Monday, January 06, 2014

Discover this New Year: The joy of simple living

It was around 11.45pm on December 31, 2013. My last incoming telephone call for the day (or for the Old Year) came from an old friend whom I haven’t seen for over two decades. We exchanged the usual greetings for the dawning New Year and had a pleasant chit-chat for a few minutes. Ending the conversation, I asked him, “Any resolutions for 2014?” His reply was to the point. “Just one - to begin a happy life.”

My friend had come home after 25 years working as a Medical Specialist in the United Kingdom. He had brought with him a fat savings account and the perk of a comfortable monthly pension. I believe he was looking forward to a cushy and easy-going retirement and would have thought that his financial stability would make his life very happy and comfortable.

As I kept the phone down, a question popped into my mind. How much money does it take to make someone happy? You would naturally say: “Probably a lot of it. The more the better.” As a rule, the answer is yes, but there is a catch because you arrive at a threshold.

According to research by Princeton Professors Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, money makes us happy, up to a limit, depending on our aspirations.

They say that the effect of money on happiness depends on how “happiness” is defined. When happiness is defined as overall satisfaction with life, including heavy philanthropic and social activities, money continues to raise happiness - beyond that threshold. But when happiness is defined as the satisfaction from day-to-day life, more money doesn’t raise happiness.

What can explain this? I can think of three plausible explanations:

??With more money usually come more headaches. You’ll be facing a lot of day-to-day problems that you must solve and they could keep you up in the middle of the night.

??The prosperity that comes with more money is not by itself a cure-all against an ill-led life, and may be a source of dangerous foolishness.

??While money can certainly buy a lot of goodies that make us happy, it cannot buy true friendship, the reciprocal attachment that fills the need for affiliation. No amount of wealth, status, or power can adequately compensate for a life devoid of genuine friends.

According to the research, more money may be necessary, but not the sufficient condition for happiness, measured by the satisfaction that may be derived from daily living.

Simple rules

Living a happy life can mean something different for everyone. The happy life, in its most simple form, is a series of never ending satisfaction that only grows more powerful as time goes on. So, how do you reach it?

The answer to this question is available in a little book, The Ten Golden Rules: Ancient Wisdom by M. A. Soupios and Panos Mourdoukoutas. The book condenses the wisdom of the ancient Greeks into a few memorable and easy-to-understand rules that, if lived by, can enable all of us to lead happy, meaningful lives in 2014 and beyond.

Let us go through them:

Examine life: When Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, he laid out the fundamental philosopher’s view. Socrates believed that the purpose of human life was personal and spiritual growth. We are unable to grow towards greater understanding of our true nature unless we take the time to examine and reflect upon our life. So, examine your life. What do you want in the next week? The next month? The next three years? Figure out what your priorities are so that you can figure out if you are on track at actually reaching your goals.

Reduce your worries: You should worry only about the things that are within your control, the things that can be influenced and changed by your actions, not about the things that are beyond your capacity to direct or alter. In other words, while we cannot control all of the outcomes we seek in life, we certainly can control our responses to these outcomes and herein lies our potential for a life that is both happy and fulfilled.

Treasure friendship: This relationship cannot be acquired in the market place or social network, but must be nurtured and treasured in relations penetrated with trust and amity. No amount of wealth, status or power can adequately compensate for a life devoid of genuine friends.

Experience true pleasure: Avoid shallow and transient pleasures. Keep your life simple. Seek calming pleasures that contribute to your peace of mind. True pleasure is disciplined and restrained. In its many shapes and forms, pleasure is what every human being is after. Some pleasures are shallow and transient, fading away as soon as the act that creates the pleasure ends.

Often, they are succeeded by a feeling of emptiness and psychological pain and suffering. Other pleasures are deep, prolonged and continue even after the act that creates them ends; it is these pleasures that secure the well-lived life.

Master yourself: Resist any external force that might delimit thought and action; believing only what is personally useful and convenient. Complete liberty necessitates a struggle within, a battle to subdue negative psychological and spiritual forces that prevent a healthy existence. Today, freedom tends to be associated, above all, with political liberty. Therefore, freedom is often perceived as a reward for political struggle, measured in terms of one’s ability to exercise individual ‘rights’.

Avoid excesses: Live life in harmony and balance. Avoid excesses. Even good things, pursued or attained without moderation, can become a source of misery and suffering. Our ancestors fully grasped the high costs of passionate excess. They correctly understood that when people violate the limits of a reasonable mean, they pay penalties ranging from countervailing frustrations to utter catastrophe. It is for this reason that they prized ideals such as measure, balance, harmony, and proportion as much as they did, the parameters within which productive living can proceed.

Be a responsible human being: Approach yourself with honesty and thoroughness; maintain a kind of spiritual hygiene; stop the blame-shifting for your errors and shortcomings. Be honest with yourself and be prepared to assume responsibility and accept consequences. This rule has special relevance for all of us because of the common human tendency to reject responsibility for wrongdoing. Very few people are willing to hold themselves accountable for the errors and mishaps that inevitably occur in life. Instead, they tend to foist these situations off on others complaining of circumstances “beyond their control.”

Moral of story

The bottom line is clear. You need not have a lot of money to be happy and enjoy life. A trip to the local park, the beach or the mountains is virtually free and is all it takes. A donation of Rs. 100 will generally make you feel the same as a donation of Rs. 100, 000 - it’s the act of giving that seems to matter most.

You don’t need a stack of psychology books to understand these few basic things, all of which are backed by research studies. All you need is the willingness to incorporate more of them into your life.

By Lionel Wijesiri - Sunday Observer