Happiness – we’re told – is a new car, a holiday, looking beautiful, falling in love, finding the perfect home. It’s staying eternally young, reaching the pinnacle of our career and being able to have anything we desire, as long as we have the right amount of ambition and material success. And, if we’re not happy, well, we just didn’t try hard enough.
Of course, for those who follow a yoga practice, these ideas may seem artificial or trite. With growing awareness about the spiritual value of life, we quickly realise that retailers and a growing happiness industry have a vested interest in selling us a lie. We can’t buy happiness, nor can we expect to be continuously joyful.
“One of the craziest manifestations of the Utopia complex [the idea that the quality of a life needs to be measured by the accumulation of material goods and money and the attainment of physical perfection]… is that happiness is our default position and that everything we do is calculated to maintain a chirpy disposition and a state of perpetual wellbeing,” says leading sociologist and author Hugh Mackay.
Rather than aiming for a false or eternal state of bliss, Mackay’s book The Good Life : What Makes a Life Worth Living? argues for using other life choices to reach a point of “deep satisfaction”.
Opening up to happiness
A good life is not security, wealth, status, postcode or career success, says Mackay.
Rather, it’s one defined by our capacity for selflessness, the quality of our relationships and our willingness to connect with others in a useful way. If we tick these goals we have a much greater chance of the happiness we all naturally seek.
“It is true that many people who live the good life will experience moments of overflowing happiness,” confirms Mackay.
In many ways the life he suggests, the very one that will lead us down a more fulfilled path, runs parallel to yoga philosophy and practice. In fact, yoga teacher Ostii Ananda of Hepburn Retreat Centre says that opening and connecting with others in a selfless way could be considered one of the true purposes of yoga.
“With the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind (yoga’s purpose as suggested by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) one becomes less interested in self, less consumed with the small stories presenting themselves internally, and has a much greater capacity to embrace all that is,” he says.
“With regular practice comes the realisation that life is pointless if we’re not opening up and connecting with others.”
Both on the mat and in daily interaction with people, Ananda says he is continually asking himself the question, “In this moment, am I opening, or am I closing?”
People, not things
Continually hungering for more Western-style pay-offs, whether that’s the luxury holiday, the latest gadget or the designer clothes, distracts us from happiness, Mackay says.
“To have [a good life] we need to behave in a way we admire, and we don’t really admire ourselves when we are buying things,” he says.
But if we live life for others, we are on a path to joy that will, ultimately, build self-respect and a core serenity.
“Once we focus on the idea of a good life as being a valuable life, a life that contributes to others’ wellbeing, worries about our personal level of contentment or our material prosperity will fade into the background,” he says.
Ananda adds it’s not the object itself – a material possession that, driven by advertising and social media, we hunger to acquire – that stands in the way of happiness but our attitude towards it.
“If we believe that something will make us happy or even change our lives, that is simply a trap to fall into it,” he says. “I laugh at myself when I find myself thinking in that way.
“Of course, the object itself is not bad. For example, a new car may be something we can share with friends.”
Michael de Manincor, counselling psychologist and director of the Yoga Institute, says the solution to a long-term sense of fulfilment is both simple and complex.
“Certainly it’s not about acquiring things but community building, practical relationships and letting go of the negatives,” he says.
De Manincor’s suggestion to focus on positive emotions – especially those involved in giving to others as a way of obtaining bliss – are backed up by research by the American Psychological Society, which found kindness, love and compassion enhanced well-being by virtue of pushing negative emotions aside.
The Essence of Yoga
The good life does not arise from talking the talk but from connecting and from acting, says Mackay.
Reaching out to others, and in the process enhancing our own wellbeing and quality of life, can involve anything from volunteering your time at an animal rescue service organisation or a nursing home or taking part in a conservation day to building a community garden or helping a neighbour who is sick or disadvantaged.
“It’s entering fully into the life of neighbourhood and community and being available to people who need us,” says Mackay.
Says de Manincor: “Yoga looks at the underlying causes of human suffering and what we can do about them; the importance of treating others kindly (ahimsa – compassion for all living things); of not stealing (asteya); of cultivating an attitude where we are happy with what we have or non-possessiveness (apirigrapha)… and of letting go not just of things but of our sense of self – our asmita, or ego. These are not just philosophies; they are actions and they are crucial,” he says.
