TED Conversations

Nic Marks

Director, Happiness Works


This conversation is closed.

Can we really become happier? Happier ourselves? Can we create happier places to work? Or even happier societies?

Happiness can often seem elusive ... like love ... the more we chase it the more it seems to slip away from us. Can we really become lastingly happier? Are such efforts worthwhile or futile?

What about organisations and businesses? Can we create happier organisations? Would they be more effective or simply not be competitive?

How about whole societies? Should governments be seeking to help citizens lead happier lives? Or is that somehow sinister?

The new emerging science of happiness and well-being seems to offer some insights but the real world is not the same as controlled experiments.

What do you think? What are your favourite recipes for happiness?

Take part in this Live Conversation this Wednesday, 11th January at 10am PST / 1pm EST / 6pm GMT (my time zone in London!)


Closing Statement from Nic Marks

Well I enjoyed 'hosting' this conversation very much ... we touched on so many topics from the meanings of happiness, the pathways to happiness and a look at the darker side of depression and suicide. We talked of determination, choice, acceptence, contentment and love ... of generosity and poverty ... of consumerism and education ... of passions and curiosity, mediation and exercise ...

It seems to me that a conversation about happiness can get to the core of the human experience ... and in a world facing difficulties of today and tomorrow (a MLK quote!) it could just be that thinking and having conversations about human happiness could be the start of a quiet revolution of our shared world ...

Thanks for talking with me today

Be well


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    Jan 11 2012: One tool for overall happiness is meditation.

    Now, one of the first things you learn from meditation is that it's possible to be happy while doing "nothing." At least as far as the outside world sees it, just sitting there and focusing on your breath is basically "doing nothing." The feeling of meditation is something I'm not sure I can explain to you unless you've meditated before. But I suppose it's similar to any experience you've had where you were just sitting there, and where you felt absolutely content in that moment; maybe while watching a sunset, or sitting on your porch. It's in these moments that you are simply "there," just existing, with no thoughts (or worries or desires) about the past or the future.

    In many of my meditation sessions, there were many moments where I could say I felt truly happy -- just sitting there. This was not an entirely new concept to me, but in a society so obsessed with "doing" and "working" and "accomplishing" and "succeeding," it's easy to forget that it's possible to be happy, right now -- before you've "accomplished" anything. And jumping off of this idea, I couldn't help wondering: if it's possible to be happy doing something so seemingly mundane as just sitting there, then maybe it's possible to be happy doing almost anything in life, no matter how "exciting" or how "boring" it is.

    And so I couldn't help seeing the work and careers that we do through this lens as well. I observed that there are happy and unhappy people in any profession. There are friendly waiters and grumpy ones. There are kind policemen and cruel ones. There are rockstars who abound with happiness and others who kill themselves. And there are rich corporate CEO's who are miserable in their greed and others who find peace in their wealth. All of this can occur because your mental state -- and specifically your ability to "live in the moment" -- creates happiness, not the things you "do" for a living.
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      Jan 11 2012: Awesome!!! I do meditate and I totally know what you are talking about! Meditation is happiness, because then you listen to your soul, to your subconscious mind, to your heart... and you discover yourself... you discover the wealth within you and it boosts your ego, making you happy... :)
    • Jan 11 2012: I nurture hope every morning by praying and reading the Bible, which is my source of hope. My term is "quiet time".

      So I concur. :)
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      Jan 11 2012: The best thing is meditation which I just started recently.
  • Jan 11 2012: I work with a company in Canada that strives to help individuals to create balance in their lives. Since I have started to practice what I teach, I have certainly become more aware of my happiness. I will find myself smiling and glowing internally for the sheer fact that life is good, not perfect, not stress free but still good.

    My biggest breakthrough was to realise that being happy is a choice that we make over and over again throughout the day. We can suffer through our misery or we can chose to work through it and be happy regardless of it.

    The structure of the business that I am in makes us a family. We are there for each other and can be counted on whenever we need help. There is no competition, no back stabbing, no walking over people to make it to the top. I have never experienced anything like it before.

    As long as individuals have the choice to be happy there is always hope that society will follow.
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      Meli D

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      Jan 11 2012: Thank you for sharing this! I am going to pass this on (with quotes and your name, naturally). :)
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      Jan 11 2012: smiling is signal that i can be approached ... smiling more will for sure bring us into the realm of relationships more ... indeed there is a famous study that looked at college photos - those smiling in them were much more likely ten years later to be employed - be happy - be married etc etc (even earnign more) ... being happy CAUSES good outcomes ...
      • Jan 11 2012: I was going to say, happiness starts with a smile. Even when I don't feel like smiling, I do. It not only changes the way I feel, but also changes the way people around me act. It can't be a fake smile, though, has to be a real one.
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        Jan 11 2012: Nic, it seems to me that saying being happy CAUSES good outcomes doesn't nail the idea on the head. I think being happy is a reflection of one's mindset, and that mindset, worldview, weltanschauung, or whatever you want to call it, is the thing that causes good outcomes. My work focuses on helping folks modify their perception. And perception is often the only thing within our capabilities to change.
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          Jan 11 2012: yes ... happiness that is congruent - coherent with you and your circumstances will be instrumental in creating a set of actions that creates a virtous circle ... it is a complex process! (and i can't type fat enough to express all of my ideas right now!)
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        Jan 11 2012: Yes, Nic...one of the college studies of which you speak is the case study Marty Seligman examined at Penn.

