Be Happy Anyway

December 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured

The economic boom didn’t bring us (or the planet) happiness. So maybe there’s an upside to the downturn.

“The pursuit of happiness.” It’s so American that it’s in our Declaration of Independence, where it’s listed alongside life and liberty as an inalienable right.

But how successful have we been in that pursuit? And now that the global finance system is imploding, how likely is it that we’ll be happy in the coming months and years?

Woman throwing leaves. Photo by Anssi Ruuska, istock
Photo by Anssi Ruuska, istock

Can’t Buy Love
Since roughly the 1970s, Americans have been buying things madly, whether we could afford them or not. We were promised that a bigger car, a more trendy purse, or a flat-screen television would bring us happiness, and we’ve been acting accordingly. We were promised that an ever-growing economy would make us all rich. But while our gross domestic product increased more or less steadily from the 1970s until the onset of the current financial crisis, most of us did not see a rise in our standard of living or our wellbeing. Wages stagnated, while the costs of basic needs—like homes, medical care, food, and energy—climbed rapidly. Those in the top 20 percent increased their net worth by 80 percent over the last 25 years, while the bottom 40 percent actually lost ground.

Few families today can make it on a single wage-earner’s income, and a health problem or a job loss can send a middle-class family into poverty or even homelessness.

Yet we continue to buy the products that are supposed to make us happy, driving many of us deeply into debt. Families are carrying an average credit card debt of $5,100, with interest rates that often make payoff nearly impossible. In recent years, home equity reached record lows as people borrowed against the value of their homes. In 2004, the most recent year for which Federal Reserve figures are available, debt secured by real property exceeded $290,000 per household, almost three times what it was only 15 years before.

All this debt makes life more precarious. It also increases our dependence on long work hours, which—if we can find work at all—combines with long commutes to eat up the time we might otherwise have for things that research shows actually would make us happy.

Who’s Happier

A better economy doesn’t necessarily mean a happier country.

SIDEBAR: Just the Facts

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that having more stuff will lead to happiness, because there’s an element of truth in the advertiser’s promise. We do need a certain amount of food to live, after all. Shelter is good. We need clothes, tools—a bit beyond the bare necessities can be nice. And having stuff has always been a way to show that you are successful and entitled to respect. But after the novelty of a new outfit or laptop wears off, we’re left with a hole in our wallets and an empty feeling, which—advertisers tell us—we should fill by shopping for yet more new and improved stuff.

Following this advice may keep the corporate economy humming, but has it made us happy?

Many figures suggest the answer is: not really. Broad standards of wellbeing like the Genuine Progress Indicators show that our health, quality of life, economic security, and environment, taken together, stayed flat, although we worked harder. A 20-year study by the OECD found the United States has the highest rate of inequality and poverty among the developed countries, and the income gap has grown steadily since 2000. A recent Gallup poll found that just half of Americans live free of worries about money or health, compared to 83 percent of those in Denmark. When the World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School studied rates of depression in 14 countries, the U.S. topped the list.

How Many Planets Does it Take?
It’s not only Americans who are taking a hit from an economic system that puts money and growth ahead of real wellbeing. People around the world are losing access to their own natural resources and economic sovereignty.

Corporations seeking to profit by stimulating and feeding our appetite for stuff have trampled on the livelihood and ways of life of Mexican farmers, indigenous rainforest dwellers, African miners, and Thai factory workers. When land buyouts or subsidized agricultural imports make traditional lifeways impossible, many of these people arrive in crowded cities with no choice but to work for rock-bottom wages or attempt an arduous migration to a higher-wage country.

Champions of globalization like Thomas Friedman tell us that in a few generations these workers will have a standard of living similar to ours in the United States. But ecological footprint analysis shows it would take more than six Earths to give everyone in the world the level of consumption Americans “enjoy.” Of course, we have only one planet, and this one is overheating.

love_small

The Pursuit of Happiness is this what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for the phrase contained in the earlier Continental Congress draft, “life, liberty, and property?”

Jefferson’s ideal was an economy based on small farmers who produced for themselves most of what they needed. Their happiness was not something they trusted corporations to provide for a fee, but rather something they created themselves, through their work and human relationships within a community. The economy of the time was founded, in part, on a slave-owning society built on land often stolen from native peoples, but Jefferson’s ideals had a strong influence on the young country. Freedom, independence, and self-sufficiency were all popular values.

