Six Ingredients of a Happier Life

Happiness is what all people yearn for. Yet why is it that it seems very elusive? If it is so important, why is it not being taught in schools? We spend twelve or more years learning mathematics, why not a single semester on how to become a happier person? Are there time-tested ingredients that will make our lives happier?

Fortunately, there are guidelines which have been known since time immemorial by wise sages. In addition, modern psychology has found out a number of ingredients that accompany a happy life.

First, what is happiness?

It is not pleasure or excitement, for these are fleeting things that are due to a surge of sensory stimulation.

It is not also being wealthy, because rich people have committed suicide. One German industrialist, one of the richest persons in the world, committed suicide due to losses from some unwise investments but which still left him with about US$10 billion in assets. A 70-year study of Americans has shown that with the soaring of financial income of Americans, the level of happiness has not increased.

Neither is it fame. Marilyn Monroe killed herself at the height of her fame. She was just 36 years old. Other famous people who ended their lives are Robin Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun, and Vincent Van Gogh.

One of the insights of modern psychology is that happiness is not an event or episode. It is state of well-being that lingers in spite of the ups and downs of life. In other words, a person continues to feel good about life, that is, generally happy,  even when there are adversities that happen. If we look at the people around us, and reflect on our own lives and experiences, this is our common understanding of happiness. No person is free from adversities, setbacks, accidents, illness or losses. And yet some people are able to maintain a positive, optimistic and cheerful attitude, while others are grouchy and dissatisfied much of the time even when things seem to be going well.

Thus, we can define happiness in this way: “It is a sustained state of well-being, contentment and meaningfulness, accompanied by positive feelings.”

With the above introduction, let us look into six important ingredients in making our lives a happier one. All of them are within our control.

1. Remove Causes of Unhappiness. There are psychological factors that make a person almost incapable of long-term happiness. These are fear (including worry and anxiety), depressiveness, resentment, anger, guilt, hurt and even aversion.

A person with fear, for example, can hardly be happy. The state of fear is one of constriction and defensiveness that is definitely unpleasant, whereas happiness is one of naturalness, spontaneity, expansiveness and positiveness. Its roots are the thousand and one unpleasant and fearful experiences since childhood that have not been resolved and released. They impinge upon the present moment in a semi-conscious way that prevents us from being our natural self and being cheerful. These unresolved unpleasant experiences become subconscious “push buttons” that are easily triggered by memory or association. Roger may have suffered from the cruelty and bullying on his parents, and today he has fear of authority that affects his mood while at work or in social situations.

So long as these push buttons are lodged in the subconscious, it is very difficult for a person to become happy, natural, spontaneous or expansive. It is like a constant inner dark cloud that prevents the mind and feelings to be cheerful and sunny.

These push buttons can be removed through what is called self-awareness processing and which allows the bottled-up energy to be safely released permanently.

2. Develop Habits of Positiveness.  Positiveness refers to psychological states such as cheerfulness, enthusiasm, optimism, appreciation or gratitude.

Positiveness is a habit. Some people are genetically endowed with such a predisposition, others are not. For those who are not, they can develop positive habits and overcome one’s innate moroseness.

When a person consciously tries to be positive, something changes in the way one looks at life and the world. The world has not changed, but one’s state of happiness has. Try regularly expressing appreciation towards other people, feeling grateful for what we have and for what others have given us, smiling frequently, being optimistic about almost anything — then the habit of positiveness sets in. And life changes.

3. Nurture Positive Relationships. To most people, the greatest source of unhappiness is people. Jean Paul Sartre wrote: “I know what hell is. Hell is other people.”

The good news is that people are also the sources of their greatest happiness: friendship, a loving marital relationship, children, a happy work environment, and helping other people.

Positive relationship is something that is built, nurtured and watered on a regular basis through kindness, cheerfulness, humor and helpfulness. Other people may be nasty, critical, pessimistic or aloof. But that really is their problem, not ours. We can still feel friendly and positive towards them.

