6 practices for cultivating (getting present to) happiness and contentment

Let’s assume that we, human beings, want to be happy and contented.  If that is indeed the case then what should we do to cultivate and/or get present to happiness in our experience of living.  That is to say what can we do to experience happiness rather than think and make a statement along the lines of “I am happy” without feeling happy.  Each of us has his or own ideas about what drives, causes, gives rise to the state of happiness.

What do research studies on happiness suggest?  Are the practices that have been scientifically proven to cultivate and/or get us present to happiness and contentment in our lives?  Yes.  If you have the time then read “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt and “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky – I find the first a cracking read and inspiring, I find the latter a handy and practical reference book.  If you do not have the time then I simply wish to point you (and me) in the right direction by spelling out 6 happiness practices that have a scientifically sound basis.

1. Give Thanks (Gratitude)

There is enormous power in the simple habit of counting our blessings.  Regular expressions of gratitude promote optimism, better health and greater satisfaction in living our lives.  How often should you sit down and get present to all the stuff that you can be grateful for?  You might think daily and yet the science suggests that this does not work.  It is more effective to do make this a weekly exercise – make it a habit to take time out once a week to get present (make a list) of all that you can be grateful for and who you are grateful to.  Do this rigorously and we have the opportunity to get present to the huge contribution so many people (many of them strangers) make to our lives and how much we have grateful for.  For example, this morning I gave thanks for the hot shower simply by turning a tap and the gorgeous smell of coconut soap!

The Amish practice this everyday – they give thanks before they eat (“Living With the Amish”).

2.  Pay Attention (Mindfulness)

Studies show that mindfulness (being present in and to the present moment including self, others, the environment) matters.  Mindful people have stronger immune systems and are less likely to be hostile and/or anxious.  If you practice mindfulness you will be amazed at how disconnected you are from your body (living in the mind) and the present moment (living in the past and or the future continuously).  With practice we become more and more present and thus make the most of the present.

3.  Keep Friends Close

Make time for those closest to you.  I am particularly present to this as I have been immersed in a web of rich conversation with people that matter to me over the Christmas period.  Research shows that social connections are the key to happiness (the Amish totally get this).  And the quality of the social connections matter more than the quantity.

I find it interesting that the Amish practice this as well – they live with and work with their family members every day and they live within a community and within each community they know the people (their lives, live histories, the key people in their lives) – not just names of the people.

4. Drop Grudges (Forgiveness)

Research shows convincingly that when we forgive those who have wronged us, we feel better about ourselves, experience more positive emotions and feel closer to others.  In the course of watching “Living With The Amish” I got present to how wise the Amish are – they actively practice forgiveness.  An example was given of a gunman that shot dead 10 young Amish children whilst they were at school: despite the incredible loss the parents publicly forgave the gunman!  That is a hard ask and yet think about whose lives would have been the most damaged if they had not forgiven:  the lives of the Amish parents, their children and the people in their community.

There is a zen tale related to this.  One day a renowned and fierce samurai turns up to see a zen master.  Face to face the samurai asks “I am tormented.  I have travelled far and wide and asked many yet I have not attained the answer I am looking for.  What is the difference between Heaven and Hell.”  The zen master ignores him.  The samurai asks again and is ignored again.  The samurai asks again – this time more forcefully.  The master responds “Get out of here you worthless dog!”.   No-one has ever talked this way to the samurai nor treated him this way.  Rage grips the samurai and he takes out his long sword and is about to bringing it down on the zen master and end his life.  Right there the zen master says “That is Hell”.  The samurai gets it – right there – the sword falls from his hand.  Then tears flow from the face of the samurai – he gets that the zen master had put his own life at stake to be of service to him (the samurai).  When the zen master says that change of state in the samurai he says “That is heaven”.   I hope you get what this tale is getting at.

5.  Move (Exercise)

Regular exercise increases self-esteem, reduces anxiety and stress, and may well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all.  Again, it is interesting to note that the physical work plays such a large role in their lived lives – from dawn to dusk the Amish families work together making stuff and taking care of the necessities of life.

6.  Practice Kindness

Being kind to others makes us feel good.  Altruistic acts light up the same pleasure centres in the brain as food and sex!  Again I find it interesting that the Amish practice kindness vigorously when it comes to their community, their Church.  The make a point of sharing each other’s sorrows, they help each other out e.g. barnraising, they celebrate together…… Kind of explains why sex, fancy food and material goods (and riches) do not have the same hold on the Amish that they have on many of us.

A Handy Reminder

You can download a handy reminder of these practices by clicking on the following link:  Six Habits of Happiness

I thank you for listening and taking part in this conversation.

