The Quest for Happiness
In modern times of rapid change and hyper-connectivity, achievement is turning into a survival of the focused. But it’s not all about achieving more. We’re beginning to understand that success is not the route to happiness. In fact, it is the other way round. There is now a hunger to get centered and feel grounded, and the quiet revolution is underway.The premise for the creation of a new metric to measure success, pioneered by Huffington Post founder, Adrianna Huffington, is the removal of stress induced by the judgments we make about external circumstances, and a reassessment of the persistent subconscious pressure that we need to have more than we already have and to be more than we already are. Catalyzed into action by the rocketing numbers of people who are feeling the strain of constant stress and heading for burn-out, Huffington envisages the creation of a society where we treat each other, and perhaps most importantly ourselves, as human beings, with emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual needs to be fulfilled.
“We need a third metric, a third measure of success that goes beyond the two metrics of money and power,” Huffington says in her online musings, positing that this new measure should be founded on “four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving.”
It Seems the Words of the Wise Weren’t Just Ideas
The four elements mentioned above have been touted as the route to achieving happiness and fulfilment for centuries: Stoicism and the Ancient Greeks, the enlightened Buddhist monks, and the majority of Chinese philosophy is less about idea-twiddling and defining reality, and more about wisdom and living the good life. So why are they entering the mainstream now, in the year 2015? “We are living in an incredible time,” Huffington writes, “when modern science is validating a lot of ancient wisdom.”
The most prominent cause of this phenomenon is a peer-reviewed study on the use of meditation as a therapy for stress and anxiety relief by Dr. Madhav Goyal of the John Hopkins School of Medicine, which has been widely accepted as conclusive. Much subsequent research is verifying these initial findings, showing the immense physical and psychological benefits of meditation. Huffington, an advocate of meditation, joining the ranks of the late Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey, goes as far as to say “it’s not an exaggeration to call meditation a miracle drug.”
But psychological health is not the only reason that meditation has graduated from the spiritual domain and settled into the mainstream. Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project writes about what is required for us humans to operate at our best. “Maintaining a steady reservoir of energy – physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually – requires refueling it intermittently.” And meditation is the perfect key to unlocking this slow-burning flow, rather than shooting straight towards total burnout.
Some Time Alone
Thankfully, the word meditation no longer conjures up images of people in tie-dye who look like they reek of patchouli. Bringing meditation into the twenty-first century, Headspace, the app which takes you through a ten to twenty minute meditation each day has shot to popularity. Andy Puddicombe, the brains behind this app, is an ex-Buddhist monk whose timbre of voice alone is enough to send you into a blissful daydream. He has gathered a large following of ardent mindfulness fans, who attest to the seemingly miraculous powers of meditation helping people with everything from anxiety, eating issues, work stresses, coping with illness and managing major life transitions. But what makes sitting alone in a room for a brief period each day so compelling, yet for many of us, so challenging?
Louis CK, the megalith of American comedy, phrases it perfectly, “Life is tremendously sad.” In a YouTube video of an interview with Conan which has been watched over 8 million times, Louis sums up our intense discomfort at being alone. Having time to think is something which we go to great lengths to avoid, burying ourselves in work, surrounding ourselves with friends, food, drink, and the endless distractions of technology, or more nefarious pursuits. In short, anything to avoid a small gaze into our inner landscape. “And that’s why we text and drive,” Louis argues, “People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second, because it’s so hard.” Yet it is precisely that feeling, the “forever alone” feeling, that we have to learn to face. We spend so much time running away from the difficult questions, about why we are here and what gives our lives meaning. Meditation forces you to check in with yourself, to objectively see which fears and desires are motivating your behavior, and to reset these actions to align with your real intentions. This sits perfectly at the cross-section between the axes of wisdom and well-being.
In facing up to our demons, to the darker questions which haunt us, we open ourselves up to a truer kind of joy. Mark Williams, author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, states that meditation, “frees us from being in a perpetual and destructive fight-or-flight mode. What we can find when we step off the hamster wheel is the kind of happiness and peace that gets into your bones and promotes a deep-seated authentic love of life, seeping into everything you do and helping you to cope more skillfully with the worst that life throws at you.”
That Magic Combination of Curiosity and Appreciation
There is two more axes to this good-living metric of wisdom and mindfulness which is being grateful and wondrous. Wonder can be defined as that feeling of being completely in awe and reminded of your own insignificance in the grander scheme of the universal design, or that perspective which allows us to see something as more than just a sum of its parts.
The astronomers whose boundless curiosity about the stars spurs them to unlock the secrets of the universe; the biologists whose desire to understand the inner workings of a cell leads them to discover the basic chemical processes which underpin the conception of life; the mountaineers and ocean explorers who forge relentlessly on to undiscovered summits and shores; the painter whose delight in the sunset drives him to tirelessly attempt to capture its radiant beauty on canvas; or the composer who provokes a panoply of emotion in his keen audiences through sound alone. Wonder – that delicate concoction of curiosity and appreciation is clearly what drives people to push themselves further towards the greatest discoveries, greater achievements.
Many of us forget this simple yet powerful feeling of wonder, consigning it with a sigh of nostalgia to the memory of our childhood days. But this should not be the case. Being wondrous about the simple fact of your own existence – this is a good place to start. As Yeats once said, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
Gratitude, too, has been shown to improve people’s baseline of happiness, as demonstrated by data from Google’s People Operations Analytics. Cultivating a simple practice of saying or sending an email of thanks to those friends, family members or colleagues whose help you appreciate, or writing down three new things each day that you feel grateful for can have a huge impact. We often forget these simple gestures, and the resonance they can have on your relationships and your own state of being, neglecting it until some unforetold disaster comes to pass or the moment is too late.
Instead of chasing our whimsical desires from second to second, but to rest satisfied and grateful for what we have, in this present moment, this is the wellspring of happiness.
Towards a Brighter Present?
Wisdom, well-being and wonder are things that are hard to quantify – particularly by others. The balance of our bank account or the title printed on our name cards might make us feel secure and proud with something to show for our efforts, but when no one else is looking, they can be worth a lot less.
Today, society seems to be becoming more polarized, be it left wing politics versus right or science versus religion. The words of the wise teach us that some things require an assured stubbornness and persistence in order to make a discovery, but more often than not, adopting the flexible mind set of and/or over either/or can rid the mind of psychological rigidity and leave it open to a world of richness.
Ancient wisdom and modern research tells us that happiness is intrinsic, and the quiet revolution of the third metric suggests that real success is no different.