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The Science of Happiness: What Makes People Happy?
Peter Van Houten, MD
Over the last two decades, scientists have done considerable research on what makes people happy. This field is known as the science of “positive affect,” and the studies have yielded interesting results.
Little change over a lifetime
One study looked at how getting involved in a relationship affects a person’s level of happiness. It showed that there is usually an increase in a person’s baseline happiness level in the first three to six months of a relationship. But six months to a year later, the person is right back to where they started.
Another study asked people from four different income levels, including the most impoverished and the well-to-do, “How much more money would you need in order to be happy?” The answer, invariably, was about ten percent more.
Whether living in dire poverty or rolling in wealth, all of these people thought they would be happier with ten percent more money. This suggests that if they had ten percent more, in a fairly short time they would need another ten percent!
Overall the positive affect studies have shown what yogis and great saints have been saying for thousands of years—that when we look outside ourselves for happiness, we’re a little happier for a while, but fairly soon we’re right back to our baseline level. In general, the studies show that a person’s baseline level of happiness usually remains about the same throughout life, with a slight decrease after the age of seventy, usually because of illness.
Looking outward for happiness
Most people look for happiness in the wrong direction—they look outward to the circumstances in their lives. They believe that if they can just find the right person or job, or have more money, they’ll be happy. Related to this is the idea that a happy life is a problem-free life.
The good news is that the science of positive affect is now telling us what the great saints and yogis have been saying for thousands of years—that there are things you can do that will make you happier long term, and really change who you are. There are the obvious things of keeping yourself physically healthy—exercise, diet, and all the common sense things you’d normally think. What the yogis would say is, “Keep your body fit for God-realization.”
Training yourself to be happier
On a more subtle level, what the scientific studies have found is that people who try to have positive attitudes about life are happier. By training themselves to have better attitudes, they raise their baseline level of happiness.
In spiritual development it’s the same thing. Happy people are those who choose to be happy under all circumstances. They don’t say, “Oh, if I could just solve this problem I would be happier.”
They look at the problem and say, “This problem is here. Let me do what I can practically, but why not be happy now? Why not be happy while I go through this? Then there’s a better chance of a good solution coming out of it.”
The freedom of going beyond ego
Our real happiness, and also our spiritual development, begin when we learn to transcend the ego and the emotional baggage that goes with it.
In my medical practice, if I’m with a patient who is very upset and I’m having difficulty deciding what to do, I’ll often ask myself, “What would I do right now if I didn’t have an ego. How would I respond to this?”
And boy, does that make knowing what to do easier! Once you get your ego out of the way—that part of you that can be bruised or hurt, or needs to feel justified or stroked — suddenly you gain a much better idea of how to address the problem, and in a way that won’t accrue more karma or enmesh you more deeply in the situation.
I experience a sense of tremendous freedom whenever I feel that my ego doesn’t matter, that my likes and dislikes don’t matter, and that the only thing that matters is living for God.
Give your problems to God
It’s easy for us, even when we’re on the spiritual path, to forget that God is the Doer. We can get up caught in our “to-do” lists and the thought that I’ll be happy if other people are happy with the job I’m doing. But then the difficulties come, and we find ourselves faced with a challenge we can’t handle.
On the path of Kriya Yoga we’ve been given powerful tools of meditation that allow us to interiorize our energy and feel the presence of God within. We know that God listens, but we have to remember to open up to Him and give Him our problems.
We can’t solve the big problems with our own strength, just as we can’t change ourselves spiritually with our own strength. We need to ask for help and say, “God, I can’t do this on my own. I can’t do this with my little ego and personality. You must do this through me.”
God likes to be invited into the situation and asked to help in that way. He wants to help us, but He won’t intrude unless we invite Him in. We must turn to Him with deep sincerity and devotion and draw on His power.
Be grateful for the hard times
Toward the end of his life, Frank Laubach, a Lutheran minister and a deep man of God, wrote:
“When I look back over my life, there were times that went very smoothly and there were other times when things were very painful on a human level. But here at the end of my life, when I look at the times that were comfortable and I thought all was right with God, in fact I was coasting. And when I look back at the times when I was suffering, I see that’s when I was growing.”
Frank Laubach’s statement explains why we should be grateful for the hard times, for the coworker who drives us nuts or when a good friend or our spouse does something that upsets us. These experiences are an opportunity for spiritual growth — a chance to get beyond our egos, to behave in a Christ-like fashion, and to be changed by that process.
All the problems in our lives, the things that test our limits, are there to help us remember that God is the sole reality. The more we live our lives moment to moment with the awareness that whatever we’re doing, it’s God flowing through us, the more we experience a joy—a happiness—that’s not dependent on outward circumstances.
Peter Van Houten, MD is a graduate of University of California San Francisco Medical School and founder of the Sierra Family Medical Clinic, an award-winning rural community medical clinic in Northern California. As the Clinic’s Medical Director, Peter has been instrumental in bringing new and highly effective tools in Behavioral Health to patients in need. In 2009 Dr. Peter was awarded the Rural Champion award for the State of California. This prestigious award, given to one physician annually, was in large part for his pioneering work bringing behavioral health into the medical care setting. Dr. Van Houten is an Ananda Minister and a long-time meditator, has co-authored several books on the use of yoga for health problems, and lectures on the effects of relaxation and meditation on the brain and behavior.
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