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.

What’s the Most Important Thing in Life?

If you only have a month to live, how would you spend that one month?

One Saturday, this question suddenly popped into my mind while I was on my way to a christening of a one-year-old boy. Later on I googled this question and found a lot of people tried to answer the question online. The bottom line is that almost all of them said that would spend the last one month with people close to them, especially with their family. None of them said that they will spend more time in their work. One said he would like to travel but with the company of his family and close friends.

On that Saturday, I was attending the christening of my grandson, after which we would go for a family lunch, and thence I had to proceed to moderate a strategic planning meeting of a foundation, and then have visitors at the house. I was also trying to write articles on that day. I had so many appointments and things-to-do, but I realized as I was walking towards the church that when the chips are down, one thing stands out as more important than all the rest: the family and loved ones.

There was an angle to this insight that was striking. I had “known” before about how important people are. I had spoken about it often in my talks. But I never saw it from this angle. Our final choice in devoting the rest of our earthly life to a small group of people speaks volumes about our philosophy of life and the meaning of our lives.

When Steve Jobs decided to seclude himself with his family when he was told he had a very short time to live, the reaction of people I know was one of approval, sympathy and agreement. They would do the same thing if they were in the same situation.

The good news is that giving importance to positive relationships has been empirically found to be the most important ingredient towards the attainment to some of the most important goals in human life: happiness, health and long life.

In 1938, Harvard University launched a ground-breaking research that is still ongoing till today, 80 years later. Called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, they studied 724 people, some of whom were sophomores from Harvard and others from the poorer areas of Boston. The research tracked their health, marriage, career, relationships, income and other personal factors with interviews every other year. Three books have been written on this study by its first Director, Dr. George Vaillant. He made the following conclusion: “Warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction’ . . . Happiness is love. Full stop.”

The current director of the study, Dr. Robert Waldinger, after reviewing the tens of thousands of pages of data, expanded the conclusion: “People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected.”

Dr. David Myers, an internationally famous author of textbooks on psychology and the author of the book The Pursuit of Happiness, wrote down what he considered as the “Ten Commandments Of Happiness.” The first one was that materials success does not necessarily make people happy. The second was that close relationships with people around you contributes a lot to happiness.

Next time that we find yourself so busy that you hardly have time for anything else, pause for twenty seconds and ask yourself what are the most important things in life. Then from deep in your heart, act accordingly.

Competence: A Crucial Quality of a Young Adult

 

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People get stressed when they are faced with a problem that is quite beyond their competency to solve, but which they are expected to solve. They know that they have to solve it, but they are unsure on how to go about it. As unsolved problems mount, the greater is the stress and unhappiness of the person.

Stress levels rise proportionately to the magnitude of the gap between expected competence and actual competence. A graduate of a good university is expected to perform well in a job that they applied for, while an employee who did not even finish college will not be expected to meet such standards. Farmers can live a happy life even if they did not go to school. No one expects them to know more than farming. But if even in farming, they don’t seem to do the job well, then they will feel the pressure of their wives and the criticism of their neighbors. Stress and distress begin.

There are two kinds of competency: technical competency and personal competency. It is the second one that is more important.

Technical competency means that an electrical engineer knows the job of an electrical engineer and possesses the requisite knowledge of the profession. An accountant knows how to complete financial statements and do all the ledgers, accrual basis, bank reconciliation and other things an accountant should know. When one is an accountant and has inadequate knowledge and skills about accounting, the person will feel stressed because he or she knows that the expectation is valid, but he or she is unable to deliver that which he implicitly promised to deliver.

Young people therefore must realize at a young age what it means to be professionally competent and to have the initiative to attain this regardless of the educational standard of the school they find themselves in. With Youtube, Khan Academy, Wikipedia, and a host of free resources in the internet, anyone can learn practically anything on a sufficiently high level.

But it is the second competency that is truly important — personal competency. This covers a host of qualities that are truly valuable in a person: self-confidence, self-esteem, initiative, curiosity, willingness to learn, stick-to-it-iveness, resourcefulness, perseverance, result-orientedness, emotional intelligence, leadership, unselfishness, trustworthiness, volunteerism and similar qualities. If it is overlaid with cheerfulness, optimism, and compassion, then you have someone who is destined for success in any field that they get into. A person who has these qualities can learn almost any skill or technical competency.

