At Oxford I sometimes feel as though there are things that have to be “ticked off”. You have to go out twice a week, pull more ergs than anyone else and obviously obtain a First, Blue or Spouse. Especially in Western society, and especially at university, life can be a treadmill of endless striving, ramping up the speed and sweating ourselves silly about “whether we have it as good as so-and-so”.
It’s no wonder that the top Google suggestions when I type in “how to be” (after “how to beat flappy bird”) are “how to be popular”, “how to be beautiful” and “how to be rich”. Not “how to be happy” – that sounds like a bit of an airy-fairy ideal in the cold hard reality of life. Facebook, meanwhile, is the Messiah and ultimate messenger of all social media, but also the bringer of bad news. It entails constant exposure to a highly selective, rose-tinted portfolio of everyone’s life. Cue photos of your friends partying while you’re stuck in the bleak inferno of the Bod’s Lower Reading Room. Only to be eclipsed by statuses about their latest romance while you’re sat in front of Bridget Jones with only Häagen–Dazs tospoon.
When I first heard the idea that happiness depends almost entirely on our mental attitude I thought it was a little silly. It sounded just like any other advice – the kind of hackneyed phrase your mother would mutter like “if your friends jumped off a cliff would you do that too?”, but neither you nor she really took heed of.
So imagine my surprise when I found out that the happiness of levels of people a year after a) winning the lottery and b) becoming paraplegic (i.e. paralysed in their lower half) are roughly equal.
Sceptical? I was too. But it’s true, and the studies generate the same results when you perform them with people who’ve won elections, been cheated on and been through the throes of life in every possible way. Happiness levels of those who’ve undergone pretty much anything return to their original level soon enough after the “exogenous shock” to their life (psychologists call this phenomenon “hedonic adaptation”). Sure, people may be a lot happier or less happy initially following the shock … but, after a while, they adapt. Things are never as extreme as they seem, and then there are always unexpected side-effects. You might have become a millionaire but moving into the 45% tax band can feel like the most annoying thing on earth and hey, using only your upper half has really toned up your torso.
In fact, studies, surveys and science all point overwhelmingly to the idea that happiness depends almost entirely on our mental disposition.
Go google “happiest person in the world” and the people that pop up won’t be ridiculously successful, rich or even have really fit life-partners. Rather, the happiest man in the world according to neuroscientists is a rather obscure French monk hailing from the highlands of Nepal. MRI scans show an excessive amount of activity in his left prefrontal cortex relative to its right counterpart (nope, me neither). Apparently this is the ultimate measure of happiness. Why? He has trained his mind for years, engages in positive thoughts (and deeds) and has meditated for anywhere between 10 000 and 50 000 hours over his lifetime.
It’s true that I haven’t been through enough hardship to advance such a bold claim that happiness depends entirely on outlook. I am not comfortable personally claiming that if the terrorised civilians in Syria could rewire their brains then they’d be swimming along just like the Brady Bunch. I have to admit a lot of my troubles such as worrying about failing Collections vs. going to Park End should be appendixed with #firstworldproblems. But doesn’t that form a fair proportion of what we all worry about? And in any case, the relative triviality of my problems makes me think I have more reason than anyone to work on my mental outlook.
Why, you may wonder, if it’s so obvious that happiness is determined by thoughts, have we not already set about improving our attitudes instead of our circumstances? To be honest, I don’t know. But it could have something to do with the fact that every advert and magazine screams out that our life is not good enough. Not without the partner-plus-kids combo by 30, abs like Beyoncé or an “aerodynamite” BMW. Daniel Gilbert has a point when he says a “shopping mall full of Zen monks” isn’t going to put much money into anyone’s pockets. I doubt there is a capitalist conspiracy to block out the true meaning of life, but I suspect even the big CEO’s might have gotten a little bit confused about what will make them happy. Scientists point to the idea that we have a fairly poor happiness simulator (a distorted view of how a change in circumstances will alter our happiness). You can kind of see how that comes about: Common myths about happiness are pretty ingrained in our psyches, and have been passed down through generations, maybe because it’s so hard to change our mindset. In any case it’s much easier to believe a billboard proclaiming that the salve to our woes lies within that garish-coloured iPhone 5.
Realising happiness depends on our thoughts more than our circumstances can be profoundly liberating, and has been for me. The great news is that even if I could make my life play out as per my fairy-tale script, I wouldn’t suddenly be beaming from head to toe, at least not forever. Better still, I supposedly have everything I need to create a happy life up in there in my prefrontal cortex. That said, I clearly haven’t attained Nirvana, or run off to sit cross-legged in some cave in the Himalayas. But I have become a bit more grounded, and stopped kicking myself when things didn’t go as I planned. Even if we don’t renounce all worldly goods and aspirations, I think it might be worth trying to stop comparing ourselves to Roger Federer; to chill out a bit when we don’t get the internship we had set our heart on.
One more thing. Sure, the message is a little bit preachy; it might smack a bit more of primary school hymns and holier-than-thou Buddhism than a lot of us can stand. But paradoxically even if we consider religion a joke, we have more reason than ever to try and train our minds to become happy. If our existence will terminate with our heart beat, then surely our only motive is to try and maximise our own happiness in the years we have left?
There are plenty of books and studies on specific practices that can improve happiness such as Mindfulness classes or counting our blessings. The internet has scores of information on the subject and I would recommend running a Google search on Matthieu Ricard, the so-called “Happiest Person in the World”.