Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy

Forty years ago, psychologist Paul Ekman of the University of California, San Francisco, showed photographs of Americans expressing various emotions to the isolated Fore people in New Guinea. Though most of the Fore had never been exposed to Western faces, they readily recognized expressions of anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, and fear and surprise (which are difficult to differentiate). When Ekman conducted the experiment in reverse, showing Fore faces to Westerners, the emotions were again unmistakable. Ekman's now classic study gave powerful support to the notion that the facial expressions of basic emotions are universal, an idea first put forth by Charles Darwin.

According to Ekman, these six emotions (plus contempt) are themselves universal, evolved to prepare us to deal quickly with circumstances we believe will affect our welfare. Some emotional triggers are universal as well. A sudden invasion of your field of vision triggers fear, for instance. But most emotional triggers are learned. The smell of newly mowed hay will conjure up different emotions in someone who spent idyllic childhood summers in the country and someone who was forced to work long hours on a farm. Once such an emotional association is made, it is difficult, if not impossible, to unmake it.

"Emotion is the least plastic part of the brain," says Ekman. But we can learn to manage our emotions better. For instance, the shorter the time between the onset of an emotion and when we become consciously aware of it—what Ekman calls the refractory period—the more likely we are to double-check to see if the emotion is appropriate to the situation. One way to shorten the refractory period is to be aware of what triggers our various emotions.

What is happiness, and how can we all get some? Biochemist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard says we can train our minds in habits of well-being, to generate a true sense of serenity and fulfillment.

“Matthieu Ricard, French translator and right-hand man for the Dalai Lama, has been the subject of intensive clinical tests at the University of Wisconsin, as a result of which he is frequently described as the happiest man in the world.” — Robert Chalmers, The Independent

The happiest man in the world is a 67-year-old Buddhist monk called Matthieu Ricard.
He starts his day sitting in a meadow in front of his hermitage in Nepal. He watches hundreds of miles of Himalayan peaks glowing in front of him in the rising sun. The scene “blends naturally and seamlessly with the peace he has within”.

Professor Lord Richard Layard:
“Getting public policy to focus on making people happy is an ongoing task. We do have quite powerful evidence that people vote on how satisfied they are with their lives, rather than on the growth in their income. So we may begin to see some shift. …There’s a very interesting contest going in our society between the macho culture that puts more and more pressure on people to compete to get the better of each other, versus the ‘wellbeing’ movement where people get satisfaction from what they contribute to other people. To change that assumption that that is how life has to be, and state instead that life is about happiness: that is a core problem.”
Would he welcome a future where science has succeeded in wholly measuring and defining happiness?
“I think that would be wonderful, so long as it doesn’t stop people living spontaneously. You don’t want to be checking your happiness watch all the time.”

“Positive psychologists and happiness economists,” he writes, “make a great play of the fact that money and material possessions don’t lead to an increase in our mental wellbeing. But these experts are in a minority, compared with the vast assemblage of consumer psychologists, consumer neuroscientists and market researchers all dedicated to ensuring that we do achieve some degree of emotional satisfaction by spending money.”

“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.”
- Guillaume Apollinaire

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