Personal competency is a quality that is nurtured from early childhood. When children are not put down (“idiot,” “dumb,” “useless”), frequently criticized or humiliated, then they do not develop low self-esteem, a factor that drags personal competency down to a very low level even if they are actually intelligent. On the other hand, when they feel accepted as they are, receive sincere praises when deserving, and feel that they are loved, then they are developing a personality foundation that will be solid and stable, and which can sustain them even during times of trial, adversity and setback. They will grow up not fearing failure or making mistakes. They are willing to take measured risks. They are ready to apologize when it is due. The world to them will not be a hellish or oppressive place, and life will be a positive adventure and a happy experience.

It is unfortunate that many schools do not teach this second kind of competency as systematically as they teach mathematics and grammar. Unfortunate too is the fact that many parents are the primary demolisher of such personal competency.

These then are what parents and schools should look at: the development of technical competency and personal competency, and to remember that the second one is more important than the first.

The Gateway to an Awesome Universe

Physicists speculate about a possible parallel universe beyond what we can see with our senses. But there is no need to break the barrier of time and space to look for such a universe. It is already accessible to anyone right here and now — provided one knows how to read books. Inside the pages of books lie universes that can be so awesome and fantastic. The possibilities of existence are limited only by the human imagination.

The scientist and author Carl Sagan wrote:

“Books . . . permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate — with the best teachers — the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses.” (The Demon-Haunted World, pp. 335-6)

One of the greatest gifts my mother gave to me was the love of reading. I can’t imagine what I would be now if I didn’t appreciate reading books. Biographies, histories, sciences, the mysteries of the mind, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, spirituality, God or gods, Big Bang, black holes — all those things that are beyond the scope of what we can personally experience or what other people can personally tell us about. All those would have been unknown to me if I did not learn how to read. How rich and wonderful life has become just because of books!

In our school, I encourage all teachers and students to read. It is the doorway not just to an interesting and abundant life, but it is also a very important key to success in life. I have interviewed countless applicants in our companies, and I invariably find that the people who have the most potential are those who love reading, particularly when they apply as teachers. They can rise up to higher responsibilities because they understand things more deeply and have wider comprehension of things. They can learn by themselves without depending on another person. They absorb the lessons of life of other people. They have insights about society, politics, history, science, or philosophy and apply in them in their life, work and mission.

Bill Gates, for a long time the richest man in the world, reads one book a week. Warren Buffett, the second or third richest man, spends 80% of his time reading.

Carl Sagan cites a survey of the US Department of Education on the difference between readers and non-readers:

“Only four per cent of those at the highest reading level are in poverty, but 43 per cent of those at the lowest reading level are. . . . In general the better you read, the more you make — an average of about $12,000 a year at the lowest of these reading levels, and about $34,000 a year at the highest.” (Ibid., p. 336)

Parents should introduce to their toddlers the wonderful world of books by telling them stories and showing them pictures in books. Bring children to bookstores and allow them to choose what they like to read.

When my children were still young, we would go out every week and our favorite place to go was National Bookstore. They were free to buy what they wanted within the limits of a certain budget. But if they bought books, then there was no limit to their budget. This nurtured in them an interest in reading.

Some may say that smart and talented people may succeed without reading books. Yes, that’s possible, but quite improbable in the modern world where technology, knowledge and information have burgeoned astronomically. It has been estimated that knowledge in the world doubles every 13 months, whereas it was every 100 years in 1900. Without reading, it is impossible to catch up with essential knowledge.

IQ or intelligence quotient rises up with reading. This is not just because of additional knowledge but also because of the increase in one’s vocabulary. Every time that we learn a new concept found in a word, the brain creates new neural connections that will adapt to the new idea. An example is the term singularity when we speak about black holes. Something in the brain must adjust in order to appreciate this new concept. Another is the word “paradigm.”When we try to understand these words, we understand additional dimensions of existence, not simply things like tables and chairs. I recently finished the new novel of Dan Brown entitled Origin. It is an awesome blend of science and fiction and it widened my intellectual horizons in a direction I hardly considered before.

Read at least 30 minutes to one hour everyday, no matter how busy you are. Always bring a book or ebook with you, read it or them while you are traveling by bus or train, when you are waiting for something, or before you go to sleep. Look up every new word that you encounter. Share with other people new ideas that you have read. Let your reading help you build a productive and meaningful life.