The U.S. has moved a long way from the Jeffersonian ideal. Today, we produce little of what we use. We exchange our work for money, and buy food, clothing, and other necessities from big box stores and purchase child care and elder care from corporate chains.

Since we no longer have the time, skills, extended families, and access to land that were commonplace just decades ago, we have become completely dependent on money. That dependency leaves us at the mercy of those who control the economy and the money supply. And those who accumulate the money have inordinate influence over our government. It is the precise opposite of the Jeffersonian ideal. It’s also a departure from the way humans have lived for most of history.

Life After the Crash
So maybe it’s just as well that the crisis is finally upon us. Maybe this time of creative destruction offers us the chance for a fresh start, a chance to build a society that puts ordinary people first and provides the conditions for their happiness.

After the shock of the crisis wears off, maybe we’ll look around like characters in a Fellini movie who come outside at dawn after a debauched night of excess. We’ll turn off the television, log off the internet, notice the bright colors of sunrise, and speak to the neighbors who we’ve never found time to meet.

We may spend less of our lives working as the cash economy shrinks and companies close their doors.

But maybe we’ll learn to share the work and reclaim time for the aspects of our lives that research tells us contributes to real happiness—time with families and friends, civic involvement, exercise, creativity. It wouldn’t be the first time. During the Great Depression, for instance, the Kellogg Company cut employee shifts from eight hours to six to extend the number who had jobs. Productivity went up so much that the company could afford to pay the same for the shorter shift. Meanwhile, civic organizations, adult education, and family life in Kalamazoo blossomed.

Maybe we’ll find ways to trade among friends and neighbors—some winter squash or homemade pie for some child care or home repair. Maybe we’ll reclaim the skills we used to have, and teach each other how to grow food, fix things ourselves, sew and knit, and pass skills along to our children and grandchildren.

Somehow, in the exuberance of the economic bubbles of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, we lost track of something. Money exists to serve us as a tool, not the other way around. Our lives and society do not have to be turned over to the rulers of high finance and their hired representatives in Washington, D.C. We the people can reject the economic orthodoxy that has served us so poorly, and rebuild our economy on a different foundation.

Rebuilding
What sort of society do we want to rebuild? What will expand our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness without diminishing the chances for other people, now and in the future, to have the same?

Here are some of the things we’ll need to do:

  • Economic policies for the future must assure that everyone is included, and that we lift up those at the bottom. When we allow inequality to burgeon in our society, we create crime and violence and hate, which damage everyone’s ability to find happiness. We can no longer afford nine-figure paychecks for CEOs and double-digit returns on speculative investments. To paraphrase Gandhi, we have enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed.
  • The environmental overshoot game is up. The next economy must function within the present production of our environment. We can no longer afford to live off the bounty of the past, like the millions of years of fossil deposits that make up today’s diminishing oil reserves. Instead we must turn to solar energy, wind, and other renewables, and grow food and fiber by building the soil, not by dumping petroleum products on it. We can’t continue to use our atmosphere, oceans, aquifers, and soils as dumps. No amount of “Runs for the Cure” will solve the cancer problem if we continue to poison our food, water, and air. And the climate is reaching a dangerous tipping point.
  • We can no longer allow the money economy to grow like a cancer on our society, until it takes over all facets of life. The economy needs to serve people, communities, and the health of natural systems, not the other way around. Instead of relying on footloose unaccountable global corporations, we can turn to local and regional production to serve our needs and provide sustainable employment, including small and medium-sized businesses, co-ops, farmer’s markets, and so on.
  • As we do that, we’ll get much clearer on real sources of happiness. Research tells us that the sources of the good life are in loving relationships, mutual respect, meaningful work, and gratitude, and as we discover the power of these qualities, the lure of advertising and materialism will no longer fool us. Overconsumption will take its place alongside other passing fads.

As we begin to relearn the skills and rebuild the relationships we lost in the pursuit of money and things, we will begin to find a happiness that we are in charge of; one that is not dependent on the fluctuations of the stock market or the amount of stuff we own.

Painful as it may be in the short term, we can emerge from this crisis healthier and wealthier, with the sort of wealth that really matters: strong communities and relationships with loved ones, healthy ecosystems, and the skills to make a living and enjoy life.


