Musings, metrics and mentors

Happiness and contentment – how can I get more of both? How can I keep it?

(Before you get your hopes up too high, I definitely don’t have all the answers. Unfortunately, theres more debate out there than solutions.)

Questions like these, I ask myself ceaselessly. It’s unlikely we’ll ever find definitive answers, especially in the latter. Humans have been searching for thousands – if not, many tens of thousands – of years, with varying degrees of insight, and as long as we are here, I believe we will keep seeking them out.

“What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.” – Sir Isaac Newton

What’s the difference between happiness and contentment?

Both are momentary – happiness is an emotion, contentment is a state of mind.

Contentment, a state of satisfaction, found in happiness, or simply the lack of troubles. Happiness is a chemical response in the brain to stimulation.

Happiness can be broken down and examined further, by attempting to understand what’s really going on. There are four main chemicals that induce the feelings of happiness we experience – dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins, also known as D.O.S.E. These, we can learn to manipulate, by understanding their use and causes. I plan to expand on this in later blogs and outline the simple changes I have made to influence how much D.O.S.E, I am getting and when. Attempting to be happier, by being more deliberate. This includes, ironically, removing sources of easily accessed dopamine, to fill up space for more fulfilling activities with longer lasting benefits.

For many, including me, as quickly as we find that happy place, the walls start falling in around us, as the parameters of what makes us happy shift. These fleeting emotions, start making their passage elsewhere, and often the act of acknowledging their prescience can be the catalyst of their decline. Soon, we want it again – more and more, until we’re devouring so much stimuli we’re positively glutinous. Whatever our smorgasbord of gratification may be, we fill up so much space, perpetually fixated – literally filling our bellies, emptying our wallets, moving our lives around to chase that elusive white rabbit.

We never stop wanting more. It’s very human, or should I say – animalistic. An evolutionary tag along from our primal past. The moment we abandon our instinctual urge for more, more, more, we begin to threaten our existence. Whether it be in our caveman duty to hunt and gather, build shelter or collect wood – our instincts get us up and moving – progressing. Today, we must earn money to shop at our local supermarket, furnish a home and pay the bills. One thing that’s stayed the same is the inherent desire to escape death, to make it through the day – in the literal sense, whether that be to outrun a lion or not get hit by that car -, and to transcend time, in name and/or spirit. Our ego, has maintained the tradition of conquest and endeavour through the ages, carving the names of great men and (less aggressively) women into the annals of history.

If you could ask any one of a number of great leaders, land grabbers and dictators, whether it be, Alexander, Caesar, Saladin, Queen Victoria or Mao, I wonder how many of these powerful people were satisfied by their success and how many still held yet greater aspirations? Did they think of the missed opportunities, the loses, the avaricious pursuit of grander heights?

I would say, likely, yes.

And it’s not just warmongers and the power hungry with insatiable appetites for more. If Alexander Fleming had not the yearning of knowledge, we would not have the benefits of penicillin. Where would we be without antibiotics? Or what of Thomas Edison and the light bulb? Of so many things, we would be, quite literally, in the dark.

So, why is it that we put so much emphasise on being content? Is it not healthy to desire more? Is it not our nature?

Without jumping to assumptions, I don’t think many of us will be riding horseback into the red midst of battle, spearheading the appropriation of land in the third world, or starting the next world religion, anytime soon. But, you never know.

So, what’s it all mean for the rest of us regular folks living in the modern age?

If we reside in comfort too long, it can anesthetise our drive. I used to view comfort as the enemy of success. In certain contexts, I still do. But there’s a paradox here.

What if, happiness is success?

Changing our metrics of success can let us be more happy with what we have. Look inwards and let happiness be the metric you use to measure your success, and not success be the benchmark of happiness. Like shining a mirror on Medusa, you’ll turn to stone the unhelpful perception of your own success.

But that still leaves the question, how do we get more happiness?

Even when I am in no state of conflict – I’m safe, comfortable and “happy” – I can still be caught unaware by lurking intruders. Sometimes, the unconscious mind sits so quietly that I think it might be gone. It likes to surprises me by opening the door and letting all my urges, anxieties and fears, rush in at once.

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” – Mark Twain

I recently became interested in digging into some of the ancient wisdoms. I often wonder how many great conceptions have been lost to the sands of time. I became attached to the sincerity of Buddhism.

Gautama Buddha was a spiritual teacher who arose in northern India or present day Nepal, living sometime during the 5th or 4th century BCE. The Buddha was not a disciple of any god, instead he spread a philosophy of how to live. His teachings sought to liberating sentient beings from suffering.

In Buddhism, the aim is to reveal the true nature of reality by deconstructing the concepts that drag down our minds. An authentic happiness will be found through meditation and mental training, that unloads the mind of the external baggage of emotion, such as anxieties, hatred and compulsions. Once a person has purged themselves of all their worldly desires, they reach a level of enlightenment, endowing a state of utter bliss, harmony and ease at the world around – this is called Nirvana.

The first teachings of Buddha were the Four Noble Truths. I’ll attempt to summarise them as concisely as possible.

First, life is full of inevitable and avoidable suffering – to live is to suffer. The Second, was to identify the root of our suffering in the craving of pleasure, material goods, and immortality. As our reality is in a state of constant flux, our unquenchable thirst can never be satisfied. The Third Noble Truth, to end the craving will be the end to suffering. When one achieves this, they will have reached Nirvana. The fourth and final Noble Truth lays out the methods for one wishing to seek Nirvana, known as the Noble Eightfold Path.

What can we take from these time-honoured teachings?

Even if one was to remove the literalism, and manage to incorporate just some of these ancients insights into their modern lives, the resulting sense of greater happiness and contentment may be profound.

The first step is to recognise our weaknesses within the modern world and remove or reduce them. This may be spending less time on social media or learning to appreciate an old t-shirt we had forgotten, instead of buying a new one. The second, is to live in the present. Many of our worries may never come to be (thanks Twain). In an ever moving reality, we must remember to acknowledge what’s real, here and now and what isn’t.

Those who manage to borrow the wealth of knowledge of these bygone intellects and balance it with that of classical scholars and contemporary teachers, will unlock a world of limitless wisdom. Imagine being mentored by Sir Isaac Newton, Mark Twain or the Buddha? Well, you can, with the endless resource of the internet.

But, just remember, there’s no time like the present.

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.” – Master Oogway, Kung Foo Panda

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