Aristotle is reputed to have said, “Happiness depends on ourselves.”
For someone born nearly 2,400 years ago, at the time of penning this book, Aristotle’s (384 to 322 BCE) words of wisdom resonate very much with these modern times. Even granting the fact that Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and a scientist, it still has me in awe of the man. Consider, when one thinks about Aristotle’s reflections on mankind so long ago and finds, some 2,400 years later, that in a sense, in a very real sense, nothing much about the aspect of our happiness is new. Certainly when it comes to the behaviours of homo sapiens!
To underpin that last observation, that seeking happiness still fascinates us, just a few days ago (November 2104) I read an item on the BBC website reporting that a Google engineer, Chade-Meng Tan, “claims he has the secret to a contented, stress-free life.” The BBC reporter, David G Allan, author of the article, went on to write, “Deep inside the global tech behemoth Google sits an engineer with an unusual job description: to make people happier and the world more peaceful.”
From Aristotle to Google – Talk about plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!
Nevertheless, if the source of our happiness is something that has been known for thousands of years, why do we have the sense that happiness is elusive, (I use the word ‘we’ in the broad sense.), why the reason that happiness seems as far away from the common, everyday experience as the white, snowy peak of a magnificent mountain shining out from a dark, blue sky?
How can we understand more about happiness; whether or not it is, indeed, elusive?
Well there’s only one place to start looking for the answer to that question in these modern times and that’s a Google search! Wow! No shortage of places to go looking: that search for the word ‘happiness’ produced the response – About 50,000,000 results (0.15 seconds)! And a bonus: I laughed out aloud when I saw that figure.
50 million results! Happiness doesn’t appears to be that elusive after all!
Let’s come at the question of happiness from a different angle. What about happiness from the perspective of good mental health?
The leading mental health charity in the UK is the organisation MIND. Their website, not surprisingly, poses the question: What do we mean by good mental health? Then offers the response: “Good mental health isn’t something you have, but something you do. To be mentally healthy you must value and accept yourself.”
See there’s the prescience of Aristotle again!
MIND continues the response to the question by underlining how we should “… care about yourself and you care for yourself. …. love yourself, not hate yourself. …. look after your physical health”, reminding us all to “eat well, sleep well, exercise and enjoy yourself.”
Gretchen Rubin, an expert on the topic of happiness and the author of several books on this aspect of us humans, has researched happiness for many years. Her conclusions are the following: that happiness is found in the enjoyment of ordinary things, in the everyday and in cherishing the small things in our lives.
There’s a distinct theme appearing here. All the way from Aristotle: That whether or not I am happy comes down to one person and one person alone: me! Happiness is about my response to my world; my world around me.
It doesn’t take much to see the incredible importance of being good to oneself. That finding happiness is firmly on the same page as self-compassion.
That is reinforced by Ruth Nina Welsh, a freelance writer specialising in lifestyle, wellbeing and self-help, and a former counsellor and coach (and, notwithstanding, an erstwhile musician). Ruth, on her website Be Your Own Counsellor and Coach, reminds us to, “see yourself as being a valuable person in your own right.” Then later, adding: “If you value yourself, you don’t expect people to reject you. You aren’t frightened of other people. You can be open, and so you enjoy good relationships.”
Conclusion: It is totally clear that how we see ourselves is central to every decision we make. People who value and accept themselves, the essence of self-happiness, cope with life in ways that are just not available to people who are not happy with who they are.
That strikes me that being happy with ourself should be the first thing we should say to ourselves in the morning, and the last thing we should think about as we drop off to sleep.
Thus having spent a few paragraphs looking at happiness in its own right, how do we bring happiness into the central proposition of this section of the book: Of change in thoughts and deeds? How can happiness be a positive tool for change?
To put into context the need for change in our thoughts and deeds, let’s look back over our shoulders at the past fifty years or more and realise that despite the relentless growth in incomes, across the vast majority of countries, we are no happier than we were those five decades ago. Indeed, some might argue that we are much less happy. Certainly, in this same period of fifty years, we have seen an increase in wider social issues, including a very worrying rise in anxiety and depression in our young people.
If the premise that change is essential, that there is a growing motivation to turn away from where we, as in mankind, seem to be heading, and seek more peaceful and harmonious times, then finding happiness, as with faith in goodness, is an important ingredient but on its own does not deliver change.
For more years than I care to remember, BBC Radio 4 has been broadcasting a ten-minute programme: A Point of View; usually on a Friday evening if my memory serves me well. Back in 2013, writer and broadcaster, Al Kennedy, presented A Point of View on the theme of Why embracing change is the key to happiness. The ideas behind that programme were also published on the BBC News Magazine website: A Point of View: Why embracing change is the key to happiness. Al Kennedy proposing that, “Human happiness may rely on our ability to conquer a natural fear of upsetting the status quo.”
Al Kennedy touched on a familiar aspect of change, “If you’re like me, you won’t want to change. Even if things aren’t wonderful, but are familiar, I would rather stay with what I know. Why meddle with something for which there is a Latin, and therefore authoritative, term: the status quo.”
Thus, Al reminds us, that seeing happiness as a key to change, may be putting it in the wrong order. We have to welcome change, have it as a fundamental part of who we are and trust that this is the path to happiness. Back to Al Kennedy: “And every analysis of what makes lucky and happy people lucky and happy demonstrates they adapt fast and well to new situations and people, and so are defended by complex social circles and acclimatised to change.”
That BBC article concludes, again with Al Kennedy’s words: “Approaching the changing reality of reality with sensible flexibility is the best strategy for happiness. I don’t believe it, but it’s true. And if I can change my mind, I can change anything else I need to.”
Notions of Rome not being built in a single day come to mind. Or that other one about even the longest journey starting out with a single step.
Silly old me! Still looking for more sayings to crystallise the essence of happiness and the best one is right under my nose. The one that opened this chapter. From the wise Aristotle: “Happiness depends on ourselves.”
1296 words Copyright 2014: Paul Handover