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A practical guide to the pursuit of happiness

Global reports declare loneliness an epidemic but finding meaningful moments of connection is easy if one looks up from one’s screen

Be playful, joyful and creative everyday and you might stumble upon the secret of getting into a state of flow.
Be playful, joyful and creative everyday and you might stumble upon the secret of getting into a state of flow. (Unsplash/Alex Alvarez )

Is the world a happier place today than in the past? Are you happy? Different cultures and languages perceive the idea of happiness differently. The ‘American Dream’ built on the idea of ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ mentioned in the American Declaration of Independence, for instance, is a largely economic idea of happiness referring to a sense of security. 

Also read: Happiness can be learnt but takes practice, new study reveals

The term ‘happy’ can refer to an array of situations ranging from an experience of surprise while receiving a gift to a deeply contemplative joyous state. In Danish, happiness is often translated to lykke, an every day sense of well-being that can be brought about by something as simple as a good cup of coffee. Recently, the UN released the World Happiness Report 2024 with insightful patterns and trends of how people across the world experience happiness. The report considers six factors of happiness—social support, GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perception of corruption. 

Worldwide, women are less happy than men. In North America, the report says, the young (15-24 years) are reportedly less happy than their older peers. In India, older age is associated with higher life satisfaction. While the report makes for a fascinating read and sparks interesting debates on news channels, it is worth taking a closer look at how we experience the idea of happiness in our lives and its impact on our sense of well-being. 

Social media silos and smartphones are leading to a spike in anxiety amidst the younger generation. Economic prosperity alone is not the key to happiness, 
Dr Vivek Murthy, the 21st US Surgeon General recently told CNN. “We are pulling further and further apart from one another with the efficiencies and benefits of modern technologies and way of life. We have fewer friends we trust and fewer relationships that we can rely on, and that has a direct effect upon our wellness and well-being,” he said. 

Getting into the flow 
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, santosham is one of the five niyamas or internal disciplines one needs to cultivate in life. Santosham means well-being, equanimity and an inner celebration of life in all actions. It is the state of being anchored in an inner space of peace and joyousness. When one is able to invest in this inner quality of santosham, one is able to celebrate life whether the external situation is perceived as a pleasurable or painful experience. Thus, santosham is an experience that is anchored in a personal practice that is in alignment with who each of us are in our deepest selves.  

This idea is quite different from the popular notion of ‘happiness’. It invites one to start from an inner space of fulfilment and delight while engaging with life. This attitude is not dependent on how much one has acquired in their life, what status they have achieved or what they have become, but rather it is anchored in the nature of being that one has nurtured in oneself. 

Also read: Make a song and dance about relieving stress

Paying attention to the question “Who am I being?” instead of  “What am I becoming?” opens the possibility for one to discover and nurture the gifts that one is bestowed with. In the 1970s, American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi postulated the ‘Flow Theory’ in psychology. A person is said to be in a state of flow when they are completely absorbed in their experience of the here and now.

It is not possible to enter a state of flow if one’s mind is either caught up with regrets from the past or anxieties about the future. All yogic and classical Indian art practices are designed to bring this level of total attention and absorption of one’s mind to the present moment. One is then acting from a space of complete awareness and the experience is complete in itself. Investing in appropriate personal practices is a cornerstone to be able to live life in this manner. 

Three simple practices
At a practical level, transitioning from a path of pursuit ‘of’ happiness to pursuit ‘in’ happiness involves consciously shifting one’s focus from the standard of living to standard of life itself. Standard of living brings one’s attention to material possessions and nurtures an acquisitive mind that is perhaps good for the economy but not great for living a content life. 

Standard of life invites one’s attention to more intangible things in life such as the quality of one’s relationship with oneself, others, and nature at large, even as one goes about doing what is necessary to make a living. Given the reality of an increasingly virtual world, here are three practices that can get you started on this path.

  1. Digital Detox: Taking time off digital media and devices has a direct impact on your well-being. A surfer and therapist, who quit social media a few months ago, shared with me how she could experience an expansion in her sight and see the world more clearly after quitting social media. 
  2. Real World Connect: Taking time to connect with people in the real world builds the context to learn and grow through a tangible experience of life. It is worth exploring how a warm hug from a close friend or a meaningful conversation with a stranger can radically improve the sense of well-being than hours of doom scrolling on social media. 
  3. Craft Your Own Definition: In a world that is promoting and selling ideas of what can make you happy and complete, it is an act of courage to define what happiness will look like in your life. Have you ever tried sitting down with yourself for a joyful and restful hour in nature, checking in honestly with yourself about what makes you genuinely happy. 
    Don’t be surprised if you discover that perhaps taking an extra ten-minute power nap in the afternoon or having the freedom to doodle away your worries under a tree or going up on stage during that spoken word poetry fest show up as your definitions of ‘being happy and celebrating life’. Perhaps we can begin by giving ourselves the permission to discover our own ways of being happy. Let it be playful, joyful, creative and silly. And you might just stumble upon the secret sauce of getting into the state of flow in your own life.

Hariprasad Varma is an executive coach & yoga therapist based in Hyderabad. He posts at @ZenseiHari. 

Also read: The Korean way of seeking happiness through humility

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