What is Happiness?

March 28, 2010 at 6:20 am | Posted in Philosophy | 1 Comment
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What is Happiness? I know, it has been a topic of thought and discussion for as long as the human race has been capable of thinking and of putting those thoughts into words. Perhaps it was the females who began this as a topic of conversation. After all, we know the stereotypical representation: the women gather to talk feelings, while the men talk hunting and sport (of all kinds), or work.

But what do you think? Is happiness the acquisition or ownership of things? As in “I’ll be happy when I have the lovely big house with a BMW and a Mercedes in the garage (or any other status symbol)”. Perhaps, to you, it is beating the opposition – the other candidate or party in politics; the opposing player or team in sport; the rival in any other field of combat.

Do you think happiness is having the person of your dreams, having other dreams come true; being beautiful or handsome, clever or witty, healthy and active; being accepted by the group you need to belong to; achieving wellbeing, peace and harmony? In other words,  feeling good when things go well in life, when you get what you want. In fact, practically every dictionary and many other references refer to good feelings, such as contentment and satisfaction, brought on by good fortune. Happiness appears to be an emotion, one that is dependent on, or bestowed by, pleasant external conditions.

But life isn’t like that. At times – too often, we believe – things do not go as planned. Something happens to bring you crashing to earth with a thud – a financial loss, a heart attack, losing a child or a spouse. Or you may suddenly realise that the happiness you initially felt over your acquisitions and achievements has faded, and you must try for a higher level, the next pot of gold. I have seen many people who seem to have everything – wealth, a lovely home and family, friends, possessions – and yet they are unhappy. An emotion dependent on external factors does not ensure the achievement of lasting happiness.

Sometimes, though, we meet a person who appears to be happy in spite of setbacks or loss, ill-health or poverty. Most of us look askance at the person who claims to be happy under adverse conditions, who accepts whatever life throws at them and cheerfully carries on. They are just too good to be true. But the evidence of their lives shows they are real. They may be knocked for six at first but, before too long, they come back and face life again with a positive outlook and a smile. How can they do that?

I know such a person, and he has shown me, through his example, how to achieve happiness. Contrary to popular understanding, he claims that happiness is not an emotion dependent on external conditions, but an internal choice. Happiness comes from a person deciding to cultivate a positive view of life, rather than a negative one. This can be achieved, to a large extent, by embracing what some call an “attitude of gratitude”.

Changing how we think can lead to amazing changes. How many people read and were changed by putting into practice the concepts in Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking”? Gratitude is an emotion common to all races, a thankful and positive response to receiving a gift. It is more than appreciation, and the focus is on the gift and the giver, rather than on the self. Although it is an emotion, gratitude can also be a choice. We can harness this powerful and positive emotion by choosing to practise it; to be thankful in all situations.

Practising gratitude changes one’s entire outlook on life. In being grateful for any small thing, we begin to see how much we really have. We look at our families, friends, or workmates, our homes and possessions – no matter how small they may be, at our surroundings and at the natural world. When we look, we make a choice to see the positives. In focusing on these, we do not let in the negatives – or we at least minimise them and become less affected by them.

While the phrase “attitude of gratitude” is often used in a Christian context, it is not limited to that or to any other belief system. Whether you believe in God, or any other spiritual being, or whether you have no religious beliefs at all, you can practice gratitude.

In practising this positive attitude, you begin to radiate happiness. You attract others to you. Scientific studies show that being grateful can lead to a happier, healthier, more active and longer life, and even to prosperity. Grateful people are more peaceful, more optimistic and have better relationships. I know, because I have seen it. Now, I try to practise the attitude of gratitude in all situations. I have found that it works. I am happy with where I am and what I have, in spite of setbacks and problems.

Thoughts–just mere thoughts–are as powerful as electric batteries–as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. ~Frances Hodgson Burnett

 © Linda Visman, March, 2010.

Looking at Photos

March 5, 2010 at 5:18 am | Posted in Society | 1 Comment
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It’s an amazing world, when a T-shirt allows the U.S. Dallas Cowboys  to intersect with indigenous kids in a remote community in Central Australia. It’s great that, by looking at my photo album these kids can also connect with another culture within their own country. But it also highlights the differences between what we see as ‘normal’ western living and life in the real bush.

It is November, 1991. In my photos, the kids see my British-Australian family, who live well over a thousand kilometres away, in homes quite unlike the tin-shed shacks or brush-and-tarp shelters they live in. My five sons pose before backgrounds of sea or mountains, clear creeks and dense, tall bushland, so very different to their flat country of red sand, spinifex, wattle and mulga. My children engage in activities that these youngsters may never have a chance to even know about.

The five girls are in my Education Department supplied caravan, which sits with two others behind to the school grounds at one end of the community. In my van, I have a couch, table and chairs, an electric frypan, a washing machine, a refrigerator, a television, even a fizzy drink maker; in fact pretty well all the ‘necessities’ of modern life. I do not have a telephone though –the school office has one, but a phone service only became available there four months previously.

The girls’ families have none of these common conveniences in their homes, not even a TV. They do not have electricity – or showers either. The kids shower at school, before class. After their shower, they change into school uniforms, and the cleaner washes their clothes in the school washing machine. At the end of the school day, the kids change back into their own, clean clothes. The teachers wash the uniforms, ready for the next day. The girls in the photo came to visit me after school, and are wearing those clean clothes.

Things have improved there in the last eighteen years. They now have power and television, satellite dishes and telephones, though no mobile phone service. They have greater access to vehicles and a well-stocked store with petrol bowsers – no more having to travel to the cattle station to stock up on basic rations. They have council offices and work sheds – but very little work. The school buildings have been upgraded, but the level of service is still dependent on the individual teachers who go there. Education is still not highly valued, because there is no incentive to learn.

I look at this photo and remember the hard work and the joys, the despair and the hope, the struggles and the achievements. Mostly though, I remember the kids – their brightness and their smiles, their openness and their enthusiasm, and their trust. I think of the things they didn’t have – those I have already listed, but also no grog and no petrol sniffing.

 When I think of the things they did have – an open-air lifestyle; bush tucker to supplement the basic foodstuff they could buy; a joy in simple things, like making a toy from a piece of wire and a tin can; their traditional family and social structures and ceremonial life – and I think that, in many ways, they had it better then.

© Linda Visman, March 5, 2010

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