“The habit of being happy enables one to be freed, or largely freed, from the dominance of the outward conditions.” -Robert Louis Stevenson
I have noticed that I often speak of happiness as something that I receive when the focus of my happiness is attained. You might be familiar with some of these statements: ‘I will just be happy when the car is fixed’; ‘I will be happy when the kids go back to school’; ‘When I stop smoking I will be happy’; ‘Buying that house in the country will be pure happiness’; ‘Having that dress would make me so happy’.
Contrary to Robert Louis Stevenson’s assertion that the habit of happiness will free you from the tyranny of your needs and wants or ‘the dominance of the outward conditions’, statements like these communicate the belief that happiness IS dependent upon your outward condition, having your needs and wants met.
What makes you happy? Are you happy? Have you mastered the ‘habit of being happy’? Are you ‘largely free’ from the dominance of the outward condition? These are the questions that I have been asking myself, leading me to some interesting answers.
The Grammar of Happiness
I was fascinated by a documentary I saw recently called ‘The Grammar of Happiness’. The documentary followed the story of a missionary amongst the extraordinary ‘unconvertible' Amazonian Pirahã tribe, a group of indigenous hunter-gatherers who the missionary experienced as a ‘happy’ people. My fascination was aroused by the fact that the Pirahã have no words for ‘the ‘past’ or ‘the future’ in their language. These people live ‘in the present’; they have all they need, when they need it. They appeared to be a secure people, experiencing order and stability. It was apparent that these people had a strong sense of connection to each other, of belonging and being loved; a ‘happy and contented’ people.
I wondered how this ‘living in the present’ contributed to their happiness, after all they still have needs to be met, children to feed, a hostile environment to live in. Their outward condition is still a reality, yet they live as a people who have made peace with it, have learned how to have their basic needs met within its context and be happy. Their inner attitude is not dominated by past regrets or future desires, but by a calm acknowledgment and acceptance of what they have in the present, producing within them an internal freedom.
Part of the Pirahã’s secret to happiness is their interdependence. Living, eating, working, playing – they do it together. Unlike our own western society where individualism and self-actualization is celebrated, these people live as one, sharing their lives together. They are generative, passing on their knowledge from one generation to the next as they live and work together for the common good. The habit of happiness is a reality for the Pirahã because they accept that the collective and individual needs will be met at the time that need arises.
The Pirahã people teach us that the Habit of Happiness is possible when you:
1. Live in The Present Moment
Living in the present, often termed ‘mindfulness’ is a discipline that makes you calmer, peaceful and feeling more in control. Where your mind is often preoccupied by matters of the past or the future, even while you are actively engaged in the present, when living mindfully all your energy is conscripted into focusing on the here and now: the conversation you are having, the work you are doing, the meal you are preparing. You make fewer mistakes because anxiety is not present to distract you or rob you of energy. Relationships are potentially stronger because being fully present to the other person minimizes misunderstanding. When you encounter personal or interpersonal problems, mindfulness allows you to ground yourself, feel calm, think clearly and come to a successful outcome.
Doctor Timothy Sharp, Chief Happiness Officer of The Happiness Institute in Australia says about the pursuit of happiness; “It’s about facing up to [our problems] in a constructive way so that we can come to the best solutions.” His statement reminds me that when you choose not to face up to your problems, choosing instead to dwell on the past or dream about the future or distract yourself by the endless pursuit of your wants; then you choose to be dominated by your outward conditions. Dr Sharp implies that happiness is gained when you look within yourself to deal with the challenges of everyday life. To look within your-self is a mindfulness act. You are mentally disciplined to be present to your own inner experience, bringing a calmness and clarity that helps you find the best possible outcome at the time. In time you learn the mindfulness principle that ‘there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’.
2. Cultivate Strong, Supportive Relationships
Human beings are interdependent creatures, needing each other for support, help, encouragement, comfort and company. The successful interdependence of the Pirahã people is based on the individual’s commitment to, and respect for the other. Parents raise their children to understand and value the collective experience, and work with each other toward the common good.
I wonder what that would look like in your daily experience if you applied that same principle. In our Western society, individualism is often celebrated over the group experience and children are raised with the belief that to have one’s own need met, you have to protect and promote yourself above other people’s needs.
Cultivating strong supportive relationships requires that you have a co-operative and compassionate attitude towards the other rather than a competitive attitude; that you become more intuitive and thoughtful towards other. To achieve these qualities, it is necessary to be more internally driven rather than externally controlled or, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s words, be less dominated by outward conditions. Cultivating inner qualities such as kindness, patience, gratitude and optimism not only make you a better person but a person internally driven and therefore a happier person.
The Habit of Happiness – is it possible? I believe it is if you are prepared to apply yourself to the practice of mindfully focusing on the present and consistently seeking to connect with others in ways that are kind, considerate and thoughtful. Will you take that challenge to develop the ‘habit of happiness’ with me?I look forward to hearing your feedback about it.
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