In a Stress-Ridden World, Can You Teach Happiness?

What makes you happy? Receiving a gift? The first smile of your baby? Finding money in the pocket of your old jeans? Or more gratifying things like getting good grades, getting your dream job or winning a lottery? Does success make you happy or being healthy?

Possibly all of this. Or none of it. Maybe you’ll only be happy when you achieve world peace.

So can happiness ever be distilled into one simple definition that fits all?

We are certainly less happy today than we were even a decade ago.

The United Nations celebrates 20th March as the International Day of Happiness since 2012. The World Happiness Report 2018 conducted by Sustainable Development Solutions Network ranked India at a very poor 133 among 156 nations.

In this situation, what if someone offers you the mantra to happiness, all packaged in a neat course?

You’ll jump at it, right?

In February 2018, Delhi government planned to introduce a course in happiness for students from nursery to Class 8. Yale University introduced the course a few months earlier.

In Search of Happiness at Yale University

Yale University has introduced a course on happiness.

Yale University in the United States started its most popular course ever - one on happiness, reported The New York Times.

Students rolled in fast – at last count almost 1200 students had enrolled in the course – that’s 1 in 4 students at the university. It turned out to be a logistical nightmare. Last checked, the classes were being held in the hall that usually holds symphonies.

Dr Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology, takes this course. At one of the most prestigious universities in the United States, rates of anxiety and stress are extremely high. The professor believed the high school students had put happiness on the back-burner while trying to get into the university and now they are struggling to get it back.

What is Happiness?

The New York Times reported the Yale course focuses both on positive psychology and behavioural change. It teaches students how to apply those lessons in real life. For their final assignment, they have to take on a ‘self-improvement’ project.

Happiness today is largely defined as subjective well-being, a scale coined by Ed Diener and his team. When psychologists define happiness, they measure how people think and feel about their lives based on:

  1. Life satisfaction
  2. Positive affect
  3. Negative affect

So, someone who is really satisfied in their life and has great positive effect, will have high levels of subjective well-being.

But can happiness really ever be taught? We put this question to a professor of psychology at Ashoka University.

"I don’t know if you can really teach happiness... I think the more worthwhile question is, how can we best answer the nature of emotions, of which happiness is only one of many emotions? I think that can be taught. " - Professor Kai Qin Chan, HOD, Department of Psychology, Ashoka University

He further explains:

"Consider three emotions: shame, guilt, embarrassment. How can we differentiate these three? (Some involve morality, some involve the self as the target of evaluation, etc.) If people understand the nature of certain emotions, this could imply that they have the power to change the emotions, and this could be especially useful if the emotion is dysfunctional. For example, female wrestling can be seen as shameful, but we can easily turn shame into pride by focusing on the one’s achievement (in this context)?"

Stress and anxiety is weighing down the students. A student commits suicide every hour in India according to a Lancet report.

We are bringing up our children in a world ridden with anxiety. India has one of the highest rate of teen suicides in the world, according to a Lancet 2012 report. And in a situation where your life’s value is measured by success in school or work, anxiety and depression is rampant.

So shouldn’t these happiness courses be made mandatory?

"We typically think of targeting ‘interventions’ at students, but there is evidence to suggest that we also need to involve parents... By focusing on courses for students, we are neglecting a very big determinant of happiness in young adults: parents. Quite often the things we do for children are totally futile (and potentially damaging), at odds with research in developmental psychology, creates stress and anxiety amongst parents and students." - Professor Kai Qin ChanHappiness and the Higher Plain

Pursuit of Happiness: Is meditation, breathing exercises and yoga the answer?

Can you achieve happiness or ananda through meditation or by controlling your breathing? More and more people, unsatisfied by their lives, seeking more meaning and understanding, are looking to new age gurus for answers.

Places like the Art of Living, run by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in the outskirts of India’s Silicon Valley, Bengaluru, teach what they call ‘Happiness Courses’. We asked them how do they define happiness?

"Sri Sri says, and it defines happiness for us here at Art of Living, “A disease-free body, quiver-free breath, stress-free mind, inhibition-free intellect, obsession-free memory, ego that includes all, and soul which is free from sorrow is the birthright of every human being.”" - Gaurav Verma, Regional Director, Art of Living

Yikes. That’s a whole lot to achieve by anyone in one lifetime right? Practically how does one achieve this? They believe yoga, meditation and breathing exercises is the answer.

"We have always been told not to get angry or control our tempers, but we have not been taught how to. In our programs we tap into inner faculties of our existence through ancient breathing practices... Sudarshan Kriya, a unique breathing technique, incorporates specific natural rhythms of the breath which harmonise the body, mind and emotions. This unique breathing technique eliminates stress, fatigue and negative emotions such as anger, frustration and depression, leaving you calm yet energised, focused yet relaxed, and happy. " - Gaurav Verma, Regional Director, Art of Living

So should we all be enrolling ourselves in courses on happiness, taught by top psychologists, or by following ancient wisdom? Will Delhi’s children or Yale University grads, the next generation, grow up to be more happy, satisfied individuals?

Possibly not. But if they grow up to be more empathetic or understanding of happiness in others, it won’t be a wasted effort, right?

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