Rob Suisted

The Pursuit of Happiness

It is neither wealth nor splendour; but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness. —Thomas Jefferson

Written by       Photographed by Rob Suisted

Ajahn Tiradhammo believes that it’s not until distractions of every day life are put aside that one can experience the serenity of being. A Buddhist monk at the Bodhinyanarama Monastery in Stokes Valley, he practises what he preaches, meditating twice a day.
Ajahn Tiradhammo believes that it’s not until distractions of every day life are put aside that one can experience the serenity of being. A Buddhist monk at the Bodhinyanarama Monastery in Stokes Valley, he practises what he preaches, meditating twice a day.

The brain is not hard-wired to deal with a Lotto win. When Margaret Heaney compared the winning numbers with those on her ticket, images of them travelled in waves to her occipital lobe, just above the nape of her neck, where the brain runs a real-time map of the visual world (and where the upside-down image her retina sent gets righted). The information was then delivered to her parietal lobe, where she kept a reference file of numbers. In here, she compared the numerals she read with the numeric values her brain had recorded and kept. It confirmed for her that they tallied.

Had she been looking at a burning frypan, or a scorpion, her brain would have matched the image to an appropriate physical response—find an extinguisher, back away. It would have ordered her adrenal gland to release adrenalin, boosting her heart rate, dilating her pupils, sending more oxygen to her muscles to help her deal with the contingency.

These are responses we evolved through hard experience thousands of years ago, in a primal, immediate world where we were still prey. But the world has changed much faster than our brains, and Heaney’s had no stock response on file to help her deal with the realisation that she had, in a matter of nanoseconds, become $36 million richer.

It took a couple more nanoseconds for her nucleus accumbens—our brain’s reward centre—to process the stimulus of the biggest lottery win in New Zealand history. It flooded her body with dopamine—a pleasure neurotransmitter. Finally, her frontal lobes took Heaney to look at her future. She began to shake. “I checked the numbers six times,” she said, “then I rang my daughter.”

Margaret Heaney grew up in Masterton, one of six children brought up by a solo mother in a time when unmarried mothers didn’t just suffer opprobrium, they endured hostility. A sickly child, Heaney still had no hair at age two, by which time she was out collecting bottles to sell, tending the vegetable patch and making hay with her siblings.

“I remember our table was an apple box with a sheet over it,” she told me, “but there was always a meal on it each evening. My mum was a good role model, and we never felt like we wanted for anything. There was always plenty of love.”

Even after she’d shared the win with her two daughters, Heaney found herself staring at a $12 million bank balance, trying to make some sense of wealth her life, her upbringing, could never prepare her for. Some lottery winners give up work, then find their life loses all meaning. Others turn to drink. Others decide they can now do better than their partner of years. Embittered “friends” desert them. The women’s magazines are full of tales of freefall from delirium to despair, but Heaney denied them that. She gave most of her winnings away.

We sat in a conservatory at the back of the ex-state house she lived in for 43 years and held down three jobs to get a deposit for. It had a coat of paint, a new kitchen (but no dishwasher; “I can wash my own damn dishes,” she growled), and she was almost apologetic when she told me she had bought a “new” car. A late-nineties Ford Fiesta hatchback sat in the driveway.

She was not about to move, because she liked her neighbours. Besides, she gardened for the old lady two doors down, and what would she do if Heaney moved away?

“All my memories are here,” she said. “If you’ve got good family and friends, you’re already rich.”

Heaney was a rare thing: a human being apparently immune to material desire. She had both feet planted firmly in an ethical universe many would not recognise. She held tight to beliefs that have fallen, for so many of us, out of sight below a hedonistic horizon. She had never let go of the values you pay a therapist to reacquaint you with.

“It made me happy to be able to help people,” she told me. “It’s a hell of a world if we can’t help one another out.” Heaney believed that until the day she died on December 6, even as this magazine was going to print.

“According to the tenets of capitalism,” says Paul Jose, associate professor of psychology at Wellington’s Victoria University, “you should be measurably happier with five million in the bank. But there’s a growing number of people who are completely disillusioned with that contention.”

Social surveys bear him out. Between 1998 and 2007, our gross disposable income rose 12.6 per cent. Bucking the recession, it jumped again in 2008, another 1.9 per cent, yet the incidence of depression and other mental disorders jumped sharply over the same period—47 per cent of New Zealanders will now suffer mental illness at some time in their lives. Measured in 2006, New Zealand had the fifth-highest male suicide rate out of 13 OECD nations, and the second-highest young male suicide rate. A quarter of New Zealanders aged 15 and over were obese in 2006 and 2007, second only to the United States. The New Zealand police deal with more than 70,000 incidents of family violence every year.

Cognitive neuroscientist Gina Grimshaw monitors the brain activity of a subject in response to scenes from a movie. Each subject processes the input in a different but consistent way, suggesting that we may be genetically “hard-wired” with an emotional disposition.
Cognitive neuroscientist Gina Grimshaw monitors the brain activity of a subject in response to scenes from a movie. Each subject processes the input in a different but consistent way, suggesting that we may be genetically “hard-wired” with an emotional disposition.

Let’s be clear, though: money can and does buy happiness, with a couple of critical qualifications. It’s difficult to take a rosy view of life when you can’t pay the rent, or your kids are going to school without lunch or shoes. “Being happy is a luxury for those that have the basics,” observes Jose.

So up to a certain—surprisingly low—point, the security of an income helps people to be more positive, but a Japanese study found that “life satisfaction” flatlines above an income of US$10,000 a year. A US survey of chief executives with seven-figure salaries found their happiness hovered only slightly above that of their employees. Other studies have found that satisfaction actually diminished with the advent of a six-figure pay cheque.

The rich are happier than the rest of society, but not by much. In fact, the trend likely has more to do with the fact that happy people are more likely to succeed in business, as they are in relationships, because of their positivity and appeal.

The relationship between wealth and happiness gets even fuzzier in the developing world. In Nigeria, where 2009 per capita income averaged $2053, more people considered themselves happy than in Japan, with a per capita income 25 times higher. Twice as many Bangladeshis consider themselves happy as Russians, although the latter earn around four times more.

It seems that those of us inclined to go looking for happiness in the material world tend to run up against the same inevitability: once we obtain the objects we desired, we discover they haven’t made us happy.

Say you buy a new car, or an iPod, but you find it hasn’t brought you the satisfaction you thought it would (or were promised by the commercial). Almost immediately, you begin to desire something else. You’re on what psychologists calls the “hedonic treadmill”, and like a gym treadmill, it doesn’t matter how fast or hard you go at it, you stay in the same place.

In some people, this hamster-on-a-wheel pursuit of happiness spins into addiction. In extreme cases, counsellors tell of shop-a-holics who don’t even bother unwrapping their purchases when they get home—their lounges are strewn with boxes and bags. That’s because for them, the hit comes from the fleeting euphoria of acquisition; there is no satisfaction in ownership.

It’s all to do with the way our neurons behave. They get excited by new stimuli, but gradually become accustomed to repetitive ones, such as pattern drinking. Jaded, they fire less and less with each exposure to the same stimulus. It’s change that turns us on, not continuum. So to get the same hit, we keep ramping up the target, the desire. No sooner do we attain one ambition, one possession, than we want another, but it turns out we’re not very good at predicting what will make us happy.

People are forever telling researchers that all manner of things they thought would make them happy didn’t work—a pay rise, buying a bigger house, having kids. (Women in one study reported that rearing children was only slightly more satisfying than doing the dishes, and that they enjoyed jogging more.)

Something we are good at is adapting; we quickly come to regard an improved situation as the norm. So when you move up to a five-bedroom villa in a better suburb, it’s not long before you’re looking in the estate agent’s window again—your expectations are well ahead of you.

Real happiness is rarely about peaks—it’s got much more to do with the plains between them. “We love those hedonic jolts,” says Jose, “but each of us has a happiness range. You’ll only ever get so happy, or so unhappy.” Somewhere in the middle, he contends, is your happiness thermostat. “Eventually, we default to a set point.”

A happy person might be set at 28 degrees, while a depressive might languish in the chill of 13, but each can and does shift up and down, depending on circumstances: a depressive enjoying a stand-up comic could for a while experience the warmth of 17 degrees, but will eventually retire to his or her icy mindset.

