Psychologists have studied abnormal behaviour for a long time, but have only recently started to pay attention to happiness. In this article, we map the findings of this happiness research to traditional concepts, which have been abandoned by modern mindsets. Despite our strong convictions to the contrary, happiness does not depend on our external circumstances. The greatest myth about happiness is to search for it in the outside world. People think that the perfect mate, the perfect job, achieving this that or the other goal will bring happiness. When they achieve their desired external goals, they are inevitably disappointed. However, instead of re-thinking their strategy, they shift the goal-post, continuing to seek more and more in a desperate quest for the elusive happiness. But happiness does not lie outside us, and it does not lie in distant goals. It lies within our grasp, in the present moment. At the present moment, we need to be able to analyse and change our internal mindset. ‘Know Thyself’, or self-awareness, is one of the crucial keys to happiness.
Reflection can make us aware of our conscious thought stream, but it is more difficult to become aware of our subconscious thought stream. Among the many effective techniques for tapping into the subconscious, free writing involves taking 10-15 minutes to write down whatever thoughts come to mind, without paying attention to grammar, spelling, style or any formalities. This method works to bring out into the open our thoughts which create obstacles to happiness. Extremely damaging to happiness is rumination on hurts, losses, tragedies, missed opportunities and the like. With conscious effort, we can put away negative thoughts. The concept of ‘predestination’ is a powerful tool to avoid rumination over what might have been. The Holy Quran states that all misfortunes have been recorded in advance, “in order that ye may not despair over matters that pass you by…” Resignation to an inevitable fate brings peace, while despair and distress is caused by ruminating over what might have been, or what might be.
In addition to suppressing negative thoughts, we must cultivate and nurture positive thoughts. One important source of positive thoughts is to cultivate gratitude for the gifts we have been given by God, instead of regretting what we do not have. This, and many deep lessons about life, were traditional elements of an Islamic childhood training. Saadi writes about a boy going to Eid with old shoes, and regretting not having new ones like the other children. Then he sees a boy with amputated feet, and feels gratitude that he has the feet on which to put shoes. The gifts of God which surround us are so extensive that reflecting on what we have, and reflecting on the millions who do not enjoy our privileges, is sure to lead to gratitude. Furthermore, as a wonderful bonus, God has promised to increase our gifts if we are grateful for what we already possess.
Positivity is also generated by optimism, which is created by cultivating trust in God. We trust in His Wisdom that the short-run trials and tragedies we face are in our best long-run interests. Those who cultivate tawakkul remain serene in circumstances, which cause nervous breakdowns for others. Furthermore, the Holy Quran promises that those who trust in God are led out of difficulties via pathways they cannot anticipate.
All of the creation belongs to the family of God. If we seek to serve others, for the love of God, we will be duly rewarded. The highest standards are set by the Holy Quran, which recommends giving away that which you love most. However, it is amazingly easy to make others happy – even a kind word, which costs nothing, can do wonders. Selfish striving for happiness kills the possibilities of happiness, because what human beings value most is being loved and appreciated by others. We must give in order to get, to create a society with warmth and love, which is a core component of happiness. This then is the paradox of happiness: it comes to those who do not seek it for themselves but seek to make others happy, while it eludes those who pursue it vigorously without concern for others.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2016.