Tag Archives: Happiness

Measuring Happiness

I think it’s a safe assumption that we all want to be happier. Ok, great. We now know what we want from life. All we need to do now is figure out how to get it. What do we need to do? Are there different ways to be happy? What are the most effective methods reach them?

To figure this out we need to find a language in order to talk about the different ways of being happy. Once we have that down we can attempt to measure it. That is what this article is about. 

Obstacles to measuring happiness

It goes without saying that happiness is subjective as well as relative. It’s hard to compare one person’s self reporting of happiness with another’s. Only you can be the judge of how effective actions and states of mind are in making you happy. Never let anybody tell you what you need to do to be happy. This is something we all simply have to figure out for ourselves. And vice versa. You can’t tell anybody else what will make them happy.

Biology is relevant. Fundamentally happiness is the firing of neurotransmitters in the brain. Our brains are all different. Some people seem to need very little positive reinforcement in the most horrible situations to feel inner peace and joy. Others struggle with seemingly perpetual depressions no matter their fortunes in life.

The philosopher Thomas Metzinger argues that the promise of happiness is the neurochemical engine by which our brains push our bodies to do things at all. This means that whenever we achieve a state of happiness our brains immediately adapt in order for us to be pushed ahead for the next task at hand. We are so-to-speak programmed by evolution to never feel satisfied over any length of time. Therefore it would be folly to even aim for perpetual happiness. By its very evolutionary design happiness is transitory.

The biologist and science writer Matt Ridley makes the same arguments and expands it with the genetic aspect. Triggers for happiness (and pain) has been programmed into our genes by evolution in order to steer us into ways that keep us alive and eventually lead to us spreading our genes. But evolution is slow and this is a very blunt tool for control. Humans are clever and self-reflective. So we are quicker at developing ways in which to fool our genetic programming. To trigger happiness neurotransmitters faster than evolution manage to compensate for it. This we can and do use to our advantage. An example would be condom use for sex or triggering endorphines by watching comedies on television. So we arguably have a greater capacity for happiness than what the basic design was built for.  

We call it aceeeeed

We call it Aceeeeed

So now we know what happiness is for. The next step is to define it.

The definition of happiness

Happiness can be defined in many ways. All useful in their own way. For simplicity I’m sticking to the happiness philosopher Bengt Brülde’s definitions. He separates happiness into the following types:

Euphoria, peace of mind, experiencing pleasure and satisfaction.

Euphoria

An ecstatic intoxication of joy.This type of happiness is associated with succeeding with a long or difficult task in life, like graduating, being in love, finishing a race, getting your dream job or getting long longed for recognition. Can be induced by doing the unexpected and joyful like suddenly racing outside and euphorically dancing in a summer rain. Also the type of happiness we get from using drugs. By it’s nature this type of happiness is rare, ephemeral and fickle.  

Peace of mind

I think we can all agree on that, in general, the less we suffer the better. We have all suffered at some point in our lives and we are all well aware that no matter at what stage we are in life we will most likely suffer some more later on. This knowledge can give us fear and anxiety. In this case there is no solution to the source of the problem. We will suffer. The fear is real and often realistic. The best we can do is manage the symptoms. Religions around the world have come up with solutions.

For example Christians attain peace of mind by praying regularly to God. Why not give it a shot and see if a Christian prayer does the trick for you? I’m pretty sure you don’t need to believe in God in order for their prayers to help you achieve a peace of mind. To get you started here is an example of a popular Christian prayer.

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next.

Amen.

/Written by the evangelical Christian Reinhold Niebuhr adapted for use by Alcoholics Anonymous

To get maximum effect from your prayers the evangelical Christians at prayers-for-special-help.com) has offered some advice. I’m presenting them here unbowdlerized:

Set aside a few minutes in the morning or in the evening to pray your devotions to God. Ask God for serenity on a daily basis using this prayer as your guide.

1. Try to memorize the words to the prayer.

2. Speak directly to God. Don’t just blindly repeat the words you’ve memorized. You need to speak directly to Him and truly mean the words you’re speaking.

3. After praying, write your reflections in a prayer journal. Over time you’ll be able to track your progress towards serenity and happiness.

Note! This is not intended to promote Christianity or Christian beliefs in God. This is only as an example of things we Syntheists can steal/borrow/use from other religions. As a Syntheist any reference to a god (or anything supernatural) should be seen and interpreted as a metaphor. If the idea of praying to God makes your atheistic mind uneasy, simply replace those lines with something your secular brain is more comfortable with.

Experiencing pleasure

Good wine, a great massage, the rush of shopping pretty things, eating cake, sitting in a comfortable bath, having an orgasm, a jacuzzi, sinking into a water bed, having a dishwasher, travelling in first class instead of second class, staying at a hotel with wifi by the pool.

The only real problem with this one is that we’ll get used to it no matter the level. To experience this type of happiness we have to deny ourselves our pleasure for a while to miss it, and then indulge again once we’re well and truly starved. It is important for our peace of mind that we are aware of this cycle.

One strategy is to not indulge at all. To opt out of the cycle. Which is what Buddhists try to do. Another is to apply moderation which is the typical approach in most religions. For example, Jews are encouraged to indulge their desires to their hearts content during the Sabbath while abstaining from pleasures the rest of the week.

Satisfaction

When we see newspapers claiming that country X is happier than country Y or people with such and such a job are happier than people with another job this is the kind of happiness that is implied. This is based on surveys and self reporting. People who say they are happy give stuff like this as an explanation; being physically active, having a social life, having close friends, being in a relationship, having a job that is adequately challenging. Being rich sure is nice but is rarely given as a reason for happiness. That comes back to pleasure. We can’t buy friends. Money can buy pleasure. See earlier heading.

The religious typically score high on this simply by being part of a religious community. This is arguably even more important than any of its philosophies or teachings. The mere fact of doing things together, sharing an identity and having a common goal is important for humans and always greatly satisfying.

General principles on maximising happiness.

Don’t have euphoria as your major goal in life, and don’t expect it. It will only come when you aren’t trying to. Be in the moment. Pay attention and do plenty of introspection.  

Peace of mind can be attained through calming one’s thoughts overall. Praying, meditation or mindful physical exercise, (like yoga) are excellent tools by which to still the mind. Try to fit less things into your weekly schedule and set time aside for being alone with your thoughts. But even simpler things like removing clutter from your home. Paint your walls at home with calming colours. Buying plants and take care of them. Or just making sure you’ve got a good house insurance.

People like to be around us and we attract friends by letting go of our ego, our egotism and self centeredness. We have to learn to accept that the world doesn’t revolve around us and be ok with that. This also brings about peace of mind. If all else fails you can always buy a pet.

There’s countless studies that show that by generously giving to others you are also making yourself happier. This is the lesson Scrooge learns in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It’s a popular story because so many can relate. 

The Golden Rule isn’t just for other people’s benefit. You too will become happier if you make a point of treating others like you yourself would like to be treated. If other people take advantage of it, you at least can feel secure in the fact that at least you are overall happier than them. To get respect you need to give respect. 

Indulging in a guilty pleasure is perfectly fine as long as you don’t make it into a habit. Any pleasure we take for granted and is routine will stop making us happy. And longing for something can also be a source of joy. Knowing that we will indulge a certain pleasure once we’ve finished some necessary yet gruelling task. 

So what about measuring happiness? Didn’t I say in the beginning that this article is about measuring it?

Yes, I did. But I must admit that I’m not going to be much help. Happiness is subjective and only you can be the measuring stick of what it is that makes you happy. What do you usually do when you are happy? Or what state of mind are you in then? Are you doing that or feeling like that more or less often  today? If less, what can you do about it? Do you know what to do about it?

Those are questions only you can answer.

/Tom Knox, a member of the Stockholm congregation.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness_economics

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_happiness

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_treadmill

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjective_well-being

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monoamine_neurotransmitter

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matt_Ridley

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Metzinger

http://www.prayers-for-special-help.com/serenity-prayer.html

 

Pantheos, here we come

A Scandinavian Midsummer celebration

A Scandinavian Midsummer celebration

We’re nearing the summer solstice, Panthea. One of the four major Syntheist festivals. We have named the period between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox Pantheos. It’s Greek for “God is everywhere”. Since Syntheists accept that all gods are invented, why not invent some more and have gods everywhere? Want a god for the cool touch on the tongue of an ice-cream on a hot summers day? Or how about a god for the fleeting warm and contagious smiles we sometimes get while commuting to work? Now, as a Syntheist, you can have them. I think it suits a season of abundance and plenty.

This season we will focus on light, strength, vitality, joy, passion, pleasure, ecstasy, confidence, optimism and enjoying life to its fullest extent.

Last season I took the season’s concepts and referenced what the existing religions of the world have to say about it. I did the same for Panthea.

