by Thomas the Happiness Nerd edited by O Society July 18, 2019
I’m Thomas, the happiness nerd, here to discuss my thoughts and experiences on a path to happiness. I’ve looked wide and deep, read and discussed, practiced some, and willing to share with you what I’ve learned so far. In content, the focus is on scientifically sound and/or logically coherent approaches to happiness, which are grounded in “reality” (or what we can grasp of it). I hope you engage in the comment section, so we can learn from your knowledge and experience! Everybody with decent manners is welcome!
The idea of writing on happiness came to me during a Vipassana meditation retreat (for details: dhamma.org), so I dedicate the first entry to describing this experience:
It was my first ever and it was a hardcore initiation: Getting up at 4 a.m. in the morning to sit and meditate for 12 hours every day for ten seemingly never-ending days in a row. No speaking, no reading, no writing, no contact with the outside world, no news, no entertainment, no sports, no sex (not even masturbation), no nothing.
Just practicing and learning about meditation, eating, and sleeping (and of course keeping up one’s personal hygiene). Why would anyone go through such an ordeal, let alone voluntarily?
The answer, arguably the ultimate answer to everything we ever do: Happiness.
I want to see if meditation can make me happier and boy was I surprised by how much it does! These ten days, while they are among the most challenging of my life, they are also among the happiest. And to put this into perspective, I am very lucky in life, so should have – and in relative terms, probably do have – experience of happiness in abundance.
I was born with a cheerful and calm temperament, had a happy childhood, always had and still have many great friends, got an inspiring and debt-free education including an exchange year in Cambridge, and even my first job, while not perfect, had a lot going for it. Still, those ten days of deprivation, back-pain, and hard work are among the happiest. How? Why?
First the “how.” For this, let me describe what kind of situation the meditation experience improved upon. You probably know this feeling: You’re finally getting something you wanted or you’re witnessing a unique moment, but you’re kind of underwhelmed, not really there. If you haven’t, I’m genuinely happy for you, please teach me your secret!
Unfortunately, this happens way too often and it seems to happen more and more in recent years. Receiving the college diploma I worked for so long just to think “I thought this would feel better.” Or flying to a distant continent, experiencing exciting flavors, impressive works of art, and majestic panoramas, yet with the experience always staying behind my expectation of how I thought it should feel like.
One might criticize my expectations for how life should feel as unrealistic so I should adjust them. There might be some truth to this. But I do know those other moments, too, where I’m fully there, feeling alive, immersed, and present. The timeless bliss in the arms of a loved one. The deep calm on a misty November morning. Also the adrenaline rush after realizing a horrible mistake made or the overwhelming grief at the funeral of a loved one. Whether pleasant or unpleasant, significant or mundane, such moments are characterized by undivided attention and a sense of immediacy and “realness.”
During the retreat, I had these moments way more often and longer than ever experienced before. I saw a tree swaying in the wind and I experienced it so fully I was almost swaying with it, the distance between us reduced to zero.
Another time it seemed like I could feel the touch of my clothes against every hair on my body, the tiniest movements, the subtlest sensations. Later, I would take a few steps and would feel the stones under my shoes, the air against my palms, and the sun against my ear. As in really feel them.
If these things sound trippy to you, well, they sometimes are. On one morning, it was just like my first MDMA trip, just like it and just as good, but without having taken the substance. Other times were more like “regular” peak experiences I’ve had sober. And yet other times were like the overall positive mood of a really good day, when things are going great, and one is just “in the zone,” whatever this state may be.
Now the “why,” which is the more difficult question, because it goes beyond my immediate experience. Ultimately, I don’t know why I was so much happier during those ten days than during any other ten days of my life.
The circumstances of the retreat likely contributed their part. I was on holiday in Japan, one of my favorite places in the world, I did not have to worry about cooking, cleaning, travelling, working, or interacting with anybody. I was cared for and forever indebted to the selfless helpers in the meditation center, who made my experience possible with their voluntary work. I will repay my debt by serving the same way in another center in the future – something I would not consider before this retreat.
The social media detox definitely plays a role. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. We were deprived of our usual pleasures, spent almost every waking hour silently with ourselves without distraction (and you only know how hard this is once you’ve tried), endured significant levels of back-pain most of the day, ate only twice a day and only what was served, had hard beds, cold feet, short showers, and almost no autonomy over our time. In some ways, it may be harder than prison; in others definitely not, (let’s not kid ourselves). Thus, pleasantries couldn’t be the whole story of why a retreat does such wonders.
If we ask a teacher of this Vipassana tradition why this meditation method makes us happy (other kinds may or may not), one might give a two-part answer (there are more parts to it, but those are less easily summarized):
First, we train our ability to focus on the present moment, making us less distracted, agitated, worried, neurotic, and “all over the place.” Hence, we’re calmer, which is one important ingredient of happiness. It also makes us more grounded in reality and hence, less anxious, as it’s harder to spin off into catastrophizing fantasies of what could go horribly wrong, if we truly only focus on what is evidently real right now (note: thinking about what could go wrong per definition shifts our focus into the future, not the present).
Second, we train our ability to accept the present moment as it is, no matter if it’s pleasant or unpleasant. This means we don’t strive to get somewhere we currently aren’t and we don’t fight any unpleasant circumstances, which may otherwise bother you. You’re fine, no matter what. You’re reasonably happy without even having to move a finger. I know, this isn’t necessarily the ultimate answer towards complete happiness, because you aren’t fantastic, no matter what.
The meditation technique also doesn’t tell you what to do with your life. Still, being just fine, no matter what, is better than only being fine, when everything’s fine, which is likely how most of us feel. Because let’s be honest: When was the last time everything was fine, that is, you had no desires, no worries, no hunger, no discomforts, not even an itch?
This ability to accept the present moment bears strong resemblance to the concept of ataraxia, which is a goal state both in Stoicism and in Epicureanism. So there seems to be some cross-validation between philosophical traditions here, something I always look for (but more on that maybe another day).
Training to focus on what is accept it changes our deepest habit patterns. Because, by nature, we’re looking for what’s wrong, so we can avoid it or fix it, and what’s pleasant, so we can make it ours. Noticing a potentially dangerous rustle in the grass and running away from it is adaptive for surviving in the savannah, and it is naturally selected for. After all, during the evolution of our species, the unagitated buddhas tended to get eaten.
Likewise, if you could get your hands on some ripe fruit or an attractive mate, you tried to do so. We evolved towards survival and procreation, not happiness. But we aren’t in the savannah anymore, Dorothy. Mere survival and procreation just wont’t do anymore, we want happiness. Which is not to say one should accept a car driving towards you as the reality of the present moment, just stay still and wait for it. You actively change your life towards the better when/if you can.
Q: “How much ego does one need to operate in the world?”
A: “Just enough so we don’t step in front of a bus.”
Having the strength and tendency to not be bothered by every small inconvenience does wonders for our happiness. And it makes us feel self-efficacious: I know I’ll be fine, no matter what. Speaking as a psychologist, all these ideas are largely consistent with what we scientifically understand about the mind and how psychotherapy works. More will be revealed.