Dr Ruth Rabinowitz. MamaEarth Director. 24th March 2014.
WHAT IS IT?
Why is the modern world generating so many unhappy people? Why do so many people hate themselves so much, that they hate others to the point of killing them? In the face of so much connectivity why has happiness become so elusive?
We all pursue happiness, but do we know what we are looking for?
Do you know when you are happy, or only realize it retrospectively when you aren’t? And when you describe yourself as unhappy are you sad, angry or stressed; as happy are you joyful, elated or at peace? It’s hard to tell as happiness and unhappiness are umbrella terms for a range of positive and negative emotions. The negative are easier to identify than the positive, but being consciously happy grows in importance when survival is taken for granted and personal choices abound.
We experience ourselves as whole beings, comprising body, mind, emotions and a soul. Happiness is associated with changes in all of these dimensions. Complex as Happiness is, a common feature to all happy experiences is the apparent flow of energy. When we are happy time flies, our spirits soar, we feel one with the world, we reach beyond our limited selves; an orgasm, a liberating dance, an epiphany, a creative moment, a satisfying achievement.
Sometimes the moment comes spontaneously as when we dance or sing with abandon, other times it requires consciously linking our bodies, minds and feelings, even our souls. In the depths of prayer, the height of transcendence or the peace of meditation, energy flows through us; when we mindfully connect our bodies, feelings and thoughts in the present moment, energy flows through our amygdala, our cerebral cortex our nervous system and our cells.
HOW DOES IT ARISE?
The flow of energy is initiated by positive experiences in our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual selves. Stimuli can originate in our environment reaching us via our senses, in our brain through a positive thought or intention, or in our body where actions cause the release of chemicals that induce feelings of pleasure. While the experience may by individual, shared, it is magnified. The further the reach of energy and the more genuine the communication, the more intense the happiness. Trapped inside our egos, cut off from sensory stimuli or filled with cynical and judgmental thoughts, we become ensnared in a web of conflicting emotions and energies.
BIOLOGICAL MARKERS FOR MOOD
The biological markers for happiness and depression appear, unsurprisingly, in the mechanisms by which energy is transmitted through the body via nerves, glands, organs and parts of the brain. The body, like the earth, functions as an ecosystem. A delicate balance of chemicals such as nor adrenaline, adrenaline, oxytocin, endorphins, serotonin and dopamine are involved in maintaining a healthy balance between fright and flight responses, active and resting states, aggression and compassion. Dopamine, for example, is released when goals are embraced, feelings of confidence boost serotonin levels. Exercise releases endorphins the feel good hormone, sugar spikes lead to mood fluctuation, adrenaline released through stress, counters oxytocin released during orgasm, breastfeeding and expression of love. This complex of chemicals is far from well understood, even with the constant advances in antidepressant medicines, but it does appear that our world of chronic stress, self absorption, isolation and poor nutrition plays havoc with our ability to experience peace, harmony and happiness.
Barriers, either conscious or unconscious, to the free flow of energy through the nervous and endocrine system cause various levels of emotional, physical and mental stress. Therefore bringing suppressed thoughts into consciousness, becoming aware of one’s negative default patterns, reducing the intensity of unpleasant emotions and memories stored in the amygdala (as with tapping), treatment with acupuncture, all contribute towards happiness.
JOURNEY TOWARDS HAPPINESS
Happiness is not an event, it is a journey, which can be represented as a seesaw climbing a positive spiral. Unlike being unhappy, being happy usually requires work, the ability to tolerate discomfort and endure disappointment, laugh at oneself and life’s ironies, lose our ego focus and become more integrated with the world. We also need to sustain the hope that even when we are in a trough, peaks will return and deliberately focus on the glass half full, rather than the glass half empty. Sophocles, hearing the ebb and flow of waves on the Aegean thought of the turbulent ebb and flow of human misery. John Donne proclaims “no man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent a part of the main.” The way we use our energy, view ourselves and our environs, can contribute to a positively spiraling world or towards destructive ideas, emotions and actions. What can be more empowering than the realization that our personal feelings contribute to the well- being of the world?
KIDS IN ALEX EXPLORE THE IDEA
Wanting to put flesh on these theories, I explored happiness with 40 schoolchildren in the barren suburb of Alex, as part of a healthy lifestyle program. We went back to the source of energy to understand its positive and negative elements. As far as we know, the energy of our universe appeared 14 billion years ago and morphed through galaxies, sun, earth, air, water, proteins, plants and animals to us. We register that same energy through our eyes, ears, nose, taste and touch, release it from food to grow and to think and then use it to act in a way that impacts on the world in which we function. Use our energy positively, contributing towards give and take relationships in a balanced way ( as with sustainable use of resources) and most likely happiness will result; use it negatively (as with selfish gratification that causes pollution) and most likely some form of unhappiness will ensue.
At once sobered and excited by the realization of their innate power to impact on the fate of the world our students honed in to their own feelings. We covered the board with a range of emotions. Clearly, they agreed, negative emotions like fear, anger, jealousy, envy and hatred do not engender happiness. Which are the emotions and actions that do?
We compiled a list of positive emotions and the actions that produce them and then voted to give each item a rating. Joy, love, laughter, peace, pride, confidence and compassion were desired forms of happiness. Love of moms was high on the list, but education was higher. Love of God, friendship, parties, singing and dancing were well supported. When it came to gratifying wants (like cake, cellphones, popularity) versus needs (like air, water, food, sex, shelter, functioning body and brain, communication, loving relationships, identity, play), the choice became more complex. Balance between too much and too little, was the agreed benchmark both for our hierarchy of needs and for things we want, to produce happy outcomes. Most agreed that owning cell phones and watching TV did not create happiness for long, but that learning, writing a poem, visiting grandparents on the farm, acting and playing with friends not only provided happy times, but also happy memories. Creativity, communication and working together, we concluded, undoubtedly promote happiness, as do gratitude and focusing on the positive. Resonating with the experiences of others through books or movies does likewise, albeit fostering a more remote kind of happiness. But high expectations and envy of others does the opposite.
We experimented with using our senses fully and being alive to the energy that creates us. We observed colors, shapes, patterns and contrasts, listened to natural sounds or songs, imagined tasting food with attention and smelling flowers or rain, and agreed that the result is a feeling of well being, a form of happiness. Various bodily sensations such as dancing, a massage and feeling the sun’s warmth, can induce a happiness high.
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY?
The 20th March was UN designated International Happiness Day. Were you happy that day? Research suggests that choosing to be joyful, loving oneself, extending that love into the world and focusing on gratitude, kindle the flame of happiness. Those who find meaning, give service, have supportive communities, are alive to the world of nature and culture, laugh easily and often, are bettering themselves through learning a skill or talent, exercise often and express themselves creatively, appear to be among the happiest on the planet. Longevity is associated with similar factors. Fashion, image and status, often pivotal goals in modern society, do nothing for happiness. Over work, excessive stress, lack of sleep, severe, noisy surroundings and feelings of alienation, drag people down.
Many of the factors scientifically validated as engendering happiness resemble the teachings of moderate religions, which nurture love of self and fellow man, compassion, respect and gratitude- doing unto others as we would have done to ourselves. Unlike disease which can be equated with a loss of homeostasis, happiness can be generated in a state of harmony or peace, found not in the hectic, instantly gratifying world we are promoting, but in acts of kindness, silent contemplation, prayer or meditation.
Body chemistry and circumstances can be insurmountable. But there is a growing belief that we have the tools for being happy in our own heads, hearts and hands. I give the last word to Hans Christian Andersen, in the Snow Queen, where the frozen heart of the critical, unloving, rational Kai, ensnared by the Snow Queen, is melted by the hot loving tears of Gerda, who traveled to the end of the earth filled with the wonder of life, to express her love for him. They lived happily ever after.