Sarah van Gelder & Doug Pibel wrote this article as part of Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is executive editor and Doug is managing editor of YES! Magazine. Photos of Sarah van Gelder and Doug Pibel
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This Is Your Brain On Bliss

November 23, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured

by Matthieu Ricard

After 2,000 years of practice, Buddhist monks know that one secret to happiness is simply to put your mind to it.

What is happiness, and how can we achieve it?

Happiness can’t be reduced to a few agreeable sensations. Rather, it is a way of being and of experiencing the world—a profound fulfillment that suffuses every moment and endures despite inevitable setbacks.

Matthieu Ricard
Matthieu Ricard, left, quit his career as a cellular geneticist nearly 40 years ago to study Buddhism. He is the French translator for the Dalai Lama, right. Photo by Pagoda Phat Hue, phathue.com

The paths we take in search of happiness often lead us to frustration and suffering instead. We try to create outer conditions that we believe will make us happy. But it is the mind itself that translates outer conditions into happiness or suffering. This is why we can be deeply unhappy even though we “have it all”—wealth, power, health, a good family, etc.—and, conversely, we can remain strong and serene in the face of hardship.

Authentic happiness is a way of being and a skill to be cultivated. When we first begin, the mind is vulnerable and untamed, like that of a monkey or a restless child. It takes practice to gain inner peace, inner strength, altruistic love, forbearance, and other qualities that lead to authentic happiness.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama often teaches that, while there are limitations to how much information one can learn and to our physical performance, compassion can be developed boundlessly.

Practicing Happiness
It is not difficult to begin. You just have to sit from time to time, turn your mind within, and let your thoughts calm down. Focus your attention on a chosen object. It can be an object in your room, your breath, or your own mind. Inevitably, your mind will wander as you do this. Each time it does, gently bring it back to the object of concentration, like a butterfly that returns again and again to a flower.

In the freshness of the present moment, past is gone, future is not yet born, and—if one remains in pure mindfulness and freedom—disturbing thoughts arise and go without leaving a trace. That is basic meditation.

Matthieu Ricard’s brain. Photo by Waisman Brain Imaging Lab, University Of Wisconsin
Find out what happens when the meditating mind of a Buddhist monk is examined by magnetic resonance imaging: Matthieu Ricard’s brain.
Photo by Waisman Brain Imaging Lab, University of Wisconsin

Pure consciousness without content is something all those who meditate regularly and seriously have experienced—it is not just some sort of Buddhist theory. And anyone who takes the trouble to stabilize and clarify his or her mind will be able to experience it, too. It is through this unconditioned aspect of consciousness that we can transform the content of mind through training.

But meditation also means to cultivate basic human qualities, such as attention and compassion, and new ways of experiencing the world. What really matters is that a person gradually changes. Over months and years, we become less impatient, less prone to anger, less torn between hopes and fears. It becomes inconceivable to willingly harm another person. We develop a propensity toward altruistic behavior and the cluster of qualities that give us the resources to deal with the ups and downs of life.

The point here is that you can look at your thoughts, including strong emotions, with a pure mindfulness that is not associated with the contents of the thoughts.

Take the example of malevolent anger. We usually identify with anger. Anger can fill our mental landscape and project its distorted reality on people and events. When we are overwhelmed by anger, we cannot dissociate from it. We perpetuate a vicious circle of affliction by rekindling anger each time we see or remember the person who makes us angry. We become addicted to the cause of suffering.

But if we dissociate from anger and look at it with mindfulness, that which is aware of anger is not angry, and we can see that anger is just a bunch of thoughts. Anger doesn’t cut like a knife, burn like a fire, or crush like a rock; it is nothing more than a product of our mind. Instead of “being” the anger, we understand that we are not the anger, in the same way that clouds are not the sky.

So, to deal with anger, we avoid letting our mind jump again and again to the trigger for our anger. Then we look at anger itself and keep our attention upon it. If we stop adding wood to a fire and just watch, the fire will die out. Likewise, anger will vanish away, without being forcibly repressed or allowed to explode.

There is no question of not experiencing emotions; it’s a question of not being enslaved by them. Let emotions arise, but let them be freed from their afflictive components: distortion of reality, mental confusion, clinging, and suffering for oneself and others.