PANTHEA

For the joy of living

A woman in Congo speaking in tongues

A Pentacost in Congo speaking in tongues

Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. Being overly self obsessed and worrying unnecessarily about life’s minutiae. When what we should do, need to do, is relax and enjoy what we already have. Live a little.

To understand how religion can help us with this I think it can be of value to take the plunge into ancient Roman and Greek religion. Please bear with me. I promise it’ll be worth your while. The ancient Greeks and Romans valued being in control of one’s emotions. Overt displays of emotion was generally frowned upon and seen as weakness and a character flaw. But they also acknowledged that too much emotional control was negative to the human spirit. Our feelings needed an outlet. They acknowledged that societies pressures, especially those of the powerful upon us, would corrupt our thinking. Make us overly self-conscious and cowardly. That’s where the worship of Dionysus came in.

Dionysus was seen as a liberator of the spirit, whose wine, music and ecstatic dance frees the mind. Today the worship of Dionysus is mostly associated with the excessive orgiastic drinking-parties called “Bacchanalias”. Always held in secret locations. As for the rituals, I’m sorry to say, what happened at a Bacchanalia stayed at the Bacchanalia. We have no surviving reliable accounts other than little snippets here and there.

When blent with the flute light laughters awaken,
And the children of care have forgotten to weep
Whensoever is revealed the cluster’s splendour
In the banquet that men to the high Gods tender
And o’er ivy-wreathed revellers drinking deep
The wine bowl drops the mantle of sleep.

-Euripides (The Rationalists)

On that note, In Vino Veritas isn’t just a funny thing Romans said about drunk people’s inability to keep their trap shut about sensitive subjects. Pagan Romans and Greeks thought genuine wisdom could come from being off-your-tits drunk. It was the ointment that could remove intellectual blockages. I personally suspect that if artists and thinkers all were teetotallers we wouldn’t have nearly as rich artistic heritage as we have today.

Even though we don’t know so much about the Bacchanalias we do have a good grasp of the big annual festival in the honour of Dionysus, called the Dionysia. All today surviving ancient Greek dramas were works especially commissioned for the Dionysia. They were seen as safe outlets for emotions. Once a year Greeks and Romans gathered and were allowed to let all their emotions pour forth while watching the plays. It was socially acceptable and encouraged. Wine, or other mind altering drugs, was seen as a tool in helping them lose control, to allow them to laugh and weep together.

Dionysias wasn’t only watching plays. A good portion of it was singing, dancing and drinking, for days. All day. All night. The culmination was a procession called the “Pompe”. A modern day analogue would be the Rio Carneval. A full on celebration of all that life has to offer.

Roman frieze 100 CE

A Roman frieze of a Dionysian pompe, 100 CE.

Dionysus was also the god of foreigners and the foreign. This was the time to let go of familiar suspicions and allow oneself to be curious. Greeks who usually were so adamant about excluding outsiders from their community and rituals, let them, this one time a year, be a part of their religious celebrations. The foreign was uncharacteristically embraced and admired. An acknowledgement that a rigid mind is stagnant mind.

This idea of having one feast a year where we allow ourselves to go a little crazy isn’t unique for Roman and Greek pagans. In the Hindu and Tibetan festival of Ganachakra the faithful are allowed to eat some foods and drinks otherwise considered taboo for sober vegetarians. A shared communal meal is integral. The transgression of the taboo becomes a shared experience. Reminding them of the importance of community, the importance of sharing our joys and sorrows. Being supportive and allow oneself to be supported by your peers.

A Ganacharka meal in Tibet

A Ganachakra communal meal in Tibet

When was the last thing you did something crazy? Something uncharacteristic of you? Did something just to shock your system? Please remind yourself that life is more than the daily grind of work-life.

So what about ecstasy? What about euphoria? Religion has in all ages been associated with instances of extreme bliss and altered states of consciousness. How can this be achieved? What is it?

Religious Ecstasy

Jessica Ennis celebrates after winning the women’s heptathlon Olympic games 2012

Jessica Ennis celebrates after winning the women’s heptathlon Olympic games 2012

The most common methods of reaching religious joy and ecstasy is singing and dancing. Sufi whirling is a form of physically active meditation. It is a dance performed within a worship ceremony, through which dervishes aim to reach the “source of all perfection”. This is sought through abandoning one’s egos or personal desires, by listening to the music, focusing on God, and spinning one’s body in repetitive circles.

