The difficulty of being happy
I have many goals in life, and the primary one is to be ‘happy.’
Unfortunately, I suffer from the sporadic panic attack – it’s correlated with my workload and lingers even when the task is completed. I battle with mood swings, the nagging feeling of depression, and a general sense that I am not entirely in control of myself. I was hoping I would get a better grip of these sensations over time. I haven’t.
It’s interesting that we don’t have schools or degrees about the science of happiness- or how to be happier. The philosopher Epictetus once said ‘Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinions about them’, laying foundation for the Greeks’ theory that our emotions follow our beliefs about the world. ‘The soul’, as the philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, ‘becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts’. Presumably, if you change your thoughts, you change your whole experience of the world…
If only it was that easy to ‘think ourselves happy’.
The philosophers of ancient Greece shared this cognitive approach to the thoughts. Socrates, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Sceptics, the Cynics, and even the great Plato and Aristotle, all believed that philosophy is a form of therapy that can make people happier and more fulfilled, by teaching them how to examine and change their beliefs.
In my enthusiasm to teach myself to ‘think happy’, I read Paul Jenner’s book, ‘How to be Happier: Teach Yourself’, three weeks ago. It’s more fluff than substance, but at the very least puts forth steps from the stream of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that are different from everyone’s usual rhetoric (‘you should exercise more’, ‘do yoga’, ‘have a hobby’, yadda yadda yadda…)
Step one is for us to become conscious of our habitual thoughts, and how they create our reality. We can do this by engaging in a dialogue with a friend, or by tracking our beliefs in a journal. Following this is step two, whereby we need to create new habits.
Yes, it sounds like a session with a therapist to me too.
Interestingly though, the ancient Greeks had many techniques for creating new habits. They made maxims to be repeated till they stuck, like Marcus Aurelius’ phrase: ‘life itself is but what you deem it’. But Plato and Aristotle believed that, to heal ourselves, it is not sufficient to change our own individual beliefs. We need to change our whole society, and infuse its culture with wiser values. Today, governments are warming up to Aristotle’s idea that citizens should be taught the art of living well.
I’d like to live well, and I would love a class to teach me how to do it. Till these ‘schools of happiness’ become a part of our society, however, we’ll have to do the research on our own – and hope that life is the best teacher.