOPS IN THE MAZE OF HAPPINESS
“Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.”
Pearl S. Buck
During the early 20th century, an anthropologist from the Belgian colonial Government came across a group of Pygmies in the Congolese jungle. Apparently, the Pygmies, who were almost naked and had very few possessions, smiled so often that he thought he should ask them if they felt happy. To his surprise, the Pygmies had no answer for him. They didn’t understand his question. The words happy and happiness weren’t in their vocabulary –they simply didn’t need them. The use and democratisation of the concept of happiness is a fairly recent development. It was only the mid and late 18th century, with the Enlightenment and French and American Revolutions, that happiness became a right of al citizens and a legitimate aspiration. And since then, the idea of happiness has evolved into the coveted object of desire it is today.
But what is happiness now, in the 21st century? If the huge range of books and studies on it is anything to go by, happiness is back in fashion and being zealously studied by psychologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, biologists and many other specialists in different fields.
Maybe the Pygmies the Belgian colonial anthropologist from a century ago didn’t know what happiness was, but they were really happy; yet today we apparently have much that should bring us happiness but it never arrives quite as strongly as we expect. The mystery of happiness can only be solved by talking to a lot of people, people from different countries and with different outlooks. Once you do this exercise you realise that happiness is built not just through things, but in other, more subtle, less tangible dimensions. And then you come up against the issues that relate happiness with building a Good Life. Here are the elements of happiness that will encourage it to bless you with its presence.
LOVE, TENDERNESS AND AFFECTION
“Happiness is feeling useful to others.”
In the late seventies, Palito Ortega came onto the music charts with a catchy song whose chorus went, “Happiness, ha ha ha ha, I found it with your love, ho ho ho ho.” Today, nearly forty years later, science and sociological studies have shown that Palito was right. According to neurobiology and different surveys, the fundamental raw material for happiness is love. No-one is happier than those who love and are loved back. Tenderness, affection and strokes are the essential first stop on the way into the Maze of Happiness.
Love and the closeness that comes with it are the only way to apprehend the deepest nature of another human being. In the process, the person who loves allows the beloved to show his or her potential. In the awareness of what we can become through the recognition and support of the one who loves us, a mechanism comes into play, a sort of inner awakening which strengthens our potential and makes it real. In the process of inner development love gives birth to, a much more intense experience than pleasure happens: happiness.
SECOND STOP: AWARENESS
“Happiness consists in valuing what you have.”
Another common characteristic in people who say they’re happy is their ability to value and enjoy what they have: being aware of what you have, of what life gives you, and of the small joys in it. And I don’t mean material possessions here; they give you comfort, wellbeing or pleasure rather than happiness. Happiness seems to arise when you become aware of the obvious, things that are obvious but precisely because of that are often forgotten: good health, the company of our affections, contact with nature, enjoyable conversation, being privileged enough to have a job you enjoy.
*We often forget about things that are obvious. A simple example would be to say that without air to breathe we’d die or fall ill. But we might only actually value the fact of having it if we were asked to pay in order to breathe; if states had to finance their environmental policies with a tax on its citizens “consumption” of air. We know that if we don’t breathe we end up dying, but we don’t normally think about it. Perhaps the day when we’ll have to become aware of this forgotten but obvious fact isn’t so far away; when the world’s nations will have to finance environmental policies to filter out huge amounts, not only of carbon dioxide, but of the other pollutants we pour ceaselessly into the atmosphere.
To get back to awareness as a key factor for happiness: it’s never a bad idea to open your eyes, here and now, and take stock of everything around you that you can feel happy and thankful about: from the beating of your heart, the health of your body, the good music playing in the background, the existence of your loved one, or the welcome glass of water that quenches your thirst. Daily occurrences, valuable treasures.
It’s worthwhile to become aware of these small great things and look after them. Because in all certainty, awareness, love and happiness are closely related concepts. As Paracelsus, the knowledgeable medieval alchemist, said, “He who knows, loves. And he who loves is happy.”
THIRD STOP: THE WILL TO FIND MEANING
“When you have a reason to live, you will find a way to live.”
Another thing that people who claim to be happy share is the will to find meaning: the voluntary, conscious exercise of giving a positive, constructive meaning to their lives, whatever the nature of their experiences. In the exercise of finding meaning, what happens is not as important as the meaning you give to it. To put it differently: any negative experiences you’ve been through in the past can become elements in your alchemy of future happiness. There are many examples of this, and they cover all dimensions in life: “If I hadn’t met that horrible boyfriend/ girlfriend who made my life impossible, I wouldn’t appreciate my current love;” “If I had never had that awful boss, who showed me exactly how not to behave, I wouldn’t value the good boss I have now;” “If I hadn’t been through that illness, I’d never have known how to start caring for my body in a new way.”… Happy people try to get the best out of everything they go through. Not by being naive, or stupid, or submissive, but by being brave, using their inner strength and living fully. Albert Camus said “The struggle to reach the summit is enough to reach the heart of a man.” And, he concludes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
FOURTH STOP: THE LUXURY OF ESSENTIALS
“It’s easier to protect your feet with slippers than to carpet the whole of the earth.”
Anthony de Mello
We’re born innocent and happy, but paradoxically, we stop being it as soon as we start looking for happiness in objects, in matter. And often, as we grow up and grow older, intelligence leads to scepticism. But scepticism is not a good ground on which to build your happiness; it’s actually a stop on the way to wisdom, never the final destination. The same intelligence that gives us scepticism should eventually give us back our lost innocence, not as a means for reaching happiness, but as an end. It’s in this innocence that humility and grace suddenly emerge. And these are essential ingredients on the journey towards the centre of the Labyrinth of Happiness, and for building a Good Life. They allow us to value what is essential, simple, genuine and honest: friendship, the beauty of nature, art which comes of generosity, the presence of affection, the value of life, the sacred skin of those we love, the luxury of the essentials.
FIFTH STOP: SERVING OTHERS AND GIVING OURSELVES TO THEM
“If we want a world of peace and justice, we must resolutely to put the intelligence service of love.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
A question inevitably arises at this point: How can we be happy in a world where justice, solidarity, peace and human rights are still a utopia in many places in the world? Perhaps the unavoidable sadness you feel when you open your daily newspaper could be an incentive for happiness; not your own, though, but other suffering peoples’. Without sadness there can be no compassion or rebellion, and without compassion or rebellion no true impulse towards transformation is possible. Compassion, giving yourself to others, serving a greater cause than yourself, is a source of happiness, even if it’s only a result of the intelligent egotism of forgetting your own problems in the service of others.
No matter how much hardship people who build their happiness in the service of others go through, they stop seeing existence as a closed space; it becomes a world of possibilities where everything is yet to be done. Happiness also lies in the challenge to achieve, in the coming utopia.
SIXTH STOP: JOY
Finally, if all this is simply too complex to achieve, happiness can always come with joy. Like the Pygmies I mentioned, we have a lot to learn from human beings who in their nakedness have never had to wrack their brains wondering “what happiness is.” They simply experience joy. Joy is more direct, simpler, easier, more innocent and more tangible than happiness.
Joy awaits you in the little things in life and whispers the possibility of happiness into your ear. Because it’s really hard to be happy if you search incessantly and anxiously for the essence of happiness. Happiness isn’t a place to get to, it’s more a way of walking. It’s not somewhere you’re going to, but a symptom that arises as you walk. There are people who spend their lives searching for happiness, and there are others who create it by loving, serving, developing their consciences, making sure they take care of essentials, or sprinkling joy on those around them.
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