For the last few years, around my birthday, I have been going for a short holiday with my daughter . Without our realizing it, and unintentionally, it has become a quiet ritual. For me, it is a great way of celebrating my birthday.
Last time, as we sat on a rock somewhere in the wilderness, the talk went to ,” What do you think is the meaning of life, I mean why are we born?” We had lots of discussion and ultimately we left it for some other day, because the discussion was going every which way and nowhere. Some things on which we agreed was that life is like a journey, we are part of a big ecosystem in which every person every particle, every insect has a purpose just like every part of a machine has a role to play in the running of the machine. Another thing that we sort of agreed upon was that while we are going through the journey of life our goal should be to be happy as far as possible, as often as possible. By the way, I am not sure whether we had this conversation in real life or in my dream that day, but we had it and next day morning I did start the conversation (this time definitely real) again with a question.
“Are you happy?” I asked her. “Are you?” She shot back without answering my question. I said Yes. She asked ,” What makes you so sure and how do you define happiness?” I started searching for the answer. Suddenly I realized that it was not such a simple question and the answer could not possibly be a one word Yes or No. Is the absence of sorrow equal to happiness? How can that be? We could not come to a conclusion or agreement about how to define happiness, so we let it go and went on with our day’s routine. The thought lingered and after we returned home, I began to study the subject of happiness.
I went through many articles, Ted talks and discussions with some friends. In the process I stumbled upon some great books and a lot of research done on this subject. The thoughts and theories that appealed to me the most were by Dr. Martin Seligman. Positive psychology is a subject almost invented by Dr. Seligman. Most psychologists and theories are about reducing the misery of depression not about creating happiness but making the sadness tolerable. He is a pioneer in this field and has done a lot of work to change mindsets about happiness. He brought this rather revolutionary concept that happiness could actually be measured and relative scores could be assigned. Dr. Martin Seligman, founder and Director of Center for Positive Psychology University of Pennsylvania USA says that Optimism can be learnt, cultivated and depressed people don’t have to focus on reducing the negative impact of their situation but have a right to create happy lives. That is what defines Positive Psychology. Two of Dr. Martin Seligman’s books, Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism made wonderful reading and led to a lot more thinking, deliberations and discussions on the subject of happiness. I would suggest that people should read at least one of the two books, Authentic Happiness if you have to read only one. If you are interested you can listen to one of the TED talks Martin has given on this subject (see bottom of this article) or the numerous videos available on Youtube. You also can visit his website at UPenn.
There are many others working and talking about this subject. Interestingly Bhutan is a country that measures the Happiness level of their citizens rather than just their wealth. Gross National happiness Index (also known by the acronym: GNH) is a philosophy that guides the government of Bhutan. It includes an index which is used to measure the collective happiness and well-being of a population. Gross National Happiness is instituted as the goal of the government of Bhutan in the Constitution of Bhutan, enacted in 2008.
The term Gross National Happiness was coined in 1972 during an interview by a British journalist for the Financial Times at Bombay airport when the then king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, said “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”
In 2011, The UN General Assembly passed Resolution “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development” urging member nations to follow the example of Bhutan and measure happiness and well-being and calling happiness a “fundamental human goal.”
When David Cameron was the PM of England he decided to create a full fledged system of measuring the happiness of his citizens and decided to hold himself responsible for this score. Now of course England and many other countries have a ministry of Happiness. The subject is immensely interesting and amount of material available for consumption is huge.
The theory that Dr. Seligman talks about in Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness is vast but he has created a rather catchy acronym, PERMA, to define the crux of his theory. For the limited time and space here I would like to just reproduce the essence of what Dr. Martin Seligman says in this lovely acronym PERMA, sounds somewhat similar to KARMA but has nothing to do with Hindu philosophy.
P: Positive Emotions.
This could be translated simply (too simplistic probably) as Optimism. When something good happens to us, some of us make sure that we think that we did it and take credit for it, thus boosting our public image and self-confidence. However, there are many people who refuse to give themselves the credit and feel that it was some stroke of good luck or some help from someone and that next time in a similar situation they won’t be able to do so well. The same thing happens when things go wrong, the former avoids taking full blame on himself and looks forward to doing better next time while the latter sees it as his personal failure, a permanent and dreads the event next time.
The ideal of course would be if both were very objective and went by logical analysis. The fact however is that we are not always logical and the mind takes its own decisions as per the way it is programmed which is different for different people.
Looking at things optimistically, recognizing self for the good results, not taking failure as personal or permanent. Thinking of failure as temporary and looking forward to the next event with optimism is the meaning of Positive Emotion as far as I could understand it.
The words that you choose create a huge impact on your emotional state and that of those around you. There is a credible and tested system of assessing the health of corporates where in the analysts simple listen to all the words spoken during a meeting of the company’s managers. There is a scientific scoring system which predicts the future of the company based on just the words used by the Managers. Marriage counselors too record the words used by a couple in a 24 Hour period and based on that they predict the likelihood of divorce in the couple.
So, to summarize, looking at events optimistically, using positive words to describe events- optimistic language defines Positive Emotions the P of PERMA.
E: Engagement- Being with the flow.
This is a very important part of the whole theory and has been talked about by many others in different words or context. Doing more of what you enjoy doing. Enjoying more of what you are doing. Being one with the music. Discovering what you are good at and doing more of that thing. The message is simple, you are born with certain traits, in your early life you picked up certain traits and as a result you are good at some things and not so good at some things. Doing more of what you are good at is what gives you authentic Joy and Happiness.
It is not difficult to find our strengths and what we really like doing. Dr. Seligman still helps you here. On his website you find many free tests, one of them is the strength finder. It is a free test and millions of people have taken it. The test tells you about your core values or virtues.
Dr. Seligman divides core virtues in 6 broad categories and 24 sub categories. Through the test or otherwise you can understand what are you really good at. These are the values which make us happy but no one can probably have all of them in equal measure, so we need to discover where we are strong. I will quickly list the 6 core values and the usual behaviors or sub-virtues attached with each virtue.
The 6 Core Virtues defined in Martin’s book are;
Social Intelligence, Curiosity, Perspective, Love of Learning, Street Smartness.
Perseverance, Honesty, Bravery.
Kindness, Generosity, Loving, Giving without expecting back.
Fairness, Loyalty, Leadership.
Self-control, Caution, Modesty.
Enthusiasm, forgiveness, Appreciation, Faith, Humor, Gratitude.
Once you are clear about your own top 5 virtues, you need to apply more and more of them in your daily life maybe at work at home with friends.
Relationships are of course an important part of being happy. Need to invest in building long-term relationships based on Trust, understanding and empathy.
A purpose in life. Howsoever big, rich, successful or important we might become, we are acutely aware of the insignificance of one person in relation to the billions of people, planets and other things in the universe. So, we will get more deep happiness if we see our life as contributing to the world in some way. It may be a very small contribution but how is my work or life of some significance to my society, country or the world. If we are able to see a link there between what we do and the world in which we live, it brings us immense joy and satisfaction.
We all need the reassurance that we have achieved some milestones on the way. The journey of life will go on but important milestones like marriage, a new bigger car or home, a pay hike, a recognition as an award, learning something new. All these give us a sense of accomplishment and that leads to happiness.
So, let’s all follow PERMA, make it our KARMA and be HAPPY.
Dr. Seligman’s Ted Talk: