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January 28, 2018


Reuel S. Amdur

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What you do for others produces more happiness for you than what you receive. That was a key message given by psychiatrist Timothy Lau, in a lecture on happiness given at the Royal Ottawa Hospital on January 25.

Lau said that happiness is seen as an ultimate goal. 

A survey of millennials identified their path to happiness as being through wealth and fame. 

However, people who win the lottery often experience terrifying experiences in their social life.  Many also end up bankrupt. 

On the other hand, many paraplegics are happy.  “It is the triumph of the human spirit,” he said.  A person may be happy even if having less if he savors every moment and takes nothing for granted.

There are indices for happiness. 

The 2017 United Nations global index found Norway at the top spot, Canada placing seventh, a drop from previous ratings. 

Key elements in setting this index are lifespan, as a marker for health; education, for freedom; and income, for wealth. 

“Globally, we are doing better on all of these.”  However, not everyone agrees on this particular index. 

North Korea developed its own, which placed China as number one, North Korea second. 

The trigger for measuring happiness was a 1972 Financial Times interview with Bhutan King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who told the interviewer that Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product. 

However, Bhutan does not rank particularly well on the scale, hampered by high unemployment and ethnic cleansing.

In spite of the global improvement in life span, education, and income, despair, depression, and suicide are growing at an alarming rate. 

There has been a substantial long-term increase in youth suicide, and ten times as many people are suffering from depression compared to 1945.  One factor: more time spent in front of the screen.

The philosopher Jeremy Bentham defined happiness as pleasure minus pain. 

Lau says Bentham was wrong.  Pleasure is not the same as happiness.  In a thought experiment, a group of people were asked if they would choose pleasure even if it led to death, and overwhelmingly they would not.  Yet, hospitalization rates from use of opioids and other drugs are skyrocketing. 

Lau listed ten principles for happiness.

1.  Yet, we have basic material needs that must be met if we are to be happy.

2.  Live with integrity.  Happiness is not the goal but is a by product of a life well lived.

3.  As in the Serenity Prayer, accept what you can’t change.  Yet, we must avoid fatalism.

4.  Have the courage to change what you can.  Overcome learned helplessness.  Take control of attitudes, purpose, and even breathing.  Face fears rather than running away.  Choose trust rather than doubt.

5.  Pain may be part of happiness.  No pain, no gain.  Love may also entail suffering.  Happy people are resilient.  You don’t drown because you fall in the water. You drown because you stay there.

6.  Recognize that you are often wrong.  Reality is important.

7.  Strive for balance and moderation.  This was also Aristotle’s advice and it is espoused as well in Buddhism and Islam.  Search for harmony in career, family, psychology, community, and spirituality.  As it is, most people are disengaged from their work.  Lau says we should set goals.  Since time is an important resource, consider moving closer to work.  Exercise the mind by reading books.  Physical exercise increases happiness and reduces depression.  Have fun—play, listen to music, wander.

8.  Find reasons to do the things you do. Focus by meditation and prayer.  Religious faith and practice lead people to live longer and happier.  You can change your life by finding purpose in what you do, for example with love as the purpose.

9.  Be mindful. Each day is a gift.  Focus on the present.  Regrets about the past can be depressing.  Worrying about the future leads to anxiety.  

People who kept a gratitude diary were much happier after six weeks.  Forgiveness lets go of hatred, but forgiveness is not the same as forgetting.  We should love others and use stuff, but often we do the opposite.

10. Be open to love.  Family and other relationships are important.

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