4. Help Others Selflessly. This is an inestimable ingredient of happiness — helping others without thinking of anything in return. It need not be in terms of money but anything that uplifts other people and make them feel happier.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, wrote: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

Dr. Martin Seligman once gave two weekend assignments to his psychology students. First is to engage in something that they think they will enjoy — watching a movie, hanging out with friends, going to the beach, etc. The second is to do something to help someone — even complete strangers. The following week, the students were asked which of the two activities gave them greater happiness. The students were unanimous: helping others gave a greater feeling of happiness.

5. Be Ethical. When we deliberately harm others — cheating, hurting, or depriving them of something — there are two consequences. Internally, we don’t feel good. We know that we have done something wrong, and we cannot have true inward peace and happiness. Externally, we have just set up a chain of karma that will return to us in a painful way — bringing more unhappiness. It can be immediate — like being punched back; or it may take years before we receive what we deserve, such as negative public opinion or going to jail; or it may come in another lifetime — being born to cruel parents or being born with severe disabilities.

6. Have a Wholesome Philosophy of Life. This covers insights that one learns from experience or from wiser people. Below are examples:

•   Do not compare yourself with others, but attain excellence by doing your best. Comparison is a major source of dissatisfaction and unhappiness — trying to keep up with our neighbors or colleagues. There will always be people whose life situations are better or worse than us. Neither be discontented nor proud in connection with what other people have or don’t have. We set our own inner benchmarks and pursue what is meaningful to us, not what is meaningful to other people.

•   Do not double your loss. Suppose I lost a leg due to an accident. I may feel bitter and constantly blame people or circumstances for the tragedy, resulting in long term unhappiness. What I don’t realize is that I have just doubled my loss — I have lost a leg, and I have lost my happiness. Why don’t I just stop at one loss, and retain my capacity for being cheerful and happy?

•   See the larger picture of life. Life is not just about jobs or income or social status. It is about growth of the soul towards perfection from life to life. This is a basic insight that has been known in the spiritual traditions of both east and west, whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic (Sufi) and other mystical movements. The psychologist Abraham Maslow describes such a growth direction as self-actualization and self-transcendence.

•   We create our destiny. Many people are passive victims of circumstances. Wiser people are aware that it is within our power to (a) change our attitudes towards our circumstances, and (b) we can alter our future circumstances by sowing the right seeds of karma at every moment.

The Two Parts of the Self

One of the most important facets of self-understanding and self-mastery is the realization that our different levels of consciousness can be divided into two groupings: (1) the lower self, consisting of our physical body (part of which is the etheric double with its prana or life energy), the emotional body, and the lower mind. This is call the personality. (2) the higher or inner self, consisting of our abstract mind, our transcendent consciousness, and the universal consciousness. This is also called the individuality

These two groups are often represented by two triangles, an upper upright triangle for the higher self, and an inverted triangle for the lower self.

The lower self or personality is a product of conditioning and influences. It produces the different habits and reaction patterns. It tends to resist things that go against the habit. For example, if I don’t do physical exercise, my body will resist efforts to start doing exercise. If I have the habit of smoking, the body will resist efforts to stop smoking. If I’m used to lying or exaggerating, I will have difficulties trying to be honest.

Unfortunately, not all of the habits of the lower personality are wholesome or helpful. Some of them in fact are destructive. Some go contrary to one’s highest ideals or aspirations.

The higher individuality or higher triangle, on the other hand, is impersonal. It sees things more objectively and not on the basis of likes or dislikes. It sees that smoking is harmful or should be stopped even if the body has acquired the habit. It sees something as right or wrong, regardless of whether an action will gain or lose advantages.

Throughout our life, we face these conflicts between the higher individuality and the lower personality. This is what St. Paul was speaking about when he stated: “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Rom 7:15) Helena Blavatsky similarly exhorts that it is one’s duty “to control and conquer, through the Higher, the lower self.” (Key to Theosophy)

The more mature a person is, the more the individuality prevails in action or decisions. Such actions tend to be wiser and conducive to internal harmony. On the other hand, people who allow the lower habits to prevail become prisoners of the past and are unable to rise above their conditionings.

What can we do to start letting the Higher Self become the dominant factor in one’s life?

