When I came back to Pakistan from the US last year, I was all bright-eyed and optimistic, excited to start a life in my Motherland. But I was quickly smacked in the face by the one glaring difference between life here and life there: people in Pakistan are simply less happy. You can see it on their faces, you can hear it in their voices, you can feel it during chai conversations. I couldn’t really blame them, since unspeakable atrocities occur every single day which we are forced to stomach. Hopelessness and apathy stared back at me as I talked to family and friends, and I realized I would probably have to become a miserable sod too as I assimilated back in this environment.
I didn’t know what I wanted or where I was headed in life, but more important than all that was this one question which needed answering: Is happiness a function of external factors? If this turned out to be true, I was fucked.
And so began a quest which lasted for a bit over a year. I did eventually find an answer to the question, a smiling fat hairy no of an answer: happiness is accessible to anyone regardless of circumstance.
First, a clarification: by happiness I do not mean the feeling you get while, say, eating a chocolate brownie. That’s a shallow definition and impossible to keep up. That was me a couple of years back, getting my happiness ‘fixes’ through short-term caveman stimuli. This is what leads people to such things as gambling or sex or drug addictions as they desperately try to recreate that initial high. This is not true happiness, it’s more like the other common definitional fallacy of wanting to get in someone’s pants and labeling that love.
True happiness can better be described as a sense of mental, emotional, and physiological well being. It is a sense of wellness, of calm, peaceful determination. It is when you disconnect from external influences and carry your own internal weather, so to speak. This does not mean one becomes a lifeless automaton, for to be human is to feel crazy emotions, but it does mean you no longer associate with those emotions.
Note also that the title says the happiness ‘habit’. You can literally condition yourself to be a happier person by cultivating it like any other habit.
Over the course of a year, these are the practices which helped me develop my happiness habit in a seemingly hopeless place:
1. Do What You Love
I wrote about this here. This is a simple principle but incredibly important. Your job directly influences your well being because you will spend a sizable portion of your waking hours doing it. And it’s directly related to your sense of personal fulfillment. So it is essential that you do something that brings you joy, peace, and satisfaction. An easy way to figure out if you are on the right path or not is to ask yourself these two questions:
a. Why do I do what I do? If the answer is money, or because someone else says so, or because it is expected of you, or any other lukewarm cop-out, you should look to make changes.
b. What would I do as a career if money was not an issue? What is the one thing that drives you, that you are passionate about, that makes you forget about time and about yourself? Chances are, within reason, that is what you should look to make your profession. Or at the very least make it a part of your life.
2. Tune Your Physiology To Happiness
There is now a healthy body of research which affirms that you can physically change how you feel. There are three basic things which you could do right now for improved happiness.
– Sit up straight My father used to constantly pester me to stop slouching and keep my chin up. Turns out he was right. Correcting you posture can quite literally change your biochemistry. Standing in ‘power poses’ for only two minutes, with your chest out and your head high (if you’re really into it you can raise your arms high as though celebrating), increases testosterone (the power hormone) and decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) levels. Try it for yourself. You can quite literally fake yourself to more confidence and happiness.
– Exercise This is the too much important! The effects of exercise on mood are well documented and difficult to ignore. Not only will the habit of exercise make you happier, but that shalwar will start to fit again as well.
– Breathe We all do this, but I mean really breathe. Not the little shallow breaths, but big slow deep breaths, using your entire lung capacity and your diaphragm for each breath. You’ll feel the difference pretty quickly.
3. Practice Gratitude
All too often we will blow something out of proportion, lose perspective, and start wallowing in self pity. A way to counter this is to practice gratitude. Make a list of things in your life that you are truly grateful for, no matter how small or ineffectual they may at first seem. Do this daily, and you will keep a solid reminder of why your life isn’t really all that bad. If you are really down in the dumps and can’t find anything, be grateful that you are alive. That really is the greatest privilege, and deserves a moment of contemplation at least once a day.
One of the greatest habits for wellness is meditation. Not only does it give you better control over your mental/emotional faculties, but it allows you to get used to the feeling of peace and calm, of happiness, something you can return to even in the most terrible conditions. There are ample resources online to get you started, and you can get a primer on meditation here. The same effects can be observed through prayer, so long as you understand that there is no magic wizard in the sky waiting to solve your problems; the legwork is still yours to do.
5. Nurture the Relationships in Your Life
One of the primary regrets of the dying are ignoring the relationships in their life which matter. I’m guilty of this too, and it is something I am actively trying to get better at. We are social creatures, and it is essential to keep your relationships alive for your own well being.
6. Take Some Time to be Goofy
Play has been around since the beginning of our history, and it is crucial to wellness. No matter how sticky life gets, no matter how many adult issues bog us down, we must take some time out just to play. This improves mood, releases serotonin (the happy hormone), and ensures that we don’t take any of this silly little game too seriously. Pick up a sport and you get exercise while you play, which is a double-win. One is never ever too old to play.
7. Choose Love and Give Back
The reason why I chose to write about this topic today is mostly selfish. Explosions have rocked my home town of Peshawar the last few days and taken many lives. It is difficult to rationalize, difficult to accept, really difficult to feel upbeat and positive. Honestly it was difficult to get much good work done today when all I could think of was the carnage that the people of my hometown are dealing with.
But there is a decision to be made here; to choose love or to choose fear. Fear would mean I’d sit down and post an angry Facebook status, call up a couple of friends, bitch about Imran Khan’s wrongheaded policies, and be miserable. But I want to choose love. I want to keep going. I don’t have the power to solve the problems of Peshawar or of the families who have lost loved ones today, but I do have the power to share what I have learned about happiness and wellness. Even if one person can find some use for these ideas, especially in these testing times, that will be a major win for me.
The simple truth is that we can’t afford to mentally halt in the face of adversity, because the adversity is going to keep hitting us day after day. It behooves us to keep going, to keep contributing in our unique ways, and believe that the weight of all those individual contributions will sway the course of this nation. So that’s the last point, and probably the most important: no matter what is thrown your way or what you are faced with, choose love, and look to give back in whatever capacity you can.