By Marilynn Preston
Normally, reporting on the art and science of happiness makes me smile. Why? Because happiness turns out to be a learnable skill, unlike, in my case, navigating Facebook.
Not every one of us will live a happy life, and none of us can be happy every moment, but for many women and men who struggle with unhappiness, the battle ends when you fully realize, “You know what? Happiness is a conscious choice.”
Or at least you can choose to be happier, and that’s why we have a 24/7, on-demand, make-me-joyful-now happiness industry in America that includes thousands of happiness apps, books, adult beverages, retreats and happiness experts, not to mention assorted support animals.
Happiness is a booming business, and I consider it my business because happiness is rooted in the mind-body connection. That’s the beautiful takeaway from “The Molecules of Emotion,” a landmark book written in 1997 by Candace Pert. In her pioneering research, this hardcore, renowned neuroscientist with the National Institutes of Health proved that when you experience a deep sense of emotional well-being – through yoga, meditation and mindfulness – your entire body gets bathed in “bliss chemicals” (endorphins) of your own making.
And what else gets these bliss chemicals flowing? Well, that’s where we jump to the work of British journalist Ruth Whippman, the author of “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.” She wrote a commentary in The New York Times recently called “Happiness Is Other People,” based on years of researching and writing her book.
There’s too much focus on happiness as “an internal, personal quest, divorced from other people,” she writes. Americans are engaging in the pursuit of happiness in larger numbers than ever, but she believes they are going about it in the wrong way.
“The idea that happiness should be engineered from the inside out, rather than the outside in, is slowly taking on the status of a default truism,” she complains.
Resist, she says. This approach to happiness is leading people to “a journey of self-discovery,” Whippman warns, “with the explicit aim of keeping each person locked in her own private emotional experience.”
Whippman condemns that approach as an “isolationist philosophy,” one that is shifting people away from spiritual practice “as a community-based endeavor to a private one, with silent meditation retreats, mindfulness apps and yoga classes replacing church socials and collective worship.”
“Forget the meditation app,” her article advised. “Self-help gurus urge us to look within, but joy in life is elsewhere.”
Oh, really? You’ve got an important point to make Ms. Whippman – and I’ll make it for you in a moment – but it’s a mistake to ignore the importance of meditation apps, mindfulness and, God forbid, yoga. It’s misleading, and, yes, it made me unhappy.
The path to personal happiness, to connecting with others, begins with self-discovery. Mindfulness and meditation aren’t the enemy. They’re focusing skills to help us quiet the mind and open our heart. When you know and accept yourself, you are more open to knowing and loving others.
So it’s not either-or. It’s both, with happiness coming from a journey of self-discovery and a recognition that connecting with other humans is a huge part of human happiness.
“Our happiness depends on other people,” Whippman writes, though the italics are mine. “Study after study shows that good social relationships are the strongest, most consistent predictor of a happy life.”
“Neglecting our social relationships is actually shockingly dangerous to our health,” Whippman goes on. “A lack of social connection carries with it a risk of premature death comparable with that of smoking and is roughly twice as dangerous to our health as obesity.”
That’s a wow, isn’t it?
“The most significant thing we can do for our well-being is not to ‘find ourselves’ or ‘go within,’” she concludes, running off the rail. “It’s to invest as much time and effort as we can into nurturing the relationships we have with the people in our lives.”
Ruth Whippman is making a crucial point about happiness. But I think she misses the mark when she ridicules “going within.” Do both, and if you need a happiness app to get you to your cushion 10 minutes a day, that’s good, too.
Marilynn Preston is the author of Energy Express, America’s longest-running healthy lifestyle column. For more on personal well-being, visit www.MarilynnPreston.com.