But is it set? For years, psychologists believed that our personalities were forged in the furnace of our upbringing, but studies in the 90s revealed the primal, pervasive power of the gene. They suggested you were born with a disposition somewhere between sunny and sullen. Now we’ve unravelled the human genome, we understand the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Happiness is indeed one of the most heritable personality traits. A 1996 study of twins concluded that genes are typically responsible for 60 per cent—but up to as much as 80 per cent—of the difference between your happiness set point and mine. So yes, genes call the shots, but they’re not oblivious to the influence of environment.

Engaging in pleasurable activities which reconnect one with the environment—such as this fisherman’s successful afternoon at Marokopa—shift brain activity to the left hemisphere, the seat of positive emotions such as happiness.

In the late 1990s, psychologists actually advanced a formula for happiness. It goes: H=S+C+V, where your happiness (H) is determined by your biological set point (S), plus the prevailing conditions in your life (C), plus V, which denotes the voluntary, or discretionary, activities you do. More on those later.

Gina Grimshaw, a cognitive neuroscientist at Victoria University, would probably add a fifth element—P. She suggests our happiness may well come down to our perception. “It’s a cognitive thing—how you interpret what’s going on in your life. People might not experience high peaks of elation or intense joy, but still be very happy.

“People who are susceptible to depression have negative processing styles, so when they face something ambiguous or neutral to interpret, the glass is always half empty. We’re trying to find out whether there’s a happy correlate to that response—a happiness steady state.”

Positive and negative emotions aren’t necessarily opposites of one another, says Grimshaw. “They’re discrete, individual…you can probably experience both at once.”

So she wires people’s brains, then shows them movies of various scenes, monitoring how, and where, they process the emotions those scenes evoke. Each emotion runs along its own neural circuit, so her first job is to figure out which one she’s observing. “There’s a difference between happiness and other positive emotions. You can show people sexually arousing images, for example, and they’re stimulated—they may experience desire—but is that the same sort of thing as happiness? I don’t think so.”

When Grimshaw wires up her study subjects, she can watch the activity in their brains shift between the left and right frontal lobes, depending on the situation or stimulus. “When we ask people to sit and relax,” she tells me, “we often see a lot of activity in the left hemisphere. In depressed people, we see more activity in the right.”

It’s long been known that each of us favours one side of the frontal cortex over the other. People functioning heavily in their left report feeling happy most of the time. “Leftie” infants are less likely to cry, and this happier disposition appears to stay with them throughout their lives. On the flip side, depressives typically do much of their processing in the right prefrontal cortex, which tends to dominate the left, sabotaging their perception. But when she looked deeper, Grimshaw found something fascinating: even people who considered themselves “cured” of depression continued to function heavily in their right prefrontal cortex. “When they get better, their brains don’t shift.”

It’s too early to say for sure, but Grimshaw suspects a genetic predisposition, “something that mediates how they process information. Are they stuck in the negative? Can we shift them? It’s a hypothesis; we don’t know yet.”

In one sense, we’re all stuck in the negative. Evolution has encouraged us to “approach” behaviours likely to expedite survival and reproduction, like eating, or sex. When we do these things, the brain rewards us with dopamine, and the pleasure we feel makes us want to do them again real soon. On the flip side, we’re discouraged from harm by innate “startle” responses such as blinking, flinching and flight. These are called “withdrawal” states.

Because that scorpion or burning frypan needs a response in nanoseconds, our brain doesn’t stop to consult. Our sensitivity to threats—“bad stuff”— is an order of magnitude more acute than to good. We come pre-wired for aversion, or at least pessimism. When that car backfires next to you, you’ve already jumped before your brain figures out what the noise was. But walk in to the smell of great cooking, and the lights dimmed with soft music playing, and it takes you ten times as long to realise that your lover is about to make your day.

However, we’re not total automatons; a 2004 study suggested that we might, with the right approach, reclaim our cortices. Researchers attached wires to the brains of Buddhist monks with more than 10,000 hours of meditation behind them, then watched the activity as the monks practised compassion meditation. Scans revealed a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves, thought to represent neuron activity between far-flung brain circuits.

Activity in the monks’ left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped processing in the right (where depression and anxiety reside)—a triumph, if you like, of good over bad.