Here is the Mandira Devadasis performing a traditional Hindu Desiattam. Every time there is a religious festival the particular god of that festival is thought to inhabit the statues of that god. A good Hindu host always offer an honoured guest the “sixteen hospitalities” (as defined by the Tirukkuṛaḷ), two of which are song and dance. The take away is that the Hindus don’t acknowledge that they’ve had a good time unless there’s been some singing and dancing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prQOdTmF8u0&list=PLIb9m0R9s9REOx9e6aO-qCL0yEpqAtBaD

We’ve all seen stock footage of traditional African dancing as found in all the West African religions. No, it’s not just performing arts. Dancing and singing is an integral part of all West African religions. They do it for a variety of religious reasons. But always to reach an altered state of consciousness, an improved state. So regardless of the magical hand-waving and supposed woo, it’s obviously good for something. So please feel free to do what I do. Do it for the sheer fun of dancing!

As you might have noted from these videos of traditional religious dances pleasure isn’t only derived by being decadent and indulgent. These dances require discipline and years of training. By being intensely in the moment. Letting go of your ego. By focusing on the expression you are good at, what you’re proud of, without allowing yourself to overflow with pride, you will reach new heights of ecstasy. What are your dreams? What do you want to experience in life? What motivates you? Do that! And do it a lot!

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has labelled this mental state Flow.

“You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that it’s almost that you feel that you don’t exist”

When it comes to the beneficial values of singing and dancing there’s no shortage of modern day science to back it up. Considering how uncontroversial this belief is, I don’t feel the necessity to back it up with links to studies. The Internet is awash if you’re curious. The neuroscientist Björn Merker has the hypothesis that before we were thinking talking humans, we were dancing and singing apes. He argues that it’s instinct. We need to sing and dance together in groups with others to be truly happy.

This explains rave parties. This explains singing along at concerts. When was the last time you sang and danced? If it was a long time ago I suggest you just go for it now! Back away from the computer, stand up, take a deep breath and enjoy your body and what it can do!

The ecstasy of saint Theresa

The ecstasy of saint Theresa. What is that angel doing to her?!?

Just relax. Relax. Take deep breaths. Feels better, doesn’t it?

Sometimes, our lives are a stressful grind and what we need to enjoy ourselves isn’t new heights of ecstasy, but just to take break from it all. Focus on the small joys of life. Judaism can help us here. If you thought Judaism was all guilt, duties and joylessness. Think again! On the Sabbath they see it as a religious duty to relax, have fun and enjoy oneself. This includes, among other things, the divine command to drink wine, have sex and not take oneself so seriously. This duty is named “Oneg Shabbat”

Isaiah 58:13-14

“If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:

“Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”

And you thought Judaism only was about restrictions and discipline? Why not do what the Jews do, relax and live a little.

Ok, I’m stoked. This joy and ecstasy thing sounds like a blast. How can I get some? What are the Syntheists doing about it?

Midsummer

When it comes to researching possible rituals us Syntheists can steal; this is made quite easy as most of Europe Pagan midsummer celebrations have survived to this day, more or less, intact. This falls on the summer solstice, ie the same day we Syntheists have chosen for Panthea. Midsummer is still the largest religious festivals of Scandinavia and the Baltics. Yes, you guessed correctly, the maypole is a symbolic penis used to penetrate mother earth. The raising of the maypole should be seen as a ritual sexual act. The pagans weren’t shy when it comes to pleasures of the flesh. So if you’re in any of these countries, why not just join in the fun with the locals? If not, a maypole isn’t hard to make. 

Happy Panthea! Please try to enjoy your life. It’s the only one you’ve got.

 

References

http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/pr/pr05.htm

http://www.let.leidenuniv.nl/Dutch/Latijn/ErasmusAdagia.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysia

http://www.biolinguagem.com/biolinguagem_antropologia/merker_2009_synchronouschorusing_humanorigins.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sufi_whirling

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midsummer

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganachakra

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midsummer

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+58%3A13-14&version=KJV

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/07/health/07brain.html?em&ex=1163134800&en=8ddde54669058ebc&ei=5087%0A&_r=0

http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/aug/05/london-2012-team-gb-medals

 

Disclaimer

The ritual and practice described in this text is only a suggestion. There is no wrong way to do Syntheism. If you don’t like our festivals, gods, the way we use them or the names we have for them…. feel free to invent your own.

Syntheism and Happiness

Religions through the ages have commonly put a major emphasis on human happiness, albeit in different forms. Is happiness important in Syntheism and, if so, in what way? For an answer, we can look to three icons of Syntheism—Zarathushtra, Spinoza, and Nietzsche—as well as to the modern scientifically oriented study of happiness.