Start with small things that are doable. Suppose you are not inclined to do 30 minutes jogging due to laziness. Then just make a small effort to do 2 minutes. But once you decide to do 2 minutes, then do so even if the body resists. Just do it. When you triumph for the first time, something is beginning to happen unconsciously. The inner will is beginning to assert itself, and the lower self is beginning to give way. Do it again another time, perhaps for 3 minutes or 5 minutes. Just do it because you say so. When you have repeated these doable decisions, you may notice that there will come a point when you will be able to assert over your laziness and do the 30-minute jogging.

This kind of self-training may make a major difference in your life. After your inner will has become strong enough, you can undertake major decisions or new behaviors that can change the direction of your life, such as writing 30 minutes every day, or reading 30 minutes every day, or playing the piano 30 minutes daily. When the higher will is strong, then one can reach one’s highest potential.

Who Are We?

There are two kinds of knowledge that are most important in life: knowledge about the world, and knowledge about the self. In the long run, the second one is the more significant. Without self-knowledge, we will just be carried away by the pressures of the outer world. With self-knowledge, we are able to determine our own destiny. Laozi wrote: “He who knows others is wise, he who knows himself is enlightened. He who conquers others is strong, he who conquers himself is powerful.”

Gurdjieff wrote: “Without self knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave.”

How do we start in our quest for self-knowledge?

First, we need to realize that we are not just this physical body. Materialists say that there is no soul, and that our thoughts and feelings are just the byproducts of our physical brain. When we die, it’s the end, there is nothing else.

Evidence shows that this is not the case. We have higher levels of consciousness quite independent from our physical body. Scientific studies have demonstrate this, such as in near-death experiences. This has been affirmed since the ancient times in mystical and religious traditions, whether Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jewish Kabbalism. St. Paul speaks of the triune distinction of the body, soul and spirit. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of the three kinds of souls, the vegetative, the animal and the rational. But what is important is that these can be validated by our own personal experience. Let us look through them:

1. Next to our body, there is an etheric body or etheric double which can separate itself from the physical body at certain times, such as during near-death experiences. Doctors all over the world have reported authenticated cases of people who had no pulse or breath, and yet these people found themselves floating above their bodies able to see and hear what was going on. This double is the vehicle for prana or qi energy that flows through the meridians and which can be manipulated by acupuncture. The energy emanation of this body can be photographed using Kirlian photography. When it is seen by the human eye, it is described as the human aura.

2. Finer than our body and etheric double is our emotional nature, sometimes called desire body. This is the center of our feelings. It is closely connected with the etheric double, such that when we feel a feeling, energy in the etheric double surges up. For example, when we are angry, we feel this energy in our head, chest and hands.

3. Then we have a mind that has two parts: (a) the lower mind, which is also called the concrete mind. Thoughts on this level have images, sizes, colors or shapes. They are closely connected with feelings, and hence are part of our personality. (b) the higher mind or abstract mind. This is capable of understanding concepts that are abstract such as infinity or square root. This level of thinking is impersonal, and transcends what we personally like or dislike.

4. Above the mind is our transcendent consciousness. This level of experience has been described by thousands of people who have attained it since the ancient times till today. It is called mystical experience. Christians call it contemplative or spiritual consciousness, Buddhism and Hinduism call it prajna or buddhi. Many great people, whether religious or non-religious, have reported to have attained this, such as Alfred Tennyson. The psychologist Abraham Maslow called this self-transcendence.

5. Universal Consciousness. This level is spoken of by many mystics but few appear to have attained it. It is called Nirvana by Buddhists, Union by Christians, fana by Sufis and Moksha by Hindus. It entails the dissolution of the ego and the merging into one of the individual consciousness and the cosmos.

The above divisions help us in understanding many important things, such as the explanations to paranormal phenomena, such as healing, apparitions, life after death, etc. It also shows us what is our higher potential as a human being, which is the awakening of these higher inner potentials within us. It enables to gain self-mastery and thus be able to attain our life goals.

The Kite, the Sailboat and the Salmon

In the journey of life, there will always be opposition, adversities and obstacles. These can be from people, from circumstances or from events. If we are to live a successful, fulfilled, meaningful and happy life, we must know how to face these obstructions in our journey.