But can we really think—make—ourselves happy? We’re forever exhorted to think positive, put on a smile—a feel-good dogma that’s now actually enforced by some US retail chains that demand a morning cheer from employees, who face dismissal if they don’t display the requisite levity. But legislated happiness like this has nothing to do with genuine wellbeing, and everything to do with marketing and profit, as do the groaning shelves of self-help books that offer happiness in a manual.

A motorcycle accident which left her paralysed for some time redefined Bianca Edwards’ life. Every small step towards rehabilitation has rewarded her with happiness, because, as researchers have discovered, we get more satisfaction from moving towards a goal than actually achieving it.
A motorcycle accident which left her paralysed for some time redefined Bianca Edwards’ life. Every small step towards rehabilitation has rewarded her with happiness, because, as researchers have discovered, we get more satisfaction from moving towards a goal than actually achieving it.

When American social researcher Barbara Ehrenreich went looking for the power of positive thought, she couldn’t find it anywhere. In her book Smile or Die, she tested the pop-psych contention that staying upbeat could make you happy, healthy, or even rich. Poring through reams of studies and surveys, she failed to turn up any correlation between a positive attitude and prosperity—in fact, one 2002 study found that mildly depressed women were likely to live longer than non-depressed women.

On the contrary, she maintains she found evidence that undue optimism could be career- or even life-threatening, because it clouds our judgment in what is, after all, a dangerous and disappointing world. A study of more than a thousand Californian children concluded that optimistic kids were more likely to die early because they were more inclined to take risks.

A healthy dose of pessimism, then, may well be good for you; it keeps you rooted in reality. But try telling Bianca Edwards that positivity has no power.

She can’t remember the moment the van hit her as she rode her bicycle along the Hutt motorway in 1996. The driver was tuning the radio and strayed into the cycle lane—never saw her, never braked. The police said the van was doing about 100 km/h when it shattered her spine.

Neither does she remember the emergency surgery on the side of the motorway, nor the helicopter medevac to Burnham Hospital in Christchurch. By the time Edwards came round, doctors had already told her husband she would never walk again.

A multisport athlete, Edwards stared blankly at the end of her life. “I was a physical person; my whole life revolved around sport. I was proud of my body, my fitness. It was who I was—it gave my life meaning.” Where ambition soared, now stalked despair.

Surgeons laboured in shifts, trying to rebuild her spine. For weeks, she lay paralysed—mentally, physically. “My legs felt like they were nailed to the bed. I was really desperate,” she recalls. Her dreams were about long training runs. Then one day, she felt a muscle twitch. A light came on in Edwards’ brain. She dared to set herself a goal: to move her toes. “It seemed such a long, long way to my feet.

“The doctor took my foot in his hands, and said, ‘Now concentrate. I want you to move your big toe’.” All Edwards’ hope, ambition—her will—was bent on the flex of a single digit. The doctor felt the barest flicker of movement.

Edwards had lowered her happiness “set point” from winning triathlons to wiggling her toe. She had redefined what was, to her, valuable in her life.

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking has been almost completely disabled with motor neuron disease since his youth. When the New York Times asked him how he stays positive, he said: “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”

At any given time, then, we calibrate our mood against our set point; are we happier, or sadder, than our “default” setting? We also run a ledger against the fortunes of others (right now, you’re gratefully feeling better off than Bianca Edwards), constantly comparing our own well-being with that of those around us.

Believe this or not as you choose, but Lotto winners and quadriplegics often arrive at the same happiness set point, from different directions. The win brings the millionaire a massive hit of happiness, but as we’ve seen, that begins to erode as soon as the begging letters arrive. (Heaney received thousands; some simply gave a list of debts and a bank account number.)

The quadriplegic, on the other hand, suffers a crushing loss of happiness up front, but humans being what they are, eventually sets himself or herself a goal, as Edwards did, and strikes out for it. There is nowhere to go but up, and they’re buoyed by another revelation of research: there’s good reason to believe we get far more satisfaction from moving towards a goal than achieving it. The brain rewards us with dopamine every time we take a step—or a wiggle—in the right direction. We recognise this as satisfaction. It really is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

A US study of lottery winners, paraplegics and a random control group found that the lottery winners considered themselves no happier than the control group. When asked if they expected to be happier in the future, the paraplegics rated higher than the lottery winners. Significantly, the winners reported getting less pleasure from everyday activities (even shopping).