There is great virtue in resting from time to time in pure awareness of the present moment, and being able to refer to this state when afflictive emotions arise so that we do not identify with them and are not swayed by them.

It is difficult in the beginning, but becomes quite natural as you become increasingly familiar with such an approach. Whenever anger arises, you learn to recognize it right away. If you know someone to be a pickpocket, even if he mingles in a crowd, you will spot him right away and keep a careful eye on him.

Interdependence
Just as you can learn to deal with afflictive thoughts, you can learn to cultivate and enhance wholesome ones. To be filled with love and kindness brings about an optimal way of being. It is a win-win situation: you will enjoy lasting well-being for yourself, you’ll act in altruistic ways towards others, and you’ll be perceived as a good human being.

If altruistic love is based on an understanding of the interdependence of all beings and of their natural aspiration to happiness, and if this love extends impartially to all beings, then it is a source of genuine happiness. Acts of overflowing love, of pure, disinterested generosity—as when you make a child happy or help someone in need, even if nobody knows what you have done—generate a deep and heartwarming fulfillment.

The Habits of Happiness

TED TALK: Listen to Matthieu Ricard answer the questions: What is Happiness, and How Can We All Get Some?

Dalai Lama Renaissance

FILM: Watch the trailer.

Human qualities often come in clusters. Altruism, inner peace, strength, freedom, and genuine happiness thrive together like the parts of a nourishing fruit. Likewise, selfishness, animosity, and fear grow together. So, while helping others may not always be “pleasant,” it leads the mind to a sense of inner peace, courage, and harmony with the interdependence of all things and beings.

Afflictive mental states, on the other hand, begin with self-centeredness, with an increase in the gap between self and others. These states are related to excessive self-importance and self-cherishing associated with fear or resentment towards others, and grasping for outer things as part of a hopeless pursuit of selfish happiness. A selfish pursuit of happiness is a lose-lose situation: you make yourself miserable and make others miserable as well.

Inner conflicts are often linked with excessive rumination on the past and anticipation of the future. You are not truly paying attention to the present moment, but are engrossed in your thoughts, going on and on in a vicious circle, feeding your ego and self-centeredness.

This is the opposite of bare attention. To turn your attention inside means to look at pure awareness itself and dwell without distraction, yet effortlessly, in the present moment.

If you cultivate these mental skills, after a while you won’t need to apply contrived efforts anymore. You can deal with mental perturbations like the eagles I see from the window of my hermitage in the Himalayas deal with crows. The crows often attack them, diving at the eagles from above. But, instead of doing all kinds of acrobatics, the eagle simply retracts one wing at the last moment, lets the diving crow pass, and then extends its wing again. The whole thing requires minimal effort and causes little disturbance.

Being experienced in dealing with the sudden arising of emotions in the mind works in a similar way.

I have been exposed to the world of humanitarian activities for a number of years since I decided to dedicate the entire royalties of my books to 30 projects on education and health in Tibet, Nepal, and India, with a group of dedicated volunteers and generous philanthropists. It is easy to see how corruption, clashes of ego, weak empathy, discouragement can plague the humanitarian world. All this stems from a lack of maturity. So the advantages of spending time to develop human altruism and compassionate courage are obvious.


The Fragrance of Peace

The most important time to meditate or do other types of spiritual practices is early in the morning. You set the tone for the day and the “fragrance” of the meditation will remain and give a particular perfume to the whole day. Another important time is before falling asleep. If you clearly generate a positive state of mind, filled with compassion or altruism, this will give a different quality to the whole night.

When people experience “moments of grace”, or “magical moments” in daily life, while walking in the snow under the stars or spending a beautiful moment with dear friends by the seaside, what is really happening? All of a sudden, they have left their burden of inner conflicts behind. They feel in harmony with others, with themselves, with the world. It is wonderful to fully enjoy such magical moments, but it is also revealing to understand why they feel so good: pacification of inner conflicts; a better sense of interdependence with everything rather than fragmenting reality; and a respite from the mental toxins of aggression and obsession. All these qualities can be cultivated through developing wisdom and inner freedom. This will lead not just to a few moments of grace but to a lasting state of well-being that we may call genuine happiness.