How do we stay strong and remain advancing forward despite powerful opposing forces? We can learn awesome lessons from three things: the kite, the sailboat and the salmon.

1. The kite – There are really two lessons here. First, despite the strong wind, the kite stays quite steady in the sky because it is connected by the string to the ground. Once the string snaps, then it will be thrown off by the winds, and will crash somewhere in an unknown place. The string must be sturdy, otherwise a strong wind will cause it to snap. In the same manner in our life, we need to be grounded or linked to a meaningful purpose, a philosophy or a principle. It can be a family, a life goal, a life mission, a wholesome philosophy, or a spiritual life. Despite the opposing wind, we stay on course because the link to that philosophy or goal is strong and clear.

A person with a strong moral fiber will not easily be carried away by temptation, by pleasure or by gainful advantage to do an unethical or unjust act.

The second lesson is that the stronger the wind, the higher the kite flies. Try flying a kite on a weak wind, and the kite falls to the ground. Hence opposition and adversities can strengthen us and make us capable to rising higher in our life, provided the string is strong and tough. Annie Besant, one of the greatest English reformers of the 19th century, wrote that if she were to live her life again, she would forego her pleasures and joys, but not her difficulties and adversities because these were the factors that built her strength of character.

2. The sailboat – the second lesson comes from sailboat, which moves only when the wind blows and pushes its sail. If the wind is going towards south, but the sailboat wants to go to the north, can the sailboat reach such an opposite destination?

Yes, it is possible. And there is something we can learn from sailboat in facing life’s opposing forces.

The travel opposite of the wind direction, the sailboat must face the wind in a diagonal northeast direction. When the wind blows from the front, the wind pushes the boat to the side. But because the boat with its rudder is at a diagonal angle, the sideward push actually pushes the boat forward to the northeast even if the wind blow south. After traveling northeast for some distance, the sailboat changes its angle and then faces northwest, moving forward again in that direction. The sailboat then advances against the wind in a zigzag manner.

(Illustration courtesy of rebrn. com/re/eli-if-ships-with-sails-are-heading-the-opposite-direction-as-th-1092918/)

So when we are facing opposing forces that seem stronger than us, we don’t face it frontally but diagonally. We resist but we continue to move forward even if at a slower pace. It’s low-key progress. It’s analogous to judo, where one makes use of the opposing force to one’s advantage.

Suppose a powerful and moneyed political opponent is oppressing you in order to silence you. To fight him frontally may mean being crushed and annihilated. Then do not do so. Stay firm and work in a non-threatening but right direction. Strengthen the work on the flanks that will eventually support your central work when the time is ripe to do so.

3. The salmon — this is a most powerful and sublime lesson from nature.

Salmons are born in high altitudes up to about 2,000 meters high from sea level (more than the height of Mt. Wilson in California). Then they swim towards the ocean and stay there for one to four years. When the time comes for them to lay eggs, they swim back to where they came from, which means that they have to swim upstream against raging waterfalls that may be five feet high or more. It seems impossible because the torrent of the falls is so strong that the salmons are pushed downwards no matter how powerfully they swim. But they never give up. So what do they do?

They leap up the falls and go to the next level. They don’t fight against the falling water. They jump above it.

(Photo courtesy of Earthjustice. org)

This is an example that teaches us that we need make leaps whenever we face apparently insurmountable odds. It is transcending the situation. This is what happens when we discover an insight or attain enlightenment. We transcend the ordinary level of struggle. An enmity can be dissolved by transcending hatred. Then one ceases to have an enemy. In Zen meditation, one transcends rational thinking. It is a leap of intuition.

Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Aurobindo of India and Benigno Aquino of the Philippines are examples political oppositionists and activists who were imprisoned by the reigning government. From the standpoint of their political struggle, they were defeated and quashed. But they leapt beyond the political arena and rose to a higher level of struggle. Like the salmon, they no longer attempted to swim against the water falls. They jumped above and beyond, and attained a high goal than the political struggle. Mandela became an icon of peace, earning him a Nobel Prize; Aurobindo became one of the great spiritual teachers of India who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Aquino lost his life and became a national hero of the Philippines, not just a President or a another powerful politician. It was his wife and son who became Presidents after he died.

