The Road to Happiness

A while back I saw the ABC program "Primal Instincts". Part of a series, the one I saw examined Happiness, demonstrating its source and what makes some happy and others sad. With advanced computer graphic imagery and Magnetic Resonance Scanning the program looked inside our brain's reward wiring system to observe pleasure and happiness at work - the deep limbic system bathing the brain in dopamine at the mere thought of pleasure; the left prefrontal cortex lighting up with activity in specific areas when we feel happy.  The search and quest for happiness is the positive motivating force behind most of what we do.

Evolutionary biology tells us these are the same sensations that prompted our ancestors to explore the world and find food. Brain scans demonstrated how the mere thought of food can trigger enough powerful chemicals to make someone a compulsive eater. Corporations that shall remain nameless have exploited this knowledge through advertising, to get primitive forces deep in the brain set off a rush of pleasure hormones in anticipation people spending for a 'Happy Meal'.  This contributes greatly to rising levels of obesity in our culture.

A global survey of happiness, from the streets of New York to the slums of India and Tibet shows show that happiness cannot be bought and that most are between 6 and 7 on an objective happiness scale.  Depressives may rank between 3 and 4. Switzerland is the place to be with an average happiness level of 8.1. Denmark is a close second with an 8.0 average level. The remaining top 10 countries include (in descending order) Costa Rica, Iceland, Luxemburg, Ghana, Canada, Ireland, Nicaragua and Sweden. Australia is 11th, UK number 12, whilst El Salvador 13, Norway 14 and USA 15. It has been shown that compassion is closely co-related with happiness, both individually and collectively.  It is not surprising that that Australia, UK and USA have fallen on the scale over the last 50 years as they have become less compassionate, less caring societies.

Four ways of cultivating happiness

1. Build a more sharing and caring community

2. Live simply, avoid dependency on stressful systems

3. Cultivate creativity in your life

4. Combat aggressive ignorance with non-violent wisdom.

There are ways to increase our level of happiness - 'laughter clubs' show that exercising muscles used in smiling actually activate the pleasure centres in the brain. It appears we can "fake it till we make it"!  Meditation practices are shown to have a high positive correlation with happiness, and act to permanently rewire our brains.

In the program it showed that scientists have probed the brain of perhaps the world's happiest man - a French scientist and master meditator who for over 30 years has embraced Tibetan Buddhist meditation. The program recreated the scientific tests which revealed the inner workings of Matthew Ricard's brain and why the scientist turned monk was way off the scale at the top end, achieving an extraordinary state of happiness.

Perhaps with the compassion, the cultivation of equanimity, the meditation, the laughter and the food – the fat and happy "laughing Buddha" really does show the road to happiness and how to end suffering.

“There is no WAY to happiness. Happiness IS the way!”

- by Dr. Wayne Dyer