“We have an illusion in our mind that we’re separate as individuals and that we have to do our personal best to thrive.
“But we also need to recognise we’re not individual – we have a natural connection to others. Our practice is useless without that.”
Mackay agrees. “We are by nature social creatures and we rely on functioning communities to sustain us. And they only thrive if we nurture them through engagement with other people.”
A need for reflection
Cultivating values and behaviours that will lead us down the path to a good or happy life requires constant reflection on the sutras, says de Manincor.
“How does one live a good life and not get sucked into the messages that are all around us in the world?” he asks.
“We need ongoing reflection and then we need to do what we can to change patterns and habits.”
Mackay reminds us that the kind of life that pays out in self fulfilment can be a very demanding one. “We need time out to recharge emotionally, physically and spiritually, he says.
“For some people, yoga offers that vital source of refreshment and renewal. For others it may simply be meditation, a hobby or a book club.”
Connecting to nature is also vital, he adds. “It puts our lives in perspective; it reminds us that we are part of a huge ecosystem.”
Or, as de Manincor puts it, it gives us a chance to surrender to an energy that is far greater than us.
“Ahimsa is not a sentiment, it’s a behaviour,” he says. “Have compassion for all living things and especially those who are suffering and then walk the talk.”
On that path, he says, lies happiness.
Altruism and brain science
Altruism appears to be cross cultural, says clinical psychologist Dr Paula Watkins of the Happiness Institute in Sydney. “And it is not just a human value, it is a biological construct – we are hardwired both to cooperate and to compete.”
Dr Watkins says that when we connect with others in a meaningful way, a feelgood hormone called oxytocin is released into our bodies. “This happens whenever we perform a pro-social act,” she says. “Research shows that people who give more to others have increased longevity, increased immune function and improved relationships.”
The University of California at Berkeley conducted a study of people who were “high volunteers” (involved in two or more helping organisations). They found high volunteerers had a 63 per cent lower likelihood of dying during the study period than non-volunteers.
Dr Watkins says that one of the treatments for depression is to be involved in acts that benefit other people. A study that compared retirees older than 65 who volunteered with those who didn’t found volunteers scored significantly higher in life satisfaction and had fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, she says.
In another study, the families of recently deceased loved ones reported a psychological benefit from their decision to donate organs.
Research by the Department of Bioethics at the Case Western Reserve University, US, has also found a strong correlation between the happiness, health and longevity of people who are emotionally and behaviourally compassionate. Subsequent international research studies have posed five reasons for benefits to older adults who engage in altruistic behaviour: enhanced social integration; distraction from their own problems; enhanced meaningfulness; increased perception of self-efficacy and competence; and improved mood or more physically active lifestyle.
“Our own happiness is linked to the happiness of others,” says Dr Watkins.
Asanas that open your heart
The fourth chakra, the heart chakra, is at the core of our spirit. In Sanskrit, the heart chakra is called anahata, which means “unstruck” or “unhurt”.
If you feel that your heart is neither of these things, try incorporating heart-opening asanas into your practice.
Yoga teacher Ostii Ananda says that aside from the overall practice of yoga contributing to opening up with others, any asana that opens the chest, draws the armpits towards the waist (shoulders away from the ears), and takes the crown of the head towards the ceiling will open the body in preparation for connection.
“Any backbends, or lifting of the arms towards the ceiling or away from the body and any posture that takes the arms backwards and stretches through the chest area will also help open us to life and to others,” he says.
“I do an exercise in my yoga classes where I ask everyone to stand up, and then lift their shoulders towards their ears – as high as they can, while drawing their arms and shoulders into their body to make themselves as tight and narrow as they can.
“I then ask them to scrunch up their face, and maintaining that position, walk around the room and try to hug other people in the class.
“Once everyone has attempted a few very stiff, awkward hugs, we release our shoulders and faces with a big exhalation and relax.
“Then we open our arms wide and hug a few people to feel the difference – which is extraordinary.”
Ananda says the shoulders up, arms tight by our side and tense face represents the position of our bodies due to many of the stresses of daily life; while the shoulders relaxed, chest open, arms out wide and a relaxed face represents our natural flow, which can be promoted through yoga, dance, chanting and reflection.
This chakra’s element is air, so pranayama practice will also help balance and tone this chakra.