Many who have endured a disaster in their life, particularly those who have confronted death—either their own or that of a loved one—will tell you that the experience retaught them what is precious. It’s never about iPods or BMWs. Edwards’ family came from Belgium to be by her hospital bedside, and she remembered love again. “I used to worry about petty things, but I’m much closer to reality these days. I’m a happier person now than before the accident, and my friends tell me I’m nicer to be around.”

Edwards is careful these days to be thankful for what she has, and that’s a powerful way to become happy, says psychology professor Paul Jose. “We need to remember to give thanks for small things—the sun streaming in a window, birdsong, a smile. In Christianity, it’s offering thanks, in Buddhism, it’s called mindfulness.”

Being thankful—stopping to smell the flowers—does more than just remind us that life is made up of blessings big and small. It does something much more powerful: it keeps us in the present moment.

You might be surprised to find how little time you spend in the here and now. Psychologists tell us we’re often preoccupied instead with either what has been and gone, or what might happen in the future. That can be a bad thing, says Jose, if we spend that time focusing on the negative. There’s a name for people who do: they’re called ruminators.

“Ruminators either revisit past hurts, focus on something negative in the present, or worry about something unpleasant happening in the future,” he says. Ruminators spend much of their time, well, ruminating…mulling over events in their life that have long since passed—upbringings, divorces, redundancies—reliving them over and over as if that might somehow change history, picking away at them like a scab, never letting them heal. They drag their past through life like a ball and chain and fret about it all happening again.

In contrast, a “savourer” relishes the past, present or future. They fondly nurture memories, keenly embrace present experiences, and look forward to things such as reunions or holidays with glee.

“Rumination and savouring are opposite sides of the coin in terms of emphasising the positive or negative,” says Jose.

But positive or negative, any time spent in the past or future is time you deny yourself to “be here now”. Something counsellors often do with depressive clients is get them to stop, sit quietly, feel the chair beneath them, the floor, the earth. This is grounding in its most literal sense, and the whole point is to push “pause” (or, hopefully, “stop”) on that endless loop of retrospective resentment, regret or worry that plays 24/7 in the mind of a ruminator.

Because, we’re told, the best place to appreciate your life is right here, right now.

The “power of now” is wielded nowhere more potently than hundreds of metres up a vertiginous wall of rock. We watch a climber pick his way, held to this world—if he’s lucky—by a few shards of thin metal and a rope. We would like to ask him why. Why would anyone expose himself to such folly? It defies every instinct and all reason. Nonplussed, we dismiss climbers as addicts—“adrenalin junkies”.

Often, climbers can’t explain it either; they just know that when they come down, they feel deliriously alive. But think about this: how many times does your next move determine whether you live or die? How often does your life demand such acute concentration that a moment’s distraction, one bad decision, sends you to your death? This isn’t just about crossing a busy intersection, this is a zen state of rarified, intense focus. This is extreme grounding, and in our warning-label, health-and-safety, cotton-wool world, there are few places left to do it.

One of the founders of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, found that while people undoubtedly enjoy the hedonic jolt of pleasures such as food and sex, there is something that grants us still more satisfaction, and he called it flow. The climber makes his way up a pitch in a series of moves. Rhythm is everything; the concert is all about the flow from one move, one problem solved, to the next. As we’ve already seen, the brain rewards progress more than ultimate achievement, so every increment is a dopamine hit.

Add the adrenalin, the intense focus, and the climber finds himself “in the zone”. Most of us will recognise it. The task is challenging, but we’re more than up to it—in fact, it feels effortless. It happens on the golf course, or sitting at the easel, or driving a windy road.

Here on the rock wall, immersed in the moment, the climber’s mind, his spirit, rediscovers its potency. His body might be running on hormones, but he has achieved ultimate clarity, which is just as well, because he has balanced himself on the lip of oblivion. Only here, where he gambles the hand he holds—his future, his lover, his children—against the banker, death, does he understand and value life.

Most of us cannot or will not risk our life to gain that kind of clarity, but happy people, says Dr Niki Harré, associate professor of psychology at Auckland University, go climbing in other ways. “They frequently pursue enjoyable activities. By enjoyable, I mean fully engrossing, so that when they’re involved in that activity, the rest of the world just fades away.”

Psychologists understand the place of pursuits in a happy life, such that they make a critical distinction between “pleasures”—chocolate, backrubs—and “gratifications”. A gratification engages you utterly, draws your talents to the surface, and soothes your self-doubts.

For some of us, that might be painting a watercolour, or making a ship in a bottle, or it might help explain the multimillion-dollar popularity of gardening.

There’s another way to free our mind from the clutter and noise of modern life. Ajahn Tiradhammo does it twice a day. A Buddhist monk at the Bodhinyanarama Monastery in Stokes Valley, near Upper Hutt, he rises at 5 am to sit quietly, slow down and temporarily suspend his “interpretations of reality”. Only in such a way, he says, when we’ve put aside the demands and distractions of the day and taken ourselves to a quiet focus, can we objectively get to know ourselves.

Jackie Bedford of Wellington’s School of Philosophy believes in putting the past behind you and focusing on the present. “Take it all,” she says, “the good and the bad.”
Jackie Bedford of Wellington’s School of Philosophy believes in putting the past behind you and focusing on the present. “Take it all,” she says, “the good and the bad.”

Tiradhammo teaches meditation to help people explore their own moods and feelings. “People might use them to feel less stressed, for example. Others pursue a calling of some kind; to discover the truth… It’s a bit hard to put it into words sometimes, because we don’t actually know what it is until we get there.

“Spiritual exercises,” he says, “give us the tools to focus our attention. They calm our mind, make us more centred and stable.” This is not detachment, he insists. “It’s more a matter of focusing on something neutral, like breathing. That provides a certain space which offers a calm, and helps you stop reacting to the things you find within.

“Some people aren’t able to know their demons, because they’re so frightening. They react emotionally to them. But if their mind is calmed down, if they are centred, then they can look at those fears in a safe space and not be taken over by them. I can have an emotional feeling going on, and yet still keep myself within a centre of calm and look at it objectively. What’s triggering it? What’s feeding it?”

The Buddha taught that our sense of self is an illusion, says Tiradhammo. “The enlightenment is that there is no permanent, abiding self. We think we need a sense of self to provide a point of reference in this chaotic world, and we view the world through coloured lenses that support our belief, our value system. That everything is here for us. But that’s not an ultimate reality; it’s just conditioning.”

In the serenity of meditation, Tiradhammo says, we can “begin to feel what’s actually going on, rather than interpreting our experiences”. In there, we can find our true self, and maybe even get a feel for where we fit, a sense of connectedness and place.

I can remember when I finally understood, or at least accepted, the sheer randomness of our universe, the boggling statistical unlikelihood of my own existence, the fragile contingency that allowed me to live—or not. It wasn’t a deflating revelation; in fact, I took huge comfort from knowing that actually, there is no master plan, no celestial script, no meaning of life. I embraced the improbability, the chaos, and revelled in my lucky place in it. It was one of the most liberating moments of my life.

Yet still, I can’t entrust everything entirely to fate. I do up my seatbelt, I keep up my insurance payments, even as philosophers classical and contemporary, pop psychologists—even the Buddha—exhort us to let go, lift our feet from the streambed and let the waters sweep us to whatever end. Don’t force an outcome. That, after all, is the ultimate engagement with “the moment”.

It’s not easy though. We like to know what’s coming, what’s written on that last page, because at some point, those old hard-wired survival responses kick in; our genes want us to pass them on. “People need everything to be in order,” says Jackie Bedford, who conducts a ten-week course at Wellington’s School of Philosophy, “they need to know how it’s all going to work out. When they don’t, they worry about it—they load the present moment with fear and doubt.”

Happiness is one of five term concepts covered at the school (“nobody is not a student,” says Bedford), and there’s no test at the end, because there’s no right answer. In other words, Bedford applies the very approach she tries to follow in life: “Keep it simple, and here in the moment.”

She cautions against looking at the present through the dulled, scratched lens of the past. “As adults, we’ve accumulated all these layers of ingrained attitudes that filter the way we see things. We tend to hold those experiences in front of us like a shield, and any new experiences have to somehow get past them before we can be open to them.” Bedford doesn’t deny the value of learning from the past, but tries to keep her history “in a backpack behind me, where I can draw from it when I need to, but not in front, where it gets in the way of my ability to enjoy new things.”

Like Tiradhammo, she believes the path to happiness leads inside one’s self, where we must learn not just to know ourselves, but accept the flaws—even the demons—we find there, along with the gems. As in life, she says, “take it all, the good and the bad”.

We go to great lengths to keep ourselves—and our children still more so—from harm or painful experiences, but research into the power of adversity hints that we may not be doing our kids any favours. As Bianca Edwards discovered, difficulties—even despair—are every bit as valuable in shaping us as success or gratification.

We never know our own strength until fate picks a fight. Edwards found that her power, her endurance, was far greater than any triathlon could ever have exacted from her. Today, she walks unaided for short distances, further with a stick. She swims instead of runs. She can’t pedal a bicycle, but she’s discovered motorcycling, spends sunny days astride her Ducati, watching the Wairarapa whiz past.

Now, she knows this about herself: if she can overcome the catastrophe of her accident, she can cope with pretty much anything. “I hadn’t been through enough to know the real value of things like friends and family.

“I’ve been given an opportunity. Nowadays, I seek out happiness—do the things I enjoy, stay in touch with friends.”

Can we really seek out happiness? There is a school of classical thought that says no, we can’t. Existentialists insist that the very act of pursuing happiness reduces it to a thing—a commodity to be acquired, thereby impugning its worth. (Niki Harré says that’s another reason rampant consumption rarely delivers happiness. “Because people are able to buy all the other things they need, they think that happiness can be bought too.”) True happiness, the existentialists insist, can only occur.

Which, of course, is what Edwards meant: we can all put ourselves in a place, or among company or circumstances, where we know or expect we can feel happy. We can each of us encourage happiness, as we might grow a prize rose, by creating conditions as rich, as nurturing, as befitting, as best we can, then letting it take root and grow.

Children like Sam Sadler extract happiness from small pleasures, but research hints that adversity shapes young minds just as much as success.
Children like Sam Sadler extract happiness from small pleasures, but research hints that adversity shapes young minds just as much as success.

In truth, when we’re among good friends, or in the arms of a lover, or a special place, we’re not just feeling happy. We might be experiencing love, connection, satisfaction, security, contentment or any of a dozen other emotions at once. Rather than try to recognise each discrete feeling, we simply declare ourselves happy. Happiness, then, is an aggregate—the presence of other sensations and conditions that grant us a feeling of general wellbeing.

When negative emotions prevail instead—fear, anxiety, envy, regret—we’re not very happy. Most of the time, we’ll be a mix of both, simultaneously happy with some elements of our day, our life, and unhappy with others, lying somewhere on a continuum between misery and joy, which, as we’ve seen, moves up and down according to our capacity to be happy, our individual happiness range.

But happiness isn’t entirely about emotions. People who describe themselves as happy consistently identify other, circumstantial, elements. We know, for instance, that relationships are vital to wellbeing, and it’s not about numbers; just one or two warm, rewarding relationships do more for happiness than any number of Facebook friends.

Autonomy is another. “Some degree of control over your environment is important,” says Harré, “feeling like you’re in control of your own destiny.” Experiments in rest homes have found that residents are more content, even live longer, when they have influence over what activities happen, and when. Redundancies, on the other hand, are so debilitating not simply because they shatter our sense of security but also because they remind us cruelly that somebody else has charge of our fortunes.

They also highlight the critical place of work in maintaining a sense of satisfaction, of worth, of contribution. If you regard your work as a career, or a calling, instead of just a way of paying the mortgage, you’re more likely to take engagement, energy and fulfilment from it—three more prime ingredients for happiness. If you see it, too, as a way of contributing to some greater good—maybe public health or education—then it also helps you connect to a still bigger, more noble enterprise. And if that job allows you to give of your creative self, that’s even better, because stimulation is on the list of happiness ingredients too.

Happiness, then, comes from within, and from without. It is conscious, it is subconscious. It is genetically determined, yet environmentally influenced. It is both presence and absence. It’s about small things—hugs, grins, nuances—and the biggest of them all, your place in the universe. Yes, it’s about joy, but it’s there to be found in suffering as well.

You can’t acquire it, you can’t induce it, but you can, like Bianca Edwards, place yourself in its path.

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