Real living: Love changes everything

Several 'experts' claim they've found the secret of happiness. The answer is blindingly simple, says Hester Lacey
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Professor Michael Argyle of Oxford University has been studying happiness for the past 15 years, and last week he published his latest findings. It seems that, erm, soap operas are one of the secrets: soap fans are quantifiably happier than the rest of us. Professor Argyle has devised his own measuring system, a detailed questionnaire called the Oxford Happiness Inventory and, apart from regular visits to the merry worlds of Albert Square and Brookside Close, in analysing thousands of responses he has found that marriage or a close relationship, a stable circle of good friends, manageable ambitions, congenial workmates and enjoyable leisure activities are the key factors. Money and possessions do not make a great deal of difference, except to the very poor.

On the face of it, this makes happiness sound rather attainable: but in fact its pursuit remains extraordinarily problematical. Take Will Carling, formerly revered as one of the greatest sportsmen in the land. Until a fortnight ago he seemed to have every excuse to be deliriously joyful: he was well-off and well-respected, with a devoted partner and small son. He left his family because he "wasn't happy", and is probably now even less happy since public opinion turned firmly against him and his pounds 1m testimonial match was cancelled last week. So it seems that for everyone, happiness is strangely elusive; hence the proliferation of books that set out to help: titles such as Happiness Now! by Robert Holden, The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and American psychiatrist Dr Howard C Cutler, or even Happiness is the Best Revenge by Chuck Spezzano (apparently a favourite volume of the late Princess of Wales).

Robert Holden has gone further than simply writing about happiness; he founded his own organisation, the Happiness Project and runs regular happiness seminars (clients include such reservoirs of joyful employees as the NHS, the BBC and British Telecom). The next of these workshop sessions is at London's Earls Court on 31 October and promises "a rich tapestry of practical wisdom, gentle healing and personal break-throughs. You leave with an inner smile". He believes that in fact we are all perfectly happy: we just don't know it. "I feel we are all happy 100 per cent of the time, in our hearts," he says. "What isn't there is our awareness of it. We have a perception of happiness as something that comes and goes, so we run out looking for stimuli to make us happy. We've been sold the line that it's circumstances that make us happy, but it ain't. There's an old adage: it's not how much you have, it's how you appreciate what you have. Having more stuff doesn't guarantee you will be more happy." There is a definite distinction, he says, between transitory pleasure and permanent contentment; and happiness can't be chased. "The American ethic is the pursuit of happiness but the idea of pursuit comes from the belief that happiness is not inside you. Pursuit can make you greedy and selfish - it's as if there's only so much cake and someone else has got some of it already. When people are genuinely happy it's not selfish or greedy, they want to share it."

This sounds simple enough: all that's necessary is getting in touch with one's Inner Happy Self, a snip at pounds 55 per seminar ticket (or pounds 49 to Independent on Sunday readers, details below) or pounds 8.99 for a copy of Happiness Now!, subtitled Timeless Wisdom for Feeling Good FAST.

The Dalai Lama's approach is rather more slow-burn. "While attaining genuine and lasting happiness is not easy, it nevertheless can be done," writes his collaborator Dr Howard C Cutler of Arizona, noting that the Dalai Lama's teaching are based on 2,500 years of Buddhist tradition. The Dalai Lama has been training his mind since the age of four; however, some of these long-simmered meditations are rather similar to Robert Holden's fast-track approach. Happiness, agrees the great one, is not to do with externals, and should not be confused with pleasure. "True happiness relates more to the mind and heart," he says. "Happiness that depends mainly on physical pleasure is unstable: one day it's there, the next day it may not be." His Holiness's recipe for the road to happiness is through mental discipline: identify and cultivate positive mental states, identify and eliminate negative mental states. "Transforming your mind takes time," he warns.

What of more traditional sources of contentment? Professor Argyle has found that regular church-goers tend to enjoy increased happiness. "Love gives you happiness," suggests a spokesman for the Church of England. "If you have a balance of pleasure, fulfilment, joy, pleasure, concern and love for neighbours and friends, there is the added bonus of the spiritual element."

Though a few years ago, John Patten, the former Education Secretary, took preachers to task for not praising capitalism from the pulpit, accusing them of ignoring strong moral arguments in favour of the market economy. Mr Patten, himself a regular churchgoer, complained that he could not remember listening to a sermon where the great contribution of capitalism to human spiritual and material happiness was promoted.

In fact, according to psychologist Oliver James, author of Britain on the Couch, capitalism is the biggest hindrance to happiness that we are currently facing. "We have become a wannabe nation, we want what we haven't got - we expect more and feel entitled to it. This is a consequence of advanced capitalism - economic growth means everybody being dissatisfied with what they've got," he says. "The instincts to compete and rank ourselves are healthy instincts in themselves but advanced capitalism has flogged them to death. Now people use the acquisition of material things to conquer low self-worth. We buy into the idea that if we can change our status or acquire more things we will be happier and it doesn't work." He believes that therapy is a valuable tool in acquring a more balanced and happier view of life. "Therapy can be very useful, it's definitely an anti-capitalist device. The net result of it is to be clearer about how you, with your own personal history, fit in and can best take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that new technology gives."

And once again, when it comes to the bottom line, his conclusions are not so different from those of Professor Argyle, Mr Holden, the Dalai Lama et al (everyone but John Patten, in fact). "Happiness is about being part of social networks, having genuine stable relationships, achieving real intimacy rather than the kind of bogus intimacy you see on television all the time. Fulfilment comes from good relationships and work you enjoy that is creative. It's necessary to look for a deeper sense of wellbeing that underpins everything, not a quick buzz."

So there we are. Happiness is out there, albeit contentment rather than permanent ecstasy and whether it is attainable through EastEnders, workshop seminars, meditation or therapy is a matter of opinion. Michael Argyle's own personal recipe? "I have a secret weapon in the happiness stakes," he writes. "It is Scottish country dancing, and I have been doing it every Wednesday for years."

'Happiness Now!' by Robert Holden pounds 7.99 Hodder & Stoughton; 'The Art of Happiness' by HH Dalai Lama and Howard C Cutler pounds 9.99 Hodder & Stoughton. Happiness Now! seminar Saturday 31 October 1998, tickets pounds 49 to 'Independent on Sunday' readers, details from The Happiness Project, Elms Court, Chapel Way, Oxford OX2 9LP tel 01865 24441 (telephone enquiries Monday only)