Episode 16: More about happiness

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This is going to be another episode not directly about cancer, but about happiness, which is a big interest of mine. It's a big interest for all of us. Whether we have cancer or not, we all want our time on this planet to be as happy and fulfilling as possible.

There are a bunch of theories about how we can make ourselves happy.

Working out how we can best make ourselves happy has been a focus of humanity since we first became human, possibly even earlier. One night, almost 2600 years ago, a guy sat down under a fig tree in what's now northwest India, thought hard on the problem, and pretty much figured it out.

His name was Siddhartha, but he's better known these days as the Buddha. After his night under the fig tree he spent the rest of his life teaching others about what he'd realized. It turned out that his insight, while real, was kind of subtle, and hard to convey adequately with words. So most people have to work at it to really understand it.

Among the things the Buddha taught was that happiness comes from inside us, not from outside. The big pile of coins, the marriage to Idris Elba, even becoming a doctor--those are all external factors, not internal ones. They can't lead to true, lasting happiness. What can lead to happiness is better understanding of our thoughts.

So thoughts are key, but thoughts themselves are weird things. They flit in and out of our heads so quickly that we often barely notice them. They are largely out of our control. And, when you look at them, you start to realize that many (maybe most) of them have little relationship to the real world. But they have a profound impact on our emotional lives.

Many of our thoughts are habitual. If you're paying attention, you start to see that your thoughts often form the same patterns over and over. We each have our own default modes for thinking about ourselves and the world. For a lot of us, our habitual patterns of thinking are not necessarily ones that lead to a lot of happiness.

The good news is, we’re not stuck with our habits. We can change them and create new ones. From what I’ve read, there are two basic ways to do this. It’s important to do both. Doing just one isn’t nearly as effective as doing both of them.

1. Pay attention to the thought processes you currently have. You can’t get from point A to point B if you don’t know where point A is.

So start watching what’s going on now in your head. This is a little tricky. After all, you’re trying to use your mind to watch your mind. It can be done, but it takes some patience. The technique for doing this is meditation, which is a whole topic in and of itself. Maybe we’ll tackle that one in a future episode.

2. Consciously choose to think thoughts that will make you happier. At first this will feel unnatural and contrived. With time, though, these thoughts will become more habitual, especially as you notice how they’re working their magic and making you more and more happy.  The Buddhists have specific recommendations about what sort of thoughts these are. It turns out that “imagining yourself rolling around on a pile of gold coins with Kate Upton” will not, according to them, lead to lasting happiness.  (I know. Total buzzkill.)

What works better than anything else is concentrating on the happiness of other people. Which, at least to a primarily self-centered guy like me, sort of feels weird and unnatural. Actually, this whole thing feels a little weird at first, but go with it. Trust me, the pay-off is great. 

There's a Tibetan Buddhist meditation called “tonglen” which makes the whole concentrating-on-others thing more fun. (I’m not a Buddhist scholar, so I’m probably getting numerous details of this wrong, but here goes…) First, imagine that the heavens open up and they send you a big bolt of energy, right into your chest. (I usually picture this in full “SHAZAM!” style, from the old Captain Marvel comics.) This energy has special Buddhist powers to take away any anxiety and self-doubt, and instead it fills you with focus, happiness, and peace.

Now that you’re filled with all that goodness, as you walk down the street, imagine yourself sending bolts of that energy off to strangers as you pass by them. Imagine them receiving that energy, and being filled with happiness, self-confidence, and contentment. (If you want, you can also picture them wearing the Captain Marvel costume, with the cape and the big lightning bolt on their chest.) 

There. You just concentrated on the well-being of strangers instead of yourself. How do you feel?

If you're like me, for at least a brief period of time, you got some relief from the endless loop of self-centeredness, with all its associated anxieties and craziness, that usually rolls through your head. Also, you got to picture other people wearing silly clothes! Talk about a win-win! 

I really like tonglen. It makes the initial awkwardness of sending mental images of love and compassion to strangers a lot more enjoyable. After I send bolts of energy to a few strangers, I often send some to myself. This may seem selfish, but it actually fits with the Buddha's teachings. One of the things he's quoted as saying is, “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection."