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Be Happy

by Robert Holden

The following excerpt is taken from the new book Be Happy, by Robert Holden, Ph.D. It is published by Hay House (April 2009) and is available at all bookstore or online at www.amazon.com.

A Happiness Timeline

Happiness is a learning curve.

There are plenty of learning curves to choose from. Traditionally, many of us have used pain and suffering and sacrifice and failure as our chief learning curves. If this is true for you, you have probably attended the school of hard knocks, and you have employed grief and heartache as your teachers. It is well to remember, however, that you can also choose from a range of more pleasant learning curves, such as love as a learning curve, authenticity as a learning curve, and success as a learning curve.

You choose your learning curve. No one or nothing else makes this choice for you.

“The Happiness Timeline” is an inquiry exercise based on the idea that we can all be students of happiness and that happiness can be our learning curve of choice. To introduce this exercise I work with a “focus person” at the front of the room. The way I pick my “volunteer” is great fun—for me! I have a big top hat, like a magician’s hat, which holds the names of the students on individual bits of paper. I simply put my hand into the hat, and out comes the name of the “volunteer.” Ta-da! Amazingly, all the volunteers tell me they just knew they were going to be picked.

My volunteer comes to the front of the room and stands before three pieces of legal-size paper. Each piece of paper has one word written on it, and the word represents a particular focus for the exercise. I begin by inviting my volunteer to close his or her eyes, take a few deep breaths, and then start to tune in to feelings of true happiness. I encourage the volunteer to feel and sense happiness in the mind, in the heart, and in the cells of the body, in order to “listen” rather than “think,” and thereby participate with his or her whole being.

I now invite my volunteer to step forward and stand on the first piece of paper, which has the word “PAST” written on it in large capital letters. I say, “As you step onto ‘The Past,’ take a few moments to reflect on the story of your life and on your relationship to happiness.” The key question for this part of the inquiry is, What has your life taught you about happiness so far? Again, I emphasize listening, not thinking. What ensues is a rich conversation full of valuable insights about past events, relationships, successes, wounds, lessons, and joys.

I encourage you, dear reader, to reflect on this great question. Here is a wonderful opportunity to honor your major life lessons on happiness. One way to do this is to make a list of the top five lessons of happiness your life has taught you so far. Write down each lesson, specifically. Recall when you learned the lesson. Name the names of anyone else involved. And assess as honestly as you can a) how learning this lesson has influenced your life and b) how well you have learned this lesson (so that it doesn’t have to be repeated!).

Next, my volunteer steps forward onto the second piece of paper, which has the word “NOW” written on it in large capital letters. Here I say, “Reflect on what is happening currently in your life, in your relationships, and in your work. Notice any major themes. Be aware of any conflict. Take into account any feelings of great joy.” The key question for this part of the inquiry is, What is your life asking you to learn about happiness now? Again, I invite you to reflect on what your life wants you to learn about happiness right now.

Last, my volunteer steps forward onto the third piece of paper, which has the word “FUTURE” written on it. My instruction here is, “Imagine you have now stepped into your future. Take a few moments to review all your wishes for the future. Then see if you can identity any major life lessons on happiness you still have to learn.” When people are honest with themselves, they can identify the lessons they still need to learn about happiness. Sometimes it’s an old lesson, or a current lesson, or a new lesson they haven’t paid attention to until now.

A variation on this exercise is to imagine for a moment that you have visited planet Earth in order to learn one major life lesson about happiness. I call this your “ULTIMATE” happiness lesson. This lesson is so important because it underpins the overall purpose of your life. If you were to learn this lesson really well, it would radically improve your relationships, your work, your health, and everything else about your life. I encourage you to take some time now, or very soon, to identify this ultimate lesson and to benefit from your happiness learning curve.

Thinking about Happiness

Happiness is the new darling of the social sciences. Every day sees the publication of new findings from intriguing studies on “happiness and money,” “happiness and culture,” “gross national happiness,” “happiness and the brain,” “happiness and work,” “happiness and marriage,” and “happiness and spirituality.” This collective inquiry into happiness has gained the attention of us all, including politicians, economists, schoolteachers, health professionals, church leaders, and business leaders.

In the spring of 2006, the BBC science department marked the 10th anniversary of the BBC TV QED documentary called “How to Be Happy” (based on my happiness course) by broadcasting a new six-part series called The Happiness Formula.4 Series producer Mike Rudin and writer-presenter Mark Easton did an excellent job in presenting a most comprehensive mix of happiness surveys, experiments, and opinion polls—many of which challenge us to rethink our most basic assumptions about life and how to be happy.

The Happiness Formula’s inquiry confirmed the existing evidence of a worldwide decline in happiness levels in recent decades. “The proportion of people saying they are ‘very happy’ has fallen from 52 percent in 1957 to just 36 percent today,” reported Mark Easton. Worse still, the number of adults diagnosed with depression or other serious mental illnesses has increased tenfold. Also, a worldwide report by UNICEF on the “critically low levels” of well-being among our children has called for an honest appraisal by government and society of how we live.5

An inquiry into happiness is an opportunity to rethink your life. As you deepen your happiness inquiry you get to test the truth of all of your assumptions and beliefs. Sometimes your inquiry will confirm what you already know to be true, and other times it will ask you to let go of ideas that you may have identified strongly with until now. Thinking about happiness takes great personal honesty and courage, but the rewards are also great. Below are five examples of how thinking about happiness can help you to get clearer about everything else that truly matters.

Rethink #1: Happiness and Money. When people are asked what they need to enjoy “the good life,” the most common answer is, “Show me the money!” This is the right answer, at least to begin with, if you are either one of the three billion people living in the Third World who earn just $2 a day. “Once the gross national product exceeds $8,000 per person, however, the correlation [between purchasing power and happiness] disappears and added wealth brings no further life satisfaction,” reports Professor Martin Seligman.6

The majority of people’s big game plan for increased happiness is to earn more money. The fact is, however, that while money helps to take care of life’s basic needs, after that it doesn’t do much for us. Even the very wealthy, such as Forbes 100 club members, who earn millions a year just in interest from their savings, are only slightly happier than the average person—and in some cases they are less happy. Seligman concludes most forcibly,

The change in purchasing power over the last half century in the wealthy nations carries the same message: real purchasing power has more than doubled in the United States, France and Japan, but life satisfaction has changed not a whit.7

Rethink #2: Happiness and Circumstances. Almost everyone agrees with the idea that if my life circumstances improve, my levels of happiness will increase. This is the basis for almost every political and economic strategy the world over. And yet the scientific inquiry into happiness dismisses this theory out of hand. One leading researcher, Richard Kammann, of New Zealand, reports, “Objective life circumstances have a negligible role to play in a theory of happiness.” Even a big improvement in circumstances, like winning the lottery, has been found to give people only a temporary uplift. Most researchers agree that over the long term, life circumstances influence happiness levels by 10 percent at most.

Rethink #3: Happiness and Education. A popular theory in society today is that a better education will create more happiness for our children. This has resulted in more tests for preschoolers, more focus on regular exams, and more money spent on private education. Surely a better education increases happiness, doesn’t it? “Sorry, Mom and Dad, neither education nor, for that matter, a high IQ paves the road to happiness,” states Claudia Wallis, who compiled a report called “The New Science of Happiness” for TIME magazine.9 Clearly, the scientific inquiry into happiness is challenging us to rethink what a “better education” really is.

Rethink #4: Happiness and the Future. So, at least we can expect to be happier in the future, right? Wrong! Longitudinal happiness studies that record the happiness levels of subjects over the course of 20 years suggest that the best predictor for how happy you will be in the future is how happy you choose to be now. The fact is, the future won’t make you happy. Why? Because nothing is going to make you happy. That’s right, not even shopping. Let me clarify what I mean by sharing one of my conclusions from my first book on happiness, called Happiness NOW! The conclusion is:

Nothing in the world can make you happy, but

everything in the world can encourage you to

be happy.10

Interestingly, what the happiness research has taught the researchers is that their initial inquiry into happiness is based on a limited line of questions like “What determines happiness?” and “What makes you happy?” What the researchers need to do now in order to advance their inquiry is to ask new questions, like “What does happiness mean to you?” and “What have you learned about happiness?” and “How do you choose happiness?”

Rethink #5: Happiness and You. The modern scientific inquiry into happiness recognizes that everyone can be happy. Happiness does not discriminate. It is an equal-opportunity provider. Leading researchers David Myers and Ed Diener conclude, in their article entitled “Who Is Happy?”: “Happiness and life-satisfaction are similarly available to the young and the old, women and men, blacks and whites, the rich and the working-class.” Happiness research teaches us that the “enduring characteristics of the individual” are more important to happiness than external life circumstances.11

Happiness researchers have recently begun to study the “very happy” people for more lessons on happiness. This inquiry is also challenging us to rethink major life issues. For instance, researchers have found a correlation between high happiness scores and marriage. It is too simplistic, however, to say that marriage makes you happy. If that is the case, why are divorce rates soaring? Clearly, we need to deepen the inquiry into happiness and marriage and explore the influence of, for instance, love, forgiveness, intimacy, shared purpose, communication, and kindness.

Researchers who study the “very happy” have also found a strong link between religion and happiness. Again, however, it is not enough to say that religion makes you happy. If that is the case, why are fewer people attending church these days? The inquiry into religion and happiness has to examine more deeply, for instance, the influence of a living faith, the need for meaning and purpose, a belief in a loving God, a sense of oneness, and a spirituality that is bigger than any one religious book.

I firmly believe that the more we learn about the nature of true happiness, the better we will learn to live. I will close this chapter now with the concluding remarks of Mark Easton, the writer-presenter of the BBC series The Happiness Formula. He said,

The logic of the new science [of happiness] is breathtaking. If it is right it requires us to rethink some of our most basic assumptions about how we work, how we live, and what we are trying to achieve. In short, the science of happiness may provide us with a new definition of what we mean by human progress.12

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