What does it mean to be happy?

Published 20 March 2014  |  

(Photo: doriana s)

Today is the UN's International Day of Happiness and in honour of that occasion, Christian Today talks to Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College and co-founder of the pressure group Action for Happiness which lobbies Government to make the issue of the population's happiness, not just their bank balance, central to their policy decisions.

CT: How from a Christian perspective would you define happiness?

AS: There are three clear, but very different, experiences: pleasure, happiness, and joy. Pleasure is always related to material ends. Food and drink for example. It's always linked to the sensual feelings and things like that. Always personal experience.

Happiness is a much more profound sense and comes from a sense of being loved and being in relationships. It also comes from a sense of goodness, a sense of one having done a good job and being part of something.

Joy is a purely religious experience that cannot be willed, cannot be bought, and comes often when you least expect it.

Those are three very clear states in my outlook and experience.

CT: What in the Bible would you base your thinking on in particular?

AS: The key Biblical expression would come from Psalm 46:10 which says: "Be still and know that I am God."

This has been profoundly ignored over the centuries, always with bad consequences. One cannot be still and commit evil.

The experience of stillness is infinite, it just goes deeper and deeper. Man, in his or her wish to order the world as they see fit, constantly overlooks that core injunction.

In a spiritual sense, I see this stillness as making a connection to God.

CT: How does one go about seeking out this 'stillness' that you talk about? Does it begin with being physically still?

AS: Well, being physically still can help, but there have been many greatly spiritual people who have been very busy and yet have also had a great stillness about them.

Only in stillness can you have a true connection to God. In stillness there is the letting go of the ego, the individual personality, its wants and wishes. That is the constant barrier between the self and the divine.

After all, God is ever present, so the question is what is stopping us from reaching out and connecting with him. And the answer is it's because we don't want to. The ego, which is constantly wanting things, is constantly moving. That's what's stopping us from making that connection.

If we quieten our egos and learn to be still in our day to day lives, we will be acting from a deeper part of ourselves.

If we can become happier as people, we are helping those around us. It isn't a selfish thing.
Dr Anthony Seldon

It is a common thing to hear from those in advancing years that they wish they'd spent more time with their children, or they wish they'd spent more time doing the things they loved. It's also common to hear people say that the anticipation of an event is often better than the event itself.

What being still does is to help us make the most of events. The people who eagerly await something, maybe a holiday, maybe a wedding, a party, a trip, all these kinds of things, they often report afterwards that the actual thing they were awaiting was somewhat unsatisfying. That is because they're completely unstill during it.

In stillness, one experiences relationships and events on a deeper level. The reason being that the mind is quieter. There's less mental chatter. People can rest more clearly on the person in front of them, or the event they're engaged with, and you can feel more present and more in the moment.

So many people rush their way through their jobs, their marriages, their children. Then they wake up at the age of 66 and think "my goodness, where did all that go? I would love to have it back!"

The experience of being still is truly immersing one's self in what one has, which is a sacred responsibility.

Through doing this, one enjoys food much more. One enjoys nature, art, music, all these sort of things, the mind enjoys them much more.

This is something we all have to work on all the time. It's certainly something I know I haven't fully grasped. In a short while I shall be off to visit my wife at the hospital and when I'm there I will be trying to be still, trying to keep my attention present, trying to not have my mind scattered.

I wouldn't want your readers to think that because I'm speaking on all this that I'm someone who has this completely perfected. It is always an ongoing process, which you get better at with time.

It's very hard work, because one has to learn to let go and undo the habits of a lifetime.

CT: You mentioned earlier that fulfilment is a part of happiness, a part of being still. Could you expand on that? What's the best way to find fulfilment in one's work?

AS: Well it has to do with working hard, being conscientious, and being valued. You see this in students and pupils in schools all the time, they're much happier when they know they've done a good job, and when they're working hard on something.

This also happens in a family when loving relationships are transitive. People might not stand up and shout that they're happy, but they will feel it. Happiness is often one of those things where when you start to think about it, it tends to suddenly evaporate, because you are removing yourself from the immediate experience.

CT: You're part of a group that lobbies for more focus in schools and the curriculum on how to be happy. How would you propose happiness be taught?

AS: I set up a group called Action for Happiness, a national group that began in April 2011. There are three of us, I'm the religious one, there is one who is semi-religious, and one who isn't religious. That group is for people of faith and people of no-faith.

We talk about a ten point code, and this isn't advocating an alternative to Christianity. I think many Christians and many church leaders will benefit from studying this list and the approach it is based on. It's all implicit or explicit in the Old and New Testaments.

(Photo: Ivette Ferrero)

One of the ten ways is to be appreciative and to value what we have. We know that optimism can be learned, and pessimism can be learned. We are much better to be around when we are optimistic, when we are energy givers rather than energy sappers.

So we help people learn how to take a more optimistic view on life and how to be more appreciative. One of the things we advocate is that everyone, before they go to sleep, thinks about three things that day that they were appreciative of.

Another point is to serve others. If we are people who devote our lives to serving others and looking after others, this will make us happier. It's not possible to be genuinely looking after others and be unhappy.

There's also one of the points that calls for a focus on looking after one's self physically. Exercise, good nutrition, things like that. I think this is an area where the Church could do more to articulate things better.

If we are eating too much or too little, or the wrong thing, if we're drinking too much, or sleeping too little or too much, we won't be happy and we won't be as good for others.

There are another seven which I could go into, but I think it would be too long right now. All of these though are either directly or indirectly Biblically referenced.

CT: You're also involved in advocating the measurement of happiness.  How do you go about that?

AS: Well, this is actually the Government's doing, they're going about it via the Office for National Statistics. It's something I applaud because when governments make decisions, in the past they often haven't looked at the wellbeing of people affected by the decision, they've mostly looked at it in terms of economics.

If you're considering the happiness and wellbeing of people affected if you close down say a railway line or a bus route, a village school or a community centre, your decision may end up being different.

What people should be looking at is the impact of those decisions on a community. If they are clearly unhappy about something, one should look at that policy very carefully, and maybe not go ahead with it.

In terms of ways of measuring happiness, there are two main ways. There's simply asking them, surveys and so on. But that's very subjective so it's very difficult to be sure of.

The second way is looking at impulses in the brain, and looking for activity and patterns of activity that are known to be related to happiness. When you're happy, your body produces a different set of chemicals and the brain reacts to things in a different way compared to when you are heavy and lethargic and sad. But this is still a pretty unreliable area, and pretty impractical to do en masse.

CT: What would you say to people who criticise the search for happiness you describe as being self-centred or self-serving?

AS: I think that unhappiness and selfishness often go together. We know people can be trapped in cycles of negativity and depression.

Unhappiness in one person can ripple out into one's friends, one's family and those around them. I want to be very careful how I say this, but I know how terribly depressing it is for parents to have unhappy children.

If we then flip that on its head, if we are around people who are genuinely happy, not happy because they've taken pills or because they're drunk or they've just won the lottery or gotten a bonus. To be around people who are genuinely happy lifts others. It gives energy rather than takes it away.

Therefore if we can become happier as people, we are helping those around us. It isn't a selfish thing. It's a selfless quest.

I think it is important for all of us to find our calling, and make our journey from the ego to the soul. The soul that never wants anything for itself, that is always good, always loving, and always kind. That is what life is all about.

Happiness is the unlooked for by-product of making that journey. The deeper along that journey you go, the more you experience joy.

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