Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Happiness and success

 

Tamar Valley clouds - Dalai Lama quote

Why is it so hard to be happy? People are often puzzled as to why happiness doesn't happen to them more often – or as much as it seems to happen to others.

Clue number:

  1. Is the origin of the word itself, and
  2. How the brain creates happiness as an emotion

Clue number one – the word 'happiness'

Happiness comes from the word 'hap' (from late 14th century middle Britain) – meaning 'chance' or 'fortune'. In other words happiness meant you just got lucky; so if you got 'hap' or lucky – then you experienced hap – iness.

Happiness as an emotion depended you getting lucky. It wasn't your right to be happy, fate smiled on you and happiness was the result. If you think about it, it 14th century Britain (the 1300's) wasn't a very 'happy' time or place to live in.

Here are just a few disasters of the 14th century:

  • The 'Black Death – or Bubonic plague, which halved the population
  • Britain was still at war with France
  • The church was a shambles with the Pope having to move to the South of France because the king tried to have him killed (royalty got their money anyway, by declaring the Knights Templar heretic and grabbing all their money, forcing them into hiding and possibly starting secret societies like the Freemasons – but that's another story).
  • There was another crusade which took a lot of money and most of the crusaders were slaughtered
  • There were witch hunts
  • Further north there was a mini ice age affecting the climate and ruining crops

By the end of the 13th century people were in despair and images of death (such as the grim reaper, skulls and decay) were popular. If you experienced happiness, it meant you just got 'lucky', otherwise expectations of happiness were pretty low.

People across the islands and the continent were not 'happy' – so you can hardly blame them for being glad to see the turn of that century and the beginning of the Renaissance.

But happiness as an emotion is more than just dependant on luck.

Clue number two - How the brain creates happiness as an emotion

Make no mistake; the brain is not designed to make us happy, quite the contrary. The brain's default position is to worry; to be negative. This is essential for survival and unfortunately for us (in an era where we expect to be happy), this is not our preferred position. We are confused, annoyed and worried because we are not happy when we think we should be.

If you think of it as simply 'back brain' and 'front brain' – the 'front brain' thinks we should be happy and the back brain doesn't think it just reacts to what seems like what is stressful or threatening as if it's a tiger - and wants to remind us of it constantly.

If we want the brain to be positive – we have to take action and re-focus it on something positive – preferably with a fair amount of enthusiasm (the brain reinforces anything you pay attention to with intensity).

So re-focus on:

  • A positive thought
  • An affirmation
  • A visualisation
  • Something you're looking forward to
  • Or do something – take a walk, make a cup of tea, read (action and distraction)

To sum up, our expectations of happiness are very large today compared with even a hundred years ago. We expect to be happy and if we're not, we feel ripped off and miserable – as opposed to being content and having the odd bit of happy luck. Also be aware that we are not designed to be happy all the time and take appropriate steps to create our own happiness.

Aristotle said 'To make a man happy, reduce the sum of his desires'. Getting our expectations into perspective and being pro-active in creating happiness for ourselves are two ways to almost guarantee happiness.

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