Researchers over the last two decades have written many papers on the subject of happiness and its determinants. Matthieu Ricard in analysing and interpreting their results came to the following conclusions:
1. Outward conditions and general factors such as wealth, education, social status, age etc account altogether for no more than 10 to 15% of the variability in happiness.
2. We have some genetic predisposition to being happy or unhappy. This accounts for some 25% of our potential to be happy.
3. We can exert considerable impact on our experience of happiness through the way we live and think, how we perceive life’s events and how we react to them.
These findings lead us to some optimism about our ability to improve our sense of well-being by modifying how we view our world.
In a series of studies reported in The Psychological Bulletin and The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the researcher Ed Deiner studied various factors that people commonly thought contributed to well-being. In fact he and his colleagues found there was little correlation between such factors as wealth, health and beauty and happiness. He concluded that, “It appears that the way people perceive the world is much more important to happiness than objective circumstances.”
In many studies researchers have shown that, even though our relative standard of living has improved over the years our sense of well-being, if anything, has declined. Other indicators, like the rates of suicide, have increased considerably. As Richard Layard, of the London School of Economics states: “We have more food, more clothes, more cars, bigger houses, more central heating, more foreign holidays, a shorter working week, nice work , and above all, better health. Yet we are not happier.”
There is much to be learnt here from our earlier discussions on detachment. One of the main source’s of people’s discontent comes from comparing themselves with others. Whilst I concede I have an adequate salary, I am upset that someone working alongside me earns more. Whilst my car is good and serviceable my brother-in-law has just bought a new car, and damn it, I deserve one more than him! My house is comfortable and meets our needs quite well, but now since our friends have just moved into an inner city luxury apartment it doesn’t look so good.
How telling is the remark Diogenes is reputed to have made to Alexander the Great. “Í am greater than you my Lord, because I have disdained more than you have ever possessed.”
Some of the oldest religious writings in the world, the Vedic hymns that underlie the ancient Hindu beliefs teach that happiness is not an object but the state of contentment of a mind at peace. Without peace of mind all our possessions, acquisitions and pursuit of happiness become a hideous torment and an intolerable burden.
Peace of mind is not a pleasure-fearing withdrawal or a lapsing into a state of passivity of inertia. Nor is it a temporary response one feels in hearing serene music or seeing beautiful natural scenery. It is the peace of mind made tranquil through education, training and discipline. It arises, as we implied earlier, from an appropriate state of mind.
Peace of mind does not come of itself, nor is it ever achieved miraculously. It results from the conscious practice of self-mastery. Self-mastery, as we saw in earlier blogs, is about detachment and awareness.
The Bhagavad Ghita tells us:
The man of self-control, moving among objects with his senses under restraint, and free from attachment and hate, attains serenity of mind. In that serenity there is an end of all sorrow, for the intelligence of the man of serene mind soon becomes steady. The man whose mind is not under his control has no self-knowledge and no contemplation either. Without contemplation he can have no peace; and without peace how can he have happiness?