The secrets of happiness

Published: June 26, 2016
The writer is vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. He holds a PhD in Economics from Stanford University

The writer is vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. He holds a PhD in Economics from Stanford University

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.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • Toti calling
    Jun 27, 2016 - 11:36AM

    Happiness is waking up in the morning and feeling great that the sun is shining, birds are singing and your loved ones are around you and you have enough on your plate when you are hungry and good medicine available when you feel physically unwell. I grew up as relatively poor person as my father died when I was still young, but I still remember how my mother managed it with little money she had. i am doing fine now, but still remember the love and emotion my mother gave to us as children. That was one of the reasons that my struggle in life made me stand on my feet with confidence. I admit it is not material possession that we can call happiness, although most of our lives are obsessed with possession, but be satisfied of what you have and not worry too much about those who own a lot more.
    I am not religious, so I do not think any super power will help my solve MY problems and make me happy. I have to do it myself.Recommend

  • wajid
    Jun 27, 2016 - 11:52AM

    Excellent piece of writing. Indeed, happiness is what we need badly in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Feroz
    Jun 27, 2016 - 2:37PM

    Happiness is a state of the mind and can never be bought. The first step in being happy is to develop a positive mindset that looks at every event as an opportunity rather than as a threat. Recommend

  • Usman
    Jun 27, 2016 - 11:32PM

    No one can experience true happiness without going through sadness. They go hand in hand. The key attribute is contentment, which is a state of mind. It can be acquired through feelings of gratitude for the CreatorRecommend

  • Abdul Qadir Khan
    Jul 11, 2016 - 5:33PM

    Well said sir. Happiness is the end point and we do all the things to fined Happiness in life and this end point is hidden in contentment. I think a contended person is happy person.Recommend

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