Choosing happiness

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Choosing Happiness

On Saturday, my husband and I went to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco to see the exhibit, The Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan. I was entranced by the colorful thankas (painted or embroidered banners that depict Buddhist teachings, the life of the Buddha, and other intricate images) and the film footage of dancers performing in temple ceremonies in brightly colored costumes and masks.

Bhutan is a small country about the size of Switzerland located at the eastern end of the Himalaya Mountains between India and Tibet. It is a Buddhist country whose government has chosen to measure GNH (gross national happiness) in addition to GNP (gross national product). Bhutan's government policies emphasize the preservation of its identity, culture and environment. I have never been to Bhutan, but I would really like to visit there. I wonder what it feels like to be in a country that cherishes the arts and its citizens' happiness, which is not solely defined by economic prosperity.

I have been thinking a lot about happiness recently. I am taking a class called "Awakening Joy", a 10-month course led by James Baraz. To be honest, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I am taking a course with such a title. A part of me wonders how, with all of the suffering in the world now, we can be focusing on joy. People are losing jobs and their retirement incomes, the death toll in Oakland keeps rising, there are wars, famine, and disasters in almost every region of the world.

What I am learning though, is that for those of us who are able to focus on joy, contentment, peace, calm, happiness, or whatever word evokes a positive state of being, we can spread these positive states to others. If I am open to more well being, I experience it, notice it, and share it with others. James uses the words, "inclining the mind toward happiness." I find that phrase really helpful.

When I see that I incline my mind toward negativity or judgment, I ask myself if that is how I want to be. I give myself a choice. More and more, I am choosing to turn those thoughts around and to incline my mind in a positive direction. Just by paying attention to my thought patterns, I am able to shift them. In turn, I feel happier and more able to share gratitude and appreciation with others.

Research on the topic of happiness has exploded in the past ten years. When I typed the word happiness into an amazon.com book search, I got 361,679 results. So then I typed in sadness to compare and the results were 219,948 titles. Positive psychology is a fairly new field, largely thought to have begun in 1998 when Martin Seligman chose that as the theme for his year as the president of the American Psychological Association.

At some points in our lives, it is not easy to focus on joy or happiness. Life circumstances may be such that we feel sad. At those times, it can be helpful to look for the small things that make us smile. Maybe it is the antics of a pet, or noticing the spring blossoms on the trees, or being thankful for a friend who reached out to us. For those people who are not naturally inclined to feel happy, learning to pay attention to the small things in our lives that give us pleasure can help to change our disposition.

This happened to me. I never thought of myself as a particularly happy person. Not that I was unhappy, but I didn't see myself as being particularly joyful either. Part of the change for me is that I have redefined happiness for myself. For me, it is calmness, a subtle feeling of well-being. A couple of years ago, weeding out in my back yard, I realized that I was happy. I felt a sense of pleasure being outdoors on a beautiful day in my garden. I felt peaceful and frankly I felt happy. It was a new feeling for me. With the realization came happy tears. And, I have been able to sustain that overall feeling of well-being, even when things come up in my life that are not positive. I am choosing to incline my mind and heart toward happiness.

© Sue Schleifer, April 2009

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