The Benefits of Meditation

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Many large companies today in the United States, Japan and other countries, are encouraging their employees to learn meditation or mindfulness. One example is Google. Why? Because they found that their employees become more productive, focused and less stressed. According to the website SOS, “a 1993 study conducted in four companies in the United States and Japan showed that regular practice of meditation among employees resulted in significant improvements in job satisfaction, efficiency and productivity, as well as in work and personal relationships. Who can argue with a technique that offers such excellent benefits to both the individual and the corporation?” Steve Jobs of Apple had been practicing meditation for many years and had influenced many other CEOs among US corporations. An article in the Harvard Business Review states that “research has shown that meditation can decrease anxiety, which allows practitioners to be more resilient and handle stress better.”

More than being productive in work, meditation has important effects in one’s life. It makes us aware of our true life directions and we notice thoughts, reactions and behaviors that are not aligned to such basic directions. We do not get carried away by the patterns of our past habits and the pressure of our environment. We thus are able to live a more meaningful life. The deeper purpose of meditation is to be able to attain the highest potentials of our growth. It is what is called self-actualization or self-transcendence by the psychologist Abraham Maslow. It enables a person to enter into the mystical stages of human growth to our highest level of maturity.

How do we practice meditation? There are a number of well-known classic meditational approaches. Their  basic principles are essentially similar. Below is one standard method:

1. Start with twenty minutes of self-awareness each day, preferably in the morning upon waking up. Sit cross-legged on your bed or sit on a chair at a location of your choice where you will not be disturbed by people coming and going.

2. Keep your spine straight; breathing normal; with eyes closed or half-open.

3. Be aware of your body and check whether there is any discomfort or tension. If there is, then feel it and allow it to relax when you breathe out. When the body gets relaxed, you will notice that your emotions also calm down naturally.

4. Then be aware of your breathing. As you breathe in, mentally count “one.” When you breathe out, mentally count “two.” Breathe in, count “three,” breathe out, count “four.” Continue counting up to “ten,” after which start again from “one.”

5. When your mind gets distracted by other thoughts, just return to the counting. If the mind goes away a hundred times, then be aware of it and just gently return to the counting a hundred times. Later you will notice that it will get less and less distracted. While you are meditating you will notice that there is an inner space in our consciousness that has no boundary. This space is awareness itself, something that we usually don’t notice.

6. When you end the meditation session, try to sustain this inward awareness for a minute or so while you are back to normal activity.

After you have practiced meditation for a week or two, you will notice a difference in the way that you interact with the world and with people. You are no longer as reactive to things as before, and you will tend to respond in a more calm and balanced way. You will be less prone to anger and less impatient. You will be more capable of spontaneous joy.

