Choose Happiness

The third regret of the nearly departed, according Bronnie Ware, author of The Five Regrets of the Dying, is not choosing to live a happier life. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the end of life, that the dying people Ware cared for realized that the fear of change kept them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content. They settled for the “so-called” comfort of familiarity, and in doing so, they remained stuck in old patterns and habits. Pretense trumped happiness.

Thankfully, happiness is becoming a hot topic these days, not only in the popular press, but more surprisingly, with policy makers around the world. Just last month, the United Nations published the first ever World Happiness Report and Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio shared the stage at an international symposium with a Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, who has been dubbed the “happiest person in the world.”  Even though Ryan and Ricard spend the majority of their time in vastly different worlds, Washington vs. Tibet, both men share a common reality that holds the promise of increasing happiness for people all over the globe.

According to Ricard, right-hand man for the Dalai Lama, and author of Happiness, A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, achieving durable happiness is a skill that requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities such as inner peace, mindfulness, and altruistic love. Ryan, in his recently published book, A Mindful Nation, writes about the key elements needed to take on the challenges we face in our country—inner strength, resilience, and awareness of who we really are.  These two men share a similar philosophy and practice a skill that has contributed to human happiness throughout the ages—mindfulness meditation.

Neuroscience is proving that mindfulness plays a key role in creating well-being and reducing negativity, not only in individuals, but in society at large.  Now you may be thinking, I’d be happier having more cash in the bank and a new car in the garage. Mindfulness! How in the world will this make me happy?  Just hear me out.

The pursuit of happiness, a key principle of our democracy, has come under increased scrutiny since the economic meltdown–and rightly so. Many of us have fallen into a state of depression or grown anxious over how to pay our bills. I understand completely, and I empathize. But I also know that happiness isn’t simply achieved by making more money. Research shows a weak correlation between income and global happiness.

Personal wealth definitely impacts our level of “life satisfaction,” a subjective measure used in Hedonic Psychology, but it has little or no impact on our “eudaimonism,” a state of well-being that results from living in accordance with our daimon, or true self. This ideal may sound New Age-y, but it’s not. It’s older than dirt, a philosophy birthed by Aristotle.

Eudaimonic well-being occurs when people’s life activities mesh with deeply held values; when people are fully engaged and feel intensively alive and authentic. Maybe that’s why Ricard, a monk who lives in a monastery and donates his book profits to charity, is considered the happiest man in the world. His brain, like that of other long-term practitioners of meditation, has developed the capacity to disengage from mental confusion and self-centered afflictions. Research now proves that meditating strengthens the centers of the brain that contribute to good feelings and compassion.

Food for thought, or “non-thought”, don’t you think? Yesterday, Congressman Ryan encouraged a generation of future leaders at UC-Berkeley on the merits of mindfulness meditation. He’s advocating that schools across America teach the skill of mindfulness to our kids. I never could have imagined that the U.N. would produce a report that contained the word   “happiness” in its title during my lifetime. Nor would I have thought that U.S. economists would be questioning the merits of GDP and considering GNH—Gross National Happiness— following the lead of Bhutan, a nation whose Gross National Income is 18,491 times smaller than ours.

I’m happy to be living at a time when the world is breaking old patterns; I’m grateful to be witnessing the vision of mindful leaders taking root before my eyes.

“Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” –Robert F. Kennedy

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