By Dr Marc Cohen
What is happiness? Perhaps the only completely desirable psychiatric condition in the world!
It is difficult to study joy and happiness scientifically since it can only be defined by what people say. There is no blood test or imaging technique to detect happiness or joy.
While we can identify the funny bone, a physical substrate for happiness is still elusive and scientific attempts to define it have met with limited success.
Happiness: A psychiatric condition?
One recent attempt to classify happiness scientifically was discussed in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
A paper titled ‘A Proposal to Classify Happiness as a Psychiatric Disorder‘ suggests that happiness fits all requirements to be a psychiatric condition and that it should be listed as a ‘Major Affective Disorder (MAD)-Pleasant Type‘!
In this somewhat tongue-in-cheek article, the authors argue for classifying happiness as a psychiatric condition because happiness
a) Is statistically abnormal; b) Consists of discrete clusters of symptoms; and c) Is associated with particular affective, cognitive and behavioral components.
The paper identifies happiness as being either reactive, manifesting as an acute episode followed by a rapid remission of symptoms, or endogenous, which is more chronic and less likely to be associated with spontaneous recovery.
The cognitive components of happiness include general satisfaction with specific areas of life such as relationshipsand work, as well as the happy person‘s belief in his or her own competence and self-efficacy.
The behavioral components of happiness, while less easily characterized, include particular facial expressions, such as smiling, as well as carefree, impulsive and unpredictable behaviour.
Certain kinds of social behaviour are also identified, including frequent recreational interpersonal contacts and pro-social actions towards others.
Happiness, apparently, is also associated with irrational behavior, including overestimating one‘s control over environmental events (often to the point of perceiving completely random events as subject to personal will) and giving unrealistically positive evaluations of personal achievements.
In summary, the authors conclude that happiness fulfils all the criteria for being labeled a psychiatric condition, except the fact that happiness is not undesirable.
However as desirability is a question of ethics and not science, it was decided that this is scientifically irrelevant.
What causes happiness
It seems that western medicine is much more comfortable analyzing pathological conditions than looking at the positive states of health.
In psychiatric literature over the past 30 years, there have been 46,000 articles on depression, 36,000 on anxiety, and only 2,000 on happiness and 400 on joy.
Further, where studies on happiness and joy base the common correlates of these conditions on epidemiological data, they have relatively little to say.
A recent review of the literature on happiness, reported in Scientific American, suggests that happiness is unrelated to the demographics of age, sex, income, country (unless you live in a war-torn or famine-ravaged nation), occupation, or the ownership of consumer goods.
Evidences collected to date suggest that happiness is related more to personality factors, such as high self-esteem, optimism and extroversion, than external factors.
Many people endure the present in anticipation of happiness: ‘I‘ll be happy when I‘m rich‘, or ‘I‘ll be happy when I get a good job‘, or maybe, ‘I‘ll be happy when I get a nose job‘.
This line of thought is not supported by available evidence. If you are happy now, you are likely to be happy later. If you are unhappy now, you need to change your attitude to your circumstances rather than the circumstances.
There‘s no use waiting for a lottery win. One study, in fact, found that lottery winners tended to be much less happy after winning. Correlates of happiness include a sense of control and the sharing of one‘s life through close personal relationships, most commonly found in marriage.
Another factor consistently associated with happiness is participation in religious activities with self-reported happiness, doubled in highly religious people.
The various health benefits of being joyous have also been cknowledged since antiquity.
However, serious study of this aspect had to wait until the 1960s, through the work of Norman Cousins, a US-based journalist.
Stricken with ankylosing spondylitis, Cousins received only limited benefit from conventional medical treatments. Yet he overcame much of his pain through comedy and laughter.
In his book Anatomy of an Illness, Cousins chronicles his fight against, and eventual victory over, his ailment, aided by high doses of vitamin C and humor.
The Tao of joy
Unlike its western counterpart, eastern medicine has always defined happiness with ease. Most eastern traditions are based on a concept of perfect bliss, variously called nirvana, satori, enlightenment or ‘living according to the Tao‘.
This is said to be our natural state and occurs when we are ‘at one with the universe‘, which is achieved by giving up day-to-day worries, desires and attachments. Perfect bliss also suggests a state of ideal health where perceptions flow freely.
To help achieve enlightenment, most eastern traditions have developed sophisticated daily practices that can help induce this state. These practices generally involve yoga, meditation and a particular attitude to daily life.
Meditation attempts to dissolve the barriers between the ego and the outside world by focussing the mind until the object of concentration disappears and the simple state of being is achieved.
It also involves letting go of attachment to daily concerns that may otherwise preoccupy consciousness, for a new, detached observation. While there are different systems and philosophies of meditation, any single-minded endeavor may be considered meditation.