Being Effective With People Without Anger

In the previous article, the way to dissipate past accumulated anger through breathing and self-awareness was discussed. A second aspect of this issue is to find a more effective approach in dealing with problems with people without the use of anger.
Anger is not a good or effective habit. When we have problems or conflicts, the best way to approach the issues is through reason and compassion. Not only is the rational approach more effective, but it brings about an inner calm after an issue is resolved. This is the way to approach people issues whether one is a parent, businessperson, teacher, professional, politician, etc. I know of people who are very effective in their work without having to resort to anger. One businessman, for example, who runs two companies which are among the largest in the Philippines, is very effective not only in business (which are profitable) but in personnel management. In the more thirty years that I have observed him very closely, I have never seen him get angry or even irritated. Yet he solves each problem swiftly and effectively through a rational approach.
In Golden Link College, teachers are trained so that they are effective in handling students without having to resort to anger or punishment. There are many parents who have brought their children up in a wholesome way without the use of anger, threats and punishment.
Below are two suggested steps in becoming more effective in dealing with people in situations of conflict.
First is to nurture self-awareness in one’s daily life. Every time that there is a problem, a threat or a crisis, we will notice that the body reacts in tension. Energy surges within which wants to act in an aggressive and violent way. Be aware of this, and feel these physical tensions (chest, head, shoulder, stomach, etc.) as we do deep breathing, and we will notice that they subside after a few minutes. By being constantly aware, this habit to burst in anger will disappear.
Second is to have a effective rational approach in problem solving that will be a substitute to anger. For example, you have a newly hired assistant to do certain task and to report to you regularly. You teach him how to do the task. Tomorrow, he fails to report or makes a mistaken report. No need to get angry. Consider that this failure may be due to inadequate training by you or a misunderstanding of your instruction. Devote a certain time to re-train this assistant and double check if he has understood your instruction by asking him to re-explain the procedure. The next time he reports, he commits the same mistake. If you are sure that your training was adequate, then it means that the assistant has a problem. Tell him that it seems that he is not prepared to do the task that you are asking him to do. Ask him if he has any problem about it. If he says that there is none, and that he promises to be accurate, then tell him that he will be given another chance but that he may have to be transferred or relieved if he makes the same mistake. Later, he makes again the same mistake. Then sit down and discuss with him that he will have to be transferred or he will have to resign because he is finding it difficult to do the task he is assigned to. The assistant will not complain or feel bad because you have been very reasonable and supportive. Then act on his transfer or termination. All these are done without anger or frustration.
Dealing with children is similar. Talk to your child without threat or anger. Explain with kindness and patience. Help them succeed in doing what needs to be done.
A rational and compassionate approach is perhaps the most effective approach to handling people problems, including issues in the family. It requires a clear mind and a firm will. It elicits respect, it is not offensive or degrading and fosters long-term loyalty and a loving relationship.

Managing Anger

Anger is one of the most destructive among human emotions. It creates problems in relationship, especially in the family. It also affects one’s soundness of judgment. It is the cause of most homicidal crimes. It is the emotion that prevents one’s capacity to love.

Many people don’t realize that when they are angry, they cannot love. The reason is simple: what do you want to do to someone whom you are angry with? You want to hurt him or her. It does not matter if the person is your husband, wife, child or parent. You want to hurt them either physically, emotionally or psychologically. How can we love someone whom we want to hurt? At the moment of anger, we are incapable of loving.

This tendency to want to hurt has instinctive roots. Animals feel this surge of aggressive energy throughout its body when it has to defend itself or to attack. We will notice that when we are angry, we too feel an energy surge within us. It is felt in the head as heat. In the body, arms and legs, the energy surge wants to come out, sometimes causing the body to tremble. The arms and hands want to hit something. That’s why some people punch the wall or kick a table because they need to release the energy. When they speak they tend to raise their voice or shout because of the need to express this energy.

Unfortunately, this instinctive reaction, while important for survival among animals, is highly destructive in human beings. It prevents us from being rational in the way we handle conflicts and problems. By being aggressive, we create more conflicts and problems in our family, workplace and relationships. It also harms our health because anger produces toxic substances within our system that lowers our immune system.

How do we handle this energy called anger? There are two aspects to it: past accumulated anger, and present anger. The latter is often the triggering of the former. So it is important to remove past accumulated anger. Since the ancient times, many people have known how to release this in a non-destructive manner. It is done this way.
When you think of a person or event that had caused you anger before, you will notice this surge of energy within you. Your heartbeat may become faster, your chest may feel heavy (like a ball or a flat board), or you may feel pressure in your head. When you feel these, go into deep abdominal breathing (about 5 seconds breathing in, and 6 seconds breathing out). When you breathe in, feel the pressure on your chest or head or any other uncomfortable sensation that you may feel. When you breathe out, feel or be aware of your arms and legs. Do not try to remove or push away the discomfort. Just feel it. You will notice that the energy begins to flow by itself and then you may feel tingling sensations or numbness on your fingers or feet. This means it is now releasing. It may take 5 minutes or 30 minutes to release this fully, depending upon the situation. While doing the deep breathing, do not think of the person or event anymore. Just be aware of your bodily sensations, until the entire discomfort disappears. This brings you back to a restful or relaxed state after it is released. You may feel sleepy or tired after you have released it, then just rest. You can repeat this exercise until you don’t feel any uncomfortable reaction anymore when you think of the person or event.