What is the source of happiness, content and fulfillment? The Amish perspective

Western economies and societies are designed to play ‘lets get more stuff’ to be happy

We can play the game of happiness-contentment-fulfillment (“HCF”) many different levels.  All of us flower in specific landscapes and those landscapes (societies / cultures) determine the HCF level that we automatically find ourselves playing  In the USA and the UK the HCF level has been and continues to be ‘get my hands on more stuff’: more money, higher paid job, more status/power, designer clothes, latest coolest consumer electronics, better car, second car, bigger/better house, second home, vacations, girlfriend/boyfriend, sex……

Why is trap kept in place even though evidence shows that ‘more stuff’ does not make us happier after a certain level of stuff

Why is this the case?  All of us who take part in this game assume (intuitively) that having more stuff will make us happy and the media is happy to supply the hypnotic suggestions to buttress and even create these assumptions.  Governments are happy to go along because making stuff that most of us do not need and which does not make us happy (and can often make us unhappy) provides jobs.  Jobs allow those in power to control the mass of humanity that is not in power.  If you take a look at the economic stagnation facing the West you will notice that less of us are partaking in the drug called ‘buying stuff’ and as a result less stuff is being made, shipped, sold and serviced.  As a result of that there are less jobs and more and more of us are finding ourselves without jobs.  As less and less of us have jobs (and job certainty) more and more of us are questioning the system and especially the privileges the powerful have granted themselves.  In turn the powerful strive to put in place mechanisms (laws, punishments, bribes) to put the powerless back to sleep.  If jobs were readily at hand then these harsh mechanisms would not be necessary.

What goes with being a fish?  The fish do not see the water that they are swimming in.  I could go further and say that the fish are oblivious to the action of swimming – in their world (of thinking and of experience) there is no such thing as swimming.  Put bluntly they do not have access to what they don’t know that they don’t know.  We are in exactly the same situation: ‘we do not know what we do not know’.  One access route to that which ‘we do not know that we do not know’ is interacting with people who are embedded in our reality – they have found themselves thrown into a different reality and take that as the natural way of living.  Which people are sufficiently similar and at the same time sufficiently different: the Amish. So it is with deep interest that I have been watching “Living With The Amish” on Channel 4.

Episode 4: The Amish perspective on happiness and contentment

It is fascinating to look at Amish culture and look at our culture through the eyes of the Amish.  There is so much that I have learned. And in this post I simply want to share with you a conversation between an Amish farmer (Harvey Burkholder, Episode 4) and one of the UK teenagers (George) who is staying with the Burkholder family:

George:  “Would you say you are content ………?

Harvey: “Yes”

George:  “Why is it that farming makes you so happy?”

Harvey:  “You can be happy in whatever you do.  The key to happiness is LOVE.  If you don’t have love, the opposite of love is anger and anger is depression.  If we live in anger or we live in doubt.  If a person lives in doubt he can’t be happy.

George:  “So do you feel having a simpler lifestyle is a key to happiness then?”

Harvey: “A simpler lifestyle plays a big part in happiness because stuff will not bring you happiness.  The more you gain, the more you have, the more you want.  Be content with where you are and with what you have.”

George: “David said yesterday that happiness comes from within.”

Harvey: “Exactly, 100% true.”

Episode 5:  The Amish perspective on riches and community

One of the UK teenagers is speaking with one of the Amish women and conversation takes place that I find fascinating as it discloses what we do not see (or actively ignore) and our society/culture actively downplays and hides:

UK teenager:  “Whilst I have been here I have noticed that everybody is an individual but you have come together to be a community where you value each single person and try very hard to make sure they stay in your community.”

Amish woman: “Riches are fleeting.  What is there to riches?  They can be gone overnight, it happens sometimes. So we do’t build on earthly riches or anything. We build a secure community for our children: the community of tomorrow. So when the children are older they will learn to work together for the good of the community.  And if the community is pulling together then you can really go places.”

My thinking

There is a huge difference between HCF (happiness-contentment-fulfillment) and a number of other phenomena like pleasure, ease, comfort, convenience, entertainment, status, power etc.  In our culture we confuse HCF with the latter – they are NOT the same. If you get this then you can give up the trap that we are automatically thrown into by virtue of flowering into the Western countries.  The door out of the trap is open, it has always been opening – we simply have not pushed on it and walked out.

Remember that money can buy you status and power – not HCF.  If this was not the case then the rich would not be unhappy.   Riches can be you pleasure, convenience, ease, comfort, convenience, entertainment etc – these are distinct from HCF.  The problem with stuff is that it only fills the hole inside (lack of HCF) temporarily – to keep the game going and not notice the lack of HCF you have to keep buying more stuff continuously.  And if you do get present to the fact that stuff does not fill the HCF hole then you turn to sex, drink and drugs.  If that does not work well enough then you take your own life.

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