From positive psychology, to human flourishing, freedom, success, happiness – natural or synthetic – there’s no room for negative nellies on today’s show, oh no! (Well maybe a few but only for reference). Thomas Jefferson gave us the universal right to pursue it; 40% of it is determined by what we do all day; scientists have an index for it; and the UN have dedicated a whole day to it – yes, 20th March is now International Happiness Day, where we recognise the relevance of HAPPINESS as a universal goal. Actually that index I was talking about is the Happiness index and it measures how successful we are at creating happy and healthy lives for our citizens based on the resources we put in. The happiest nation on the planet is not Denmark, despite what they tell you, it’s actually Costa Rica! Amazing place – in 1949 they abolished the army and invested in health and education; they have the highest literacy rate in Latin America; 99% of their electricity comes from renewable resources and they were the first government to commit to being carbon neutral by 2021! I like the way the Greeks view happiness, they see is as living your life in a full and deeply satisfying way. They have word for it – Eudaimonia, which means human flourishing – making happiness an activity rather than a state. So I put it to the poets and they came back with a few pointers. Rumi gives us the secret to happiness, Jane Hirshfield accepts that it comes and goes, Naomi Shihab Nye floats away with it when it does come and AE Stallings doesn’t do herself any favours by being afraid of it. Musically, Jimmy Durante, Hoagy Carmichael and Saint Motel will be keeping us in high spirits, so turn that frown upside down now as we take a balanced look at the highs and lows of happiness.
The psychologist Martin Seligman, asserts that humans seem happiest when they have each of these five things. Pleasure, I’m guessing hot-baths, nice food; engagement, like a task or hobby we can lose ourselves in; meaning in our lives; accomplishments or achievements and relationships, so strong social connections or someone to confide in. Now there are pro’s and con’s to married life, it can affect your personal freedom, having to make compromises, dealing with somebody else’s family as well as your own, but there’s no denying the paired life makes some things so much easier. Sharing good-times, bearing half the weight of a problem, forming deep bonds and having someone to bear witness to your life, someone that can confirm that you have passed through here, also the word on the street is that couples who stay together live longer, healthier, happier lives in general. But it’s hard work. So what is the secret to a happy marriage. Well, we only have to skip back about 800 years through history for this gem of a poem from the popular Sufi mystic and poet Jalal Ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, he was a Persian scholar and we in the West have been enthralled by his wisdom since his works were first translated in the early part of the nineteenth century. On the show he tells us what the secret to a happy marriage is, and it only takes an hour a day.
Also on the show, American poet William Stanley Merwin. He wrote a collection of poetry in 2016 called Garden Time. The title itself suggests patience and he looks back over his life reflecting on loss and love, memory and time. And in this poem the Laughing Child, Merwin recalls something his mother told him, that when he was a baby lying in his pram beneath the kitchen window, she noticed that the pram was shaking and when she looked inside she saw that he was laughing, giggling to himself and laughing. And this simple occurrence sustained his mother then and throughout her life, as she tried to come to terms with the stillbirth of Merwin’s brother Hanson. Even the shape of this lyric poem on the page, the lack of punctuation kind of makes it almost float like a memory and it’s so unrestrained in its expression. And Merwin is a happy guy, heading into his nineties now, with two Pulitzer prizes and numerous awards to his name. He was a happy child too, in an interview I read, he said that his sister remembered that as a child, he just delighted in everything. So maybe the scientists are right when they reason that 50% of our happiness is determined by our genes. The rest, 10% on life circumstances and 40% on our daily activities, if true, then what we spend our days doing really determines how happy we’re going to be. We have an amount of control over it and this is good because we know then that by putting time into building relationships, practising kindness, giving thanks and paying attention to each moment can all contribute to us feeling better about ourselves and laying the ground-work for future happiness.
Contrary to what you might think Cheraphobia is not a fear of the American singer and actress, but a fear of being happy. Aversion to happiness is more prevalent in non-western cultures, where the pursuit of happiness is seen almost as immoral, they believe that being happy will trigger a disaster or calamity. In the west we’re mostly interested in maximising our happiness but some people do have this irrational fear of being happy, often born out of a distorted perception of past experiences where they remember being really jubilant about something when almost immediately something negative or disappointing happened to spoil it. So with the threat of misfortune hanging over their heads they’d rather avoid happiness altogether. Now I don’t take to kindly to small spaces and we are all of us, afraid of something, heights, water, spiders, flying, flying spiders! In Fear Of Happiness, for American poet and translator AE Stallings it’s a glass-floored elevator, high-dive at the pool, ferris-wheels, the merest thought of airplanes. She takes the fear of heights as a starting point from which to analyse the risks involved in full immersion in life, that maybe what we really fear is fear itself, like she says it’s not the falling, but that the ledge invents the leap. It’s a poem about failure avoidance, instability, in ourselves and our beliefs and that you don’t get the rewards without first taking the risks. It’s like the Sufi philosophy of being taught lessons through opposites – no pleasure without pain, no joy without sorrow and vice versa – or like Jane Hirshfield says, you were happy you were sad then happy again, so that we are turned from one feeling to another so that we have two wings to fly, not one!
One sure fire way to catapult yourself into instant happiness is to make someone else happy. Conversely one sure fire way to sadness is waiting for someone else to make you happy. That’ll be for another day. But like Naomi just told us, happiness can come floating in from anywhere, you’ve just got to open your eyes to it. It might be watching a robin pick crumbs from a wooden bench in your garden, or horses breathing in the cold dawn of a winter morning or your husbands eyebrows twitching across the table from you as you sip your coffee! Alberto Rios is a Mexican/American surrealist writer who grew up in the border town of Nogales, Arizona, in fact he became the states first poet laureate in 2013. The character in his poem Teodora Luna’s Two Kisses, uses his eyebrows in the most endearing way as he tries to cheer his wife. As I read I had an image of comedian Groucho Marx in my head. He would lift his eyebrows …. Across tables, through doorways, sometimes in photographs …. This was his passion, he says. The tone is so magical and engaging and it’s about selflessness, generosity and love, actually someone said that, I don’t remember who, that love is when the happiness of another is essential to your own. It’s about nurturing our relationships and putting others before ourselves. It’s an adorable poem and reminds me of something that wise old sage Winnie The Pooh once said Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon. Listen here.
So that’s HAPPINESS for you. At the top of the show I was talking about happiness being an activity rather than a condition and in those terms it means that it’s possible to cultivate happiness by learning some happiness skills. With a bit of research I found of list of activities we can do everyday to help increase our happiness levels 🙂 The top five:
Savour – to linger longer in the pleasurable experiences of our lives
Thank – you know, what we take for granted, somebody else is praying for so be grateful for what we have
Aspire – be optimistic and create meaning or a sense of purpose in our lives
Give – when we give, especially of ourselves, we increase our own wellbeing
Empathise – care for others, be compassionate – like the Roman philosopher Seneca said Where-ever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.
Also on the show: It’s like this:You were happy by Jane Hirshfield, So Much Happiness by Naomi Shihab Nye along with music from Jimmy Durante, Nouvelle Vague, Joni Mitchell, Saint Motel and more.
A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a person need to be happy?