“Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.”
Margaret Lee Runbeck (1905-1956).
Looking at the quote above, one of my favorite quotes on happiness, you may ask: “What, then, is the manner of traveling?”
Traveling to Happiness at the Happiness & Its Causes Conference
Following last year’s great success in Australia, the 2nd Conference on Happiness & Its Causes was held in London, UK, October 9-10, 2008. The conference aimed to probe into the underlying causes of happiness and well-being for us as individuals, at our workplaces, and in our community as a whole. As suggested by the motto of the conference, Tools & Techniques for a Happier Life, the conference shed some light on how to travel there.
In the two-day conference, over 40 leading speakers, including psychologists, philosophers, scientists, economists, politicians, poets, monks, journalists, comedians, environmentalists, Chief Executives, broadcasters, and those in other fields gave their thoughts on the topic. Given the diverse background of the speakers, their varied perspectives went broader that what I find at academic and research-based conferences that I have attended previously.
Anita Anand revealed a tautology at the opening of the conference in saying that those things that are “pretty good” usually do not make the editorial cut and do not make most of the media’s headlines. Thus we have a daily dose of crime, terrorism, economic hardship, and bonkers politics. In a world that is misted by negativity, how can we strive for happiness?
Traveling through Science
In my favorite session – The Anatomy of Happiness – Dr. Stefan Klein responded scientifically to this question. In addition to explaining the brain’s “happiness system” using a biophysical approach, Dr. Klein also conveyed the message of the “individual as the primary agent of happiness,” and offered several powerful hints to change our brain to be happier:
- Pursue cognitive strategies (include 1. Writing happiness dairies and 2. Controlling negative emotions
- Be active
- Physical exercise and sex
- Sharpen the perception of the external world
- Be curious, seek contrasts in life
- Focus on interpersonal relationships
For more details, I would recommend you have a look at his book The Science of Happiness.
Traveling through the Material World
There was a panel discussion that had the same title as Andrew Simms’s new book: Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth. The panel debates the contradiction between material possession and our failure in achieving happiness, as well as its implications for the consumer society. Ann Pettifor, one of the panelists, said, “Money is not evil, but surely it’s not everything.” This got me thinking that living in developed countries, we have money that creates a new modern world with misery, boredom, stress, and dissatisfaction. Why is that the case? The great discussions on the panel reminded me of what A.C. Grayling once wrote: “Money and possessions do not yield more than temporary happiness, true wealth lies in such intangibles as health and love.”
Traveling across Cultures
As an Asian who is currently residing in a Western society, I am a big fan of the cross-cultural perspective on happiness and positive psychology. Professor David Matsumoto gave an amazing talk on Recognising Emotion in Others from a cross-cultural viewpoint. If we try to classify happiness into different types of enjoyable emotions, how many would you think there would be? Don’t be surprised as Prof. Matsumoto answers – 16! According to the book Emotions Revealed by Paul Ekman, the 16 types of enjoyable emotions include sensory pleasures (visual pleasure, tactile pleasure, olfactory pleasure, auditory pleasure, gustatory pleasure), amusement, contentment, excitement, relief, wonder, ecstasy or bliss, gratitude, elevation, schadenfreude, fiero, and naches
Too many for you? Indeed, Matsumoto noted that some of these enjoyable emotions do not even have denotations in English, like fiero in Italian (refers to the intense enjoyable feelings that occur at the moment when one wins a sporting events or solves a difficult problem), naches in Yiddish (refers to the pleasant feelings we have when we revel in the accomplishments of our children), and schadenfreude in German (refers to the pleasure we feel for ourselves when we witness the misfortunes of others). I am so impressed by what he said that the emotion exists even when there is no such emotion “term” in some cultures. Regrettably, related research about Asian societies is limited. In order to unpack the mystery of happiness, researchers could probably learn much from cross-cultural angles.
Traveling through Mental Training
Last but not the least, I am happy to see Matthieu Richard in the conference. Richard’s book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill in the Chinese version, is always my one of my most recommended books to Chinese audiences. Matthieu stressed “wisdom” and “mental training” in his talk, which is in his words how you can “familiarize yourself with a new vision of things, a new way to manage your thoughts, of perceiving people and experiencing the world.” By focusing on mental training, it is reasonable to believe that our self-transformation would have impact on people around us, and thus would gradually change the world to become happier.
There is definitely more wisdom to share from the conference, such as discussions by Professor Felicia Huppert and Tania Singer with Chris Smith on how scientists measure happiness, Professor Irving Kirschs research on the relationship of drugs, placebo and depression, Ven. Robina Courtin’s talk about what we can learn about happiness from prisons, and Dr. Stirling Moorey, the author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People on how Cognitive Behavior Therapy can be used to manage moods.
People may wonder why there is a convergence of interest from people in various settings about the exploration of happiness. This might reflect that there is still a lot for us to know about happiness. Perhaps the final message in this review would be: We Do Need a Happier Life and a Happy World! Contributions solely from positive psychology are not enough. With the involvement of people from such disciplines as philosophy, religion, health care, medicine, counseling, social work, management, policy, and business, we brainstorm, engage, and collaborate with one another, and eventually achieve our ultimate goal: traveling to the happy life.
Acknowledgment: I’d like to send my warmest gratitude to Professor Felicia Huppert here for kindly bringing me to a great conference with a guest pass so I didn’t miss this wonderful activity in such a short period after I returned to UK.
Ekman, P. (2007). Emotions Revealed, Second Edition: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. New York: Holt Paperbacks.
Klein, S. (2006). The Science of Happiness: How Our Brains Make Us Happy-and What We Can Do to Get Happier. Da Capo Press.
Post S., & Neimark, J. (2007). Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving. USA: Broadway books.
Ricard, M. (2007). Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. Little, Brown & Co.
Simms, A. (2008). Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth?. Constable.