        The women were in fact, nuns, who researchers chose because they had similar lifestyles, backgrounds, (obviously- religious beliefs!), and gender orientation. The studies in this particular case study with the nuns found that the nuns who had smiled int heir yearbook photos proved to live longer, happier, healthier lives (into their 80's and 90's, as opposed to their non-smiling counterparts) and had a greater sense of positive well being throughout their adult lives.

        Although one is not able to "put on a happy face," on demand, we all have the ability to improve our overall well-being with finding relief through consciously choosing the next best thought or feeling.
    • Jan 11 2012: The realization that we have some control over our happiness is very empowering. Being aware of our choice to either be happy or not is very important!
    • Jan 11 2012: Smile to the world and see the world smiling back at you. indeed your strong relationship with your family is what drives you to happiness.
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      Jan 11 2012: The spirit of cooperation with which we approach any activity, be it at school, work, family, clubs...helps people to see we are team players. Like Mr. Marks mentions also, a smile, something so simple, and free to all of us, can disarm even the saddest of people.

      When we have peace ourselves, because we have found purpose in our own lives, we are able to give peace to those around us. Our words are kind, our actions are in the spirit of contributing to others' well-being. There is definitely more happiness in giving than in receiving. This, for me, is a big KEY to true happiness.

      When we know we ourselves are happy, then we can be on the look out for those that are not, and we can do something about it. In turn, we will be more and more happy knowing we are helping others. This I truly truly believe to be a secret that many need to discover.

      Just my humble opinion.
    • Jan 11 2012: to Sue Liko: your job is really nice and I agree with what you wrote
  • Jan 11 2012: Happiness is just one facet of human experience. As a particular aim for our lives or society, happiness is overrated. Why not think about being a kinder, more forgiving person, or working on making a more just society, securing the rights for minorities, helping the poor and needy, ... , etc as intrinsic aims themselves, rather than making people (me or others) happy? There are more worthwhile things to be done.
  • Jan 11 2012: Seeing life as an adventure and experiment to discover what I am capable of; listening to informed points of view but remaining objective; never losing a childlike wonder and curiousity about the world and the universe; earning the love and respect of people I admire and being able to express and reciprocate those feelings; to value life, love, passion and compassion, hard work, knowledge, intelligence and imagination, and above all valuing all that is for the long-term benefit of humanity over short-term personal profit.
  • Jan 11 2012: Happiness doesn’t exist on the far side of distant mountains. It is within you, yourself. Not you, however, sitting in idle passivity. It is to be found in the vibrant dynamism of your own life as you struggle to challenge and overcome one obstacle after another, as you clamber up a perilous ridge in pursuit of that which lies beyond. Daisaku Ikeda, my mentor
  • Jan 11 2012: Doesn't this require eliminating some of the marketing strategies used today? Every day some company is trying hard to convince me that I'm not happy as I am, and I need to buy their product. Plastic surgery is an extreme example of this, but I think it also applies to companies making and selling granola bars. How does a competitive marketplace respect happiness rather than trying to abuse it?
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      Jan 11 2012: Yes - this is the BIG lie at the heart of the consumerist society ... to sell us products (that we don't need!) companies have to convince us that we would be happier if we had them ... think of all the waste - both of human effort/talent and the planet's resources - that goes into this process ... if happiness research teaches us anything it is that the currency of happiness is relationships and time - not material goods ...
      we can use money to buy (and give!) experiences of course ...
      • Jan 11 2012: Are there examples of economies based more on service rather than products? Is that the pitch to use to get big business (and their money) behind a move which will increase happiness? If it requires eliminating some of the basic consumer market ideas, it's going to be opposed by people who are currently making huge profit there.
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          Jan 11 2012: Very strong vested interests at play here! See Tim Kasser's work on materialistic values ... but i do think businesses are starting to think more about experiences than products ...
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        Jan 11 2012: Yes, but unless you bring happiness to relationships, they can be a source of unhappiness. We must manifest happiness from within. Happiness is something you share with others.
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    Jan 11 2012: I think happiness is something you have to learn, you have to grow and get yourself in a place where you can understand really who you are, I really think we came into this world to learn how to be happy, and that is a process you can not live alone, so you have to build relationships with the others, with your enviroment and so. So we can create happy places? of course we can, a whole society, we can also, not easy task, but it is the challenge!!
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      Jan 11 2012: Well said ..we can also, not easy task, but it is the difficