Learning to be Happy

Some years ago I was invited to be the guest speaker and to make presentations at a graduation ceremony at the Central Queensland University. When I commenced my address I stated that I had come to address a deficiency in the university’s curriculum. The Vice-Chancellor seemed a little startled at this suggestion and there were quizzical looks on the faces of the audience. To make my point I asked the audience to put their hands up if they had done even one unit on the study of happiness. And of course no one raised their hand.

When you think about it, this is a concerning situation.

If I were to ask you what do you wish for most for your children, by far the majority of you will say you wish them to be happy – or words to that effect. The problem is that most of us have little idea about what makes people happy.

Perhaps we should take a little detour here. In recent years I have shied away from talking too much about happiness because many associate happiness with smiling, laughing and perhaps joking people. That of course is not what I have in mind. I would probably now say that my ideal for my children is to have an enduring sense of well-being.

This ideal, of course, must be tempered with realism. I don’t expect my children to be happy all the time. It is quite natural that we all should suffer some melancholy. But I want my children to be robust enough to ensure that melancholy doesn’t spiral into depression.

I don’t believe or promote (as the Pop-Psychologists would insist) that my children can be whatever they want to be or achieve whatever they want to achieve. We all have our limitations and it seems to me to be a far more satisfying strategy to do what we can within our limitations than to set our goals beyond our capabilities.

Much of the modern psychological thinking (again particularly American) has been about bolstering the egos of our young people. We have strived to prove to them how special and unique they are. As a result we have encouraged narcissism. When we have artificially bolstered their egos we have set them up for failure when they have had to encounter the real world.

One of the lessons that the good Dr Phil has taught me is that there are no special people! We are all, in the end, a product of our biological history and our social conditioning, which we have had little influence on. And even if we had special talents or unique characteristics, they were certainly not of our doing.

Every one of us wants to believe that our child is somehow special. The only thing that is special is our relationship to them. The commonality of our genes disposes us to think this way. And normally this is not a bad thing. As a result we encourage and nurture our children. But if we emphasise how particularly talented they are we are faced with two dilemmas:

1. Firstly if in our enthusiasm as a parent we have contrived to make them feel special when their attributes are not, we set them up for a painful reconsideration when they become exposed to the real world.

2. Alternatively if they do have some special talent or attribute we do them a disservice if they come to believe that it is due to their own unique efforts. I don’t want to discourage young people from striving to optimize their talents and of course their efforts can help develop those innate talents, but it is a travesty to have them believe that they are entirely responsible for the pleasing attributes that were genetically acquired or learnt through the good fortune of their socialisation (over which they had little control).

Now, I don’t believe I have ever met a parent whose prime ambition for their children was much different to mine. Sometimes when they proclaim for example, “I’d love my son to be a champion footballer or my daughter to be a lawyer” it is only because they believe (normally erroneously,) that such achievements would pave the way to happiness. Often they might say, “I would like them to be liked, have good health, be confident,” or whatever, because again they believe this underpins happiness. Or sometimes they will use synonyms for wellbeing when they say for example “I would like them to be fulfilled, or contented.”

So I believe I can assume that the majority of parents aspire to see their children live their lives with a reasonable sense of well-being. Yet few of us understand what leads to such a state. Now I have previously blogged about the underpinnings of happiness/well-being and I won’t repeat all of that material (For those who have not read them refer my blogs of 26 June 2009, 26 November 2009 and 12 May 2010 which may be accessed from the archives at the top left of my blog site.)

Accordingly, I’ll go back to the theme that started this essay. If our well-being is of paramount importance to us, why isn’t it part of the curriculum, be it of school or university? I suppose the teachers among my readers, (and I suspect I have at least one!) will complain, “Not another subject area to be covered?” And this is a reasonable response because we have heard arguments over the years that more emphasis should be given to phonetics, history, indigenous culture or even perhaps learning Esperanto, each peddled by its own special interest group – so why should we give precedence to the study of human well-being? Largely, it is because, as I have tried to argue, it is the most universal need of all.

The sceptics amongst you will protest, “But surely we can’t learn how to be happy?”

The best book I have read on this subject is by Matthieu Ricard and appropriately titled “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill”. Ricard is an extraordinary man. He is French, and pursued a successful career as a geneticist before retiring to Nepal to study Buddhism. He is now the French translator for the Dalai Lama, a renowned photographer and leads a number of charities devoted to the development of clinics, schools and orphanages in the area. He has been dubbed (probably with little substantiation) by some elements of the press as “The Happiest Man on Earth.” I recently attended a workshop he ran in Brisbane and found it one of the most inspiring and insightful experiences of my life.

Ricard, after studying the research available on the subject has come to the conclusion that (as I outlined in a previous blog):

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.
We are given then, some cause for optimism by the fact we can learn more productive ways of viewing the world, we can learn better ways to live and we can learn better ways of thinking. So, even for those in unfortunate circumstances, and those who are genetically disposed to melancholia, we are still able to train our minds in such a way to enhance our sense of personal well-being.

So I am advocating (idealist that I am) that we should be educating our children in positive psychology and giving them strategies for training their minds to make them psychologically robust and enhancing their capacity to achieve a sense of well-being in their lives.

A recurring theme in all the studies of happiness is that you don’t achieve it by pursuing it directly. The good Dr Phil taught me many years ago that the process of attaining personal adjustment (a major underpinning of our sense of well-being) is to:

• Know yourself
• Accept yourself, and then to
• Forget yourself.

In a previous blog I quoted the eighth century Buddhist sage, Shantideva who wrote:

Whatever joy there is in this world
All comes from desiring others to be happy.
And whatever suffering there is in the world,
All comes from desiring myself to be happy.
But what need is there to say much more?
The childish work for their own benefit,
The Buddhas work for the benefit of others.
Just look at the difference between them!
How much better the world and everyone in it might be if we could teach such a lesson to our children! All the indicators suggest that despite the improvement in our standard of living, our sense of well-being is declining. The burgeoning numbers of us who now succumb to depression, the huge rise in the rates of suicide are indicators of societies that are dysfunctional. Perhaps if our education focused less on how to make a living rather than how to live a life we would be far better off!

8 Replies to “Learning to be Happy”

  1. Tedd,
    Thanks for these thought filled words. I agree that a person has the capacity to choose how they feel about the world around them. I recently had a work related dissappointment but I accepted that (in this case) I was out-gunned by a more experienced and competent person. It helped me to understand what my capabilities are in comparison, accept them and move on.

  2. I read a book a while back that discussed the concept of religion and why religion exists in all societies. It suggested a Darwinian evolution link. Essentially the human child is born underdeveloped in comparison to other animals but is compensated by having a brain that is susceptible to programming at the most fundamental level. A human brain at this age (first 5 to 7 years) can be programmed to accept the most unbelievable things. Things that later in life would be rejected as complete nonsense. This is why we see our own fantastic religious beliefs as beyond question and completely reasonable but completely reject the childish ridiculous beliefs of others (hypocrisy on mass brain washing scale). From an evolution perspective this formative period of our lives allows things like “don’t go near the river after dark” to be locked into our very fabric by the older and wiser generation.

    So what does this have to do with happiness? I am suggesting that it is this period between birth and 5 to 7 years that we have a chance to change the next generations attitudes and measures for success and as a result happiness. I don’t disagree that we can still teach happiness and learn to be more emotionally well balanced at any age, but at that stage it is a learnt skill. If we change our views of the world with the young it will be part of them forever without them even trying. Or am I just being idealistic?

  3. The pursuit of happiness is another oxymoron.

    Happiness ain’t going nowhere.

    It’s here and now.

  4. Archive of Classic Poems

    Rudyard Kipling


    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

    If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with triumph and disaster
    And treat those two imposters just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breath a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

  5. Nice work Ted. As you know, I regularly annoy (but hopefully inspire) my children by quoting William Blake’s philosophical genius:

    If you can see the world in a grain of sand
    If you can see heaven in a wild flower
    Then you can hold infinity in your hand
    and enjoy eternity in an hour


    He who clings to joy
    Does the winged life destroy
    But he who kisses joy as it flies
    Will enjoy eternity’s sunrise

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