Thus, when you are involved in an activity that absorbs your awareness so much that you seem to ‘lose yourself in the moment‘, you are meditating. You can meditate while pursuing any activity that you ‘love‘ to do: martial arts, gardening, individual sports or creative activities such as painting and music.
The act of ‘loving‘ an activity seems to enhance the ability to lose oneself completely in it, and including such activities in the daily routine enhances the overall experience of life.
Meditation is also associated with predictable and reproducible changes in physiological functioning, including a reduction in the heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen consumption.
There are also distinctive EEG changes that include a greater coherence and synchrony across the brain and a tendency for increased activity in the alpha/theta frequencies (around 8 hertz).
This altered EEG activity results in the brain adapting similar frequencies to the electromagnetic frequencies that occur around the planet called Schumann Resonances.
Tuning into the planet
Schumann Resonances are naturally occurring electromagnetic waves that travel freely around the planet as a result of global lightning. They are named after Professor W.O. Schumann who proposed the existence of such waves and calculated their main frequency.
These resonances occur in the non-conducting spherical cavity created between the ionosphere, which is the upper stratum of the atmosphere above 50 km, and the surface of the earth, which consists mainly of seawater.
The production of Schumann Resonances may be likened to the tone produced when a hammer strikes a bell or piece of metal. The resulting clang contains many different frequencies that dissipate rather quickly.
It is interesting to speculate that during meditation, the brain appears to harmonise with planetary electromagnetic activity. This correlation, however, must be noted merely as an association for it is almost impossible to prove any causal connection between the two.
This association gets more interesting when one realises that a majority of global lightning is concentrated over the three main rainforest areas of the planet-in Southeast Asia, sub-Sahara Africa and the Amazon basin.
These areas maintain a constant level of lightning activity that, in turn, maintains the global Schumann Resonance. It is, therefore, possible that when we meditate, we have a subconscious connection with the greatest life force on the planet-the rainforests.
Moving from the still point
Meditation seems to have a homoeostatic effect on the body and consciousness. After meditating, the mind gains a renewed sense of focus and perspective. Finding the still point in consciousness thus allows for the greatest mental flexibility.
But the idea that the greatest movement comes from a still point is an ancient one. It also finds its expression in physical forms of martial arts, gymnastics and dance where the most powerful movements arise from the ‘hara‘ or ‘dantien‘.
This is a point below the navel that represents our physical centre of gravity. It is from this point that martial artists are best able to initiate defensive or attacking moves. This is also the point about which a gymnast rotates when executing a somersault.
The principle of acting from a still point can be translated into everyday life by allowing events to unfold naturally and ‘going with the flow‘.
This is also an ancient concept, expressed by the phrase ‘living according to the Tao‘, and can be extended to the point of enlightenment when it is possible to ‘do nothing and achieve everything‘.
A condition called Pronoia
‘Living according to the Tao‘ may be likened to the state of ‘pronoia‘, the positive counterpart of paranoia.
Pronoia is the belief that the universe is plotting to make you happy and that there is nothing you can do about it. This state has been discussed in psychiatric literature and, like happiness, is considered to be a pathological condition.
Symptoms of pronoia include ‘‘delusions of support and exaggerated attractiveness as well as the delusion that others think well of one and that the products of one‘s efforts are thought to be well received‘‘.
Rather than viewing pronoia as a pathological state, it is possible to view the state as highly desirable. Pronoia, like happiness, is a subjective state of being that may occur irrespective of external circumstances.
By adopting the attitude that whatever happens is for your benefit, you open yourself to the possibility of positive outcomes and thus stop being afraid of change.
You simply assume that any change occurring is for your benefit and that even if circumstances appear negative, there is always a hidden treasure waiting to be uncovered.
This frame of mind gives rise to the belief that you are always in the right place at the right time and by remaining open to positive outcomes, this attitude often ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Just as eastern traditions believe that bliss is our true nature, it may also be true that pronoia is our natural state. Infants and children naturally have pronoia and this seems justified, for in many ways their universe is continually conspiring to make them happy.
Most people however, grow out of this state and some even claim that they never experienced it because they had a difficult upbringing. While this may be the case, it is possible to renew the sense of childhood pronoia in our adult lives.
It is never too late to have a happy childhood! One of the most important childish principles to apply to life is to express your emotions enthusiastically.
The most basic law of emotions is that if you share joy it increases and if you share pain it decreases. A way to practice this is to simply go around smiling at people.
People may consider you a little crazy if you go around smiling indiscriminately. You shouldn‘t let this bother you-it doesn‘t seem to bother children.
After practising in traffic, you may like to progress to smiling at strangers in the street and then to beaming smiles at everyone you meet. Some people may think you are crazy. However, your condition is probably just a symptom of ‘MAD-Pleasant Type‘!
Based in Melbourne, Dr Mark Cohen is the Founding Head of the Department of Complementary Medicine at RMIT University, President of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association and an Hon. Research Fellow with the Monash Institute of Health Services Research.
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