In this state, feelings of insecurity gradually give way to a deep confidence that you can deal with life’s ups and downs. Your equanimity will spare you from being swayed like mountain grass in the wind by every possible praise and blame, gain and loss, comfort and discomfort. You can always draw on deep inner peace, and the waves at the surface will not appear as threatening.


Matthieu Ricard wrote this article as part of Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Matthieu has authored seven books, including Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. He lives at the Shechen monastery in Nepal, travels the world for Karuna-shechen (www.karuna-shechen.org) and does an annual solitary retreat in the Himalayas.

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A New York Times Article

October 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Blog

A friend of mine recently sent me the below article printed in the New York Times a few months ago.  I’m posting this article here because I found the struggle of this young woman brave and touching.  We all have our demons, acknowledging and facing them is the first step to our own freedom.


July 26, 2009
Columbia

In Pursuit of Happiness

By CARONAE HOWELL

I’m the kind of woman who spends entire days thinking of nothing but birds: woodcocks, goldfinches, kingfishers. I look for loons everywhere I go. Sometimes I find herons in Central Park and they are mysteries. There is one thing in this world that I envy: the hollowness of bird bones. In the three milliseconds of liftoff, a bird separates itself from its problems. The sky is the freest part of the world.

I have always been depressed, and I have always wanted to fly — not to emulate Superman or to travel faster. I want to fly because of the elation. In my dreams I am a butterfly or a fairy or a honeybee. Depression, for me, is when you want to be a bird, but can’t.

There is a specific moment in which I became a woman. It was February — always the worst month with its aching light and its slip-induced bruises. I had been trying to fall asleep for at least four hours. At 3 a.m., I found myself sobbing and shaking and confused, sitting on my metal dorm bed in the bird-with-a-­broken-wing position. I dug my fingernails into my forearms, leaving shell-shaped trenches behind. I have the kind of skin that refuses to heal, just stays eternally raw and mottled.

It was five weeks into my fourth semester. In late January, a freshman hanged himself in my old dorm. I found myself asking, really, how hard is it to suddenly find yourself perched on a sink, rope around your beautiful neck, ready to fly? How hard?

My dad drove through four states to pick me up the next week. On the way home I had tea and ice cream. He asked me if I remembered the time he took too many of his antidepressants. I did not. Nor did I remember my uncle’s suicide (gun to the cerebrum) or my sister’s delicately sliced arms and hips. These were things I had only been told.

The space between my skull and my irises hurts sometimes — hurts like the shatter of a tiny bird that has fallen midflight. And so it was that sour February night that I took the delicate step into the adult world: realizing that I was too depressed to stay at college was realizing I had not only lost my flock; I had fallen from the air entirely.

Michigan has many birds. My favorite might be the wood duck, with its banded neck and flat little wings. When I watch birds take off, I hold my breath. They always make it to the sky.

Every Monday morning at 9 I see my therapist, mug of green tea and honey close at hand. I take new pills now. I have a routine: oatmeal in the morning, Wednesday nights with my father. I tell my therapist about Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.” Who isn’t searching for their people?

I arrange my thoughts. (No, I have never been in love and I am, in fact, afraid of men; I panic in Times Square; I grow attached to almost everyone I meet.)

I have feathers and questions.

I moved to New York City for college in 2007. School did not grow me into an adult, nor did voting for the first time or doing my own banking. These things were not confrontations. How did I arrive at the place where I could look at my disease and say, “Yes, you are here, but I will not let you take the joy out of looking for birds”? I like to think it was New York, or my newfound discipline, but it was a more internal revolution. I acknowledged my traumas: I was not crazy, just damaged. I was molting.

Columbia gave me many new things: a copy of the “Iliad” with a note saying the first six books should be read before orientation, a job in the oral history office, a sense of time management. But without my sanity — without joy — these things had little value. I knew nothing until I knew I was hardly living. Hobbes and Locke and all the philosophers in the world could not matter when each day was insurmountable and burning. In my year and a half at Columbia, I began to learn how to love myself.

I tell my therapist about my earliest memories and the bizarre geography of my family. I’m anxious and I have no self-esteem. But I am mending. Fifteen lost credits is a small price to pay for happiness. Perhaps I am learning how to fly. My bones may not be hollow, and joy will never come easily, but the beauty is in the struggle. The birds are everywhere.

Caronae Howell, Columbia, class of 2011, history major

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