Monday, March 26, 2007

Speaking of happiness

The chakras of Antioch

I've been reading a great book by Lucy Eyre called, If Minds Had Toes, (available at a Portsmouth Library near you from Monday, when I return my copy) a fictional journey into the philosophical World of Ideas, which centres on an afterlife bet between Socrates and Wittgenstein on the relevance of philosophy to everyday life. As well as providing a convincing argument as to why philosophy is relevant, the book also functions as a perfect introduction to the world of philosophy to beginners or dabblers, like me.

At one point, the main character, Ben (the unwitting subject of the philosophers' bet), visits a symposium on happiness in the World of Ideas - a kind of heaven for philosophers, and two of the speakers he sees there have some interesting ideas about happiness:

"Happiness is a skill. Anyone can be content, but the faculty to realise it is deficient in most of us. Don;t pursue it - embrace it. It is a mistake to think that happiness is something that you deserve but lack. Many good things are just the absence of bad things - health, security and freedom are fine examples - and we are not experienced at appreciating what is lacking. Happiness is the state where we don';t want anything to be different, therefore if we accept things as they are, we can let ourselves be happy. Decide to be happy and you will be." (page 131)

"The most fundamental element of happiness is unhappiness. Happiness is a complex, mixed emotion. People often prefer things that give them pain rather than pleasure: that is why we choose love over mere sexual gratification, the hard truth over ginorance. We can have no satisfaction if we haven't previously endured a lack. I reject lazy contentment: boredom is the death of happiness. I want suffering so that I may truly be happy." (page 132)

I think my own feelings on happiness are to be found somewhere (unresolved) between these two perspectives. But philosophers haven't cornered the market on happiness studies quite yet, with lots of people from scientists to priests weighing in on the subject.

For example, Tibetan Buddhist Monk (and previous translator for the Dalai Llama), Matthieu Ricard. I'm a bit of an addict on the QT to the Unexplained site and they recently asked if Ricard was the 'Happiest Man in the World' after a series of brain scans on him highlighted the power of meditation:

Mr Ricard, who is the French interpreter for Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, took part in trials to show that brain training in the form of meditation can cause an overwhelming change in levels of happiness.MRI scans showed that he and other long-term meditators - who had completed more than 10,000 hours each - experienced a huge level of "positive emotions" in the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with happiness. The right-hand side, which handles negative thoughts, is suppressed.Further studies have shown that even novices who have done only a little meditation have increased levels of happiness. But Mr Ricard's abilities were head and shoulders above the others involved in the trials.

It would seem as though happiness and state of mind are closely related after all. Take care of controlling your state of mind, you can control your happiness.

I knew there was damn good reason why I should start meditating again.

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