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Go on, get happy: A path to well-being in 2018

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Every day I try to do something, one thing, for the first time. The action can be as small as hearing a new song or noticing a new author, or it can be as challenging as learning a new line dance or exploring a new city (or a new part of Calgary). This tiny daily goal helps me stay alert to what I'm doing.  

When my goal is simply to try something new, I don't worry so much about whether I'm doing it right. This approach eased my anxiety when I tried skiing or roller-skating, for example. Instead of wanting to be terrific right away, I'd achieved my goal just by trying.

By accident I had found a happiness skill. "Trying out" is one of the skills that the new Action for Happiness charity teaches. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has agreed to be the patron of an ambitious program that includes local Action for Happiness evening classes in towns all across the U.K. The Tibetan Buddhist leader is reaching out to offer classes everywhere the English internet reaches.

"We believe that creating a happier society requires a fundamental shift in values," says Action for Happiness, "away from our current culture of self-obsessed materialism towards a society which is more loving, positive and collaborative."

Lest this sound too touchy-feely and New Age-ish, a recent Inc.com article says that business should also see happiness as a skill. Under the headline, "These are the 4 skills you need to master to be happy," Jessica Stillman described Resilience, Positive Outlook, [paying] Attention, and Generosity as key attributes of happy people, no matter where they work.  Of course, listing skills is a whole lot easier than acquiring them, especially resilience.

Stillman drew on neuroscientist Richard Davidson's work, supplying machine readings that corroborate what Action for Happiness preaches -- that the most powerful way to reap happiness is through Generosity (Stillman) or more simply, Giving (Action for Happiness).  

Action for Happiness says that one of the problems is that Western society has been urged to seek happiness in the wrong places -- in the marketplace.  Their classes teach people how to switch their moods and release irritants, rather than drowning their sorrows through self- indulgence. That way, a person can really pay attention to the people they meet.

Action for Happiness explains this approach is, "[a]bout our fundamental philosophy of life -- choosing to treat others well, put our strengths to good use and live a positive life with meaning and purpose."

In short -- I'm on my own soapbox here -- the current competitive, individualistic economic system works to separate us from one another, in order to sell each household (that can afford it) a separate set of everything from cars to espresso machines. Especially in these disruptive times as jobs and whole industries disappear, the system actually encourages friction between individuals -- disruption -- in order to keep the economic engines firing.  

Meanwhile, privileged First World individuals and health-care systems deal with soaring rates of injury, illnesses and mortality rates. Whatever products the TV and online ads are selling, they don't seem to bring happiness, much less longevity.

On the other hand, science, psychology and spirituality all say that social harmony is what actually fosters personal happiness. Genetics account for about half of a person's temperament, says Action for Happiness. Economic and environmental circumstances account for another 10 per cent. The person's attitude determines the rest, 40 per cent, of how the person feels.
 
Of course, researchers have to contend with a conundrum -- should they believe a person is happy, just because they say they are? Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, who works with specialized electronic instruments, says that self-reported happiness correlates closely to objective data collected through brain scans and heart and breathing measurements.

Socially, different countries report different happiness levels, with Denmark the happiest country in the world. Perhaps Action for Happiness classes have appeal in Britain because Britain's happiness levels are the same as they were in the 1950s. Action for Happiness notes that, "[i]f Britain was as happy as Denmark, we would have 2.5 million fewer people who were not very happy and 5 million more who were very happy."

One huge factor in personal happiness is trust in the society and government. Unfortunately, as the Brexit vote shows, people in the U.K. have been unhappy with growing inequalities.  

"The most important external factors affecting individual happiness are human relationships," says Action for Happiness. "In every society, family or other close relationships are the most important, followed by relationships at work and the community.

"The most important internal factor is mental health. For example, if we take 34 year olds, their mental health at age 26 explains four times more of their present happiness than their income does." Odds are that one in four persons will suffer a depression in their lifetime.

Often, a depressed person's first instinct is to avoid other people, running away from other people, the very resources who could and should provide comfort. Richard Davidson produces charts and graphs to prove that Generosity is a powerful happiness generator. Action for Happiness offers 10 Keys for Happiness, the GREAT DREAM for short. And the GREAT-ness begins with Giving.  

The GREAT DREAM of a self-directed program is available online as "10 Keys to Happier Living," which is an acronym and a mnemonic for Giving/Relating/Exercise/Awareness/TryingOut/Direction/Resilience/Emotion/Acceptance/Meaning. These behaviours are the recipe for happiness. Note that making lots of money isn't even on this list.  

By espousing pro-social actions as a path to personal happiness, Action for Happiness emphasizes the long-term futility of fanning hatred or even distrust for one another. "Empathy is a part of our nature," explains the website. "If a friend suffers an electric shock, it hurts in exactly the same point of the brain as if you yourself suffer an electric shock." In this philosophy, any blow against another is a blow against yourself, and kindness to others is self-defence.

While the Happiness classes focus on individuals, the long-term strategy is to improve mental health around world -- a long-overdue force for unity, to counter the horrendous political, economic and climate changes that have ripped 70 million refugees from their homes and set another 150 million migrants desperately looking for better options than their homelands offer. From such trauma could come endless generations of embittered and vengeful terrorists.

We know that as fear and terror are contagious. As the Dalai Lama explains on video, happiness is contagious too. "First we make the person happy, then the family, then the community, and then the nation."

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson says that even short stints of cognitive behaviour therapy -- deliberately making short-term changes in how our brains process information -- can alter our long-term happiness level. Although some of us begin our journey farther behind the start line than others, we all can improve our skills. "Improving our well-being is no different from learning how to play the cello," he says on this video.

Davidson says that brain change is within our control, just by cultivating positive thoughts and keeping our minds constructively occupied. He cites a study where subjects were phoned randomly with three-question quizzes. Results said that 47 per cent of the time people weren't paying attention to what they were doing, and that they judged themselves to be on the lower end of the happiness scale. The researchers concluded that "A wandering mind is an unhappy mind."

Mindfulness is one way to keep focus -- making the effort to pay attention, to be present in mind and spirit as well as body -- but that can be exhausting. Modern life is designed to distract us from mindfulness, allowing us to zone out on our electronic devices.

Meditation makes mindfulness easier. Meditation can be as quick and focussed as the Five Senses Scan. And a guided meditation is as portable as our phones.

This Five Senses Scan video has a guided meditation that takes six minutes. The exercise of re-connecting with each sense at a time (hearing, smell, taste, touch, and sight) can be done in four or five minutes. It's kind of a reset button for negative thoughts.

Another little self-care trick is, of course, trying out something brand new, especially in winter, when it's so easy to get stuck in a rut. The good news is that the longest night of this very cold winter has passed. The bad news is that a season of political and climate turmoil lies ahead.  

Buddhists say that misfortune is inevitable but suffering is chosen. Now they and science are showing us ways to put aside suffering so we can be clear-headed in facing some of the challenges ahead. Praise the bored and pass the information. Happy New Year! Hallelujah!

Image: VOA/Wikimedia Commons`

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