Happiness

In Zoroastrianism, happiness involves neither hedonism nor asceticism, both of which are foreign to the religion. Instead, Zarathushtra taught that happiness emerges from the quest for “asha,” or the natural way of the universe—that which fits or that which works. We participate in Asha in proportion to the degree to which we embrace the pursuit of wisdom and conform our actions to the laws of the universe. There is a profound joy that comes with this experience. In words that echo Zarathushtrian sentiments, Albert Einstein described a feeling “that takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law” and is “a sort of intoxicated joy and amazement at the beauty and grandeur of this world…” (Einstein, The World as I See It, 1934). Indeed, so crucial is happiness in this sense that Zoroastrians often greet each other with the word “ushta,” which roughly translated means “radiant happiness,” or the happiness in you that brings happiness to others.

Spinoza associates happiness with our activity—our engagement with the world. He sees the cultivation of knowledge, of intellect, through this activity as the source of our joy. In Spinoza’s thinking, we must reject what Deleuze refers to as the “sad passions,” that which disparages life, and instead embrace joyful, life-affirming, wisdom-seeking activity.

Nietzsche explicitly rejects both hedonism and asceticism. In fact, his notion of happiness is quite the opposite of the ascetic approach: Nietzsche sees joy as arising through the overcoming of suffering. What is more, Nietzsche’s notion of power is tied to complete self-overcoming and joy. Indispensable to happiness in Nietzsche’s view is fully embracing our sense of resolution and mission in life and engaging in a heroic struggle in that mission, in becoming our authentic selves. Happiness is a byproduct, or as philosophers say, an epiphenomenon of our plunge into our goals and activities. According to Nietzsche, the power to live one’s life actively, not reactively, and thus attain joy requires refraining from an effort to find some “true” (ultimately imaginary) world beyond what we observe.

The notion of happiness as emerging through our active quest to know the world as it is and to creatively pursue self-overcoming through our own goals is consistent with the growing, scientific study of happiness. Though emerging from the field of psychology, empirical, experimental research into happiness, more recently identified with “positive psychology,” has reached across disciplines and methodologies. In addition to psychology, disciplines involved in the systematic pursuit of research findings include economics, public policy, biology, neuroscience, philosophy, history, education, medicine, and many others.

In addition to, and to a degree overlapping with, the focus on activity, the modern study of happiness reflects principles that are consistent with the ideas of Zarathurshtra, Spinoza, and Nietzsche, and with the bedrock features of Syntheism. Among these are principles of community, creativity, and meaning.

A number of studies have demonstrated a link between happiness and community life, including socializing with family members, close friends, neighbors, and other community members. Moreover, people that get involved in religious congregations and volunteer organizations tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction. Generally, engaging in cooperative activities emblematic of a community are among the strongest correlates of subjective wellbeing. Having the space for the open exchange of ideas where individuals and groups can take risks and feel capable contributes significantly to our happiness. At the same time, being happy tends to invite greater cooperation from others, thus forming a feedback loop that can strengthen our communities.

Creative challenge and absorption in activity is closely tied to a concept that one of the founders of the positive psychology movement, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has referred to as “flow.” The subjective state of flow involves absorption in creatively dealing with a challenge that entails intense and focused concentration. Creativity, the key element of flow, has been shown to be closely correlated with levels of happiness. The happiness-creativity connection may find a powerful explanation with reference to brain chemistry. Neuroscientists have shown that happiness tends to trigger higher levels of activity in the prefrontal cortices of the brain. In turn, activity in the prefrontal cortex correlates with the strong generation of ideas. In other words, there appears to be a chemical connection between greater happiness and more robust creativity.

Personal growth is associated with our search for meaning in life: our efforts to experiment, develop ourselves, and realize our potential in line with our values and identity are the key elements of personal growth and are closely tied to our happiness. The greater the amount of meaning one finds in life, studies seem to show, the greater one’s level of subjective wellbeing. Meaning is the sine qua non of happiness. Drawing from interdisciplinary work in cognitive science in the context of happiness studies, psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that humans “gain a sense of meaning when their lives cohere across the three levels of existence.” The three levels of our existence as systems that Haidt refers to are physical (our bodies and brains), psychological (our minds that emerge from our bodies and brains), and sociocultural (the societies and cultures that form from the interactions of our minds).

Happiness is, then, an important concept in Syntheism. Through active, wisdom-seeking engagement in life, participation in Syntheist communities, absorption in creative challenge, and searching for meaning, we become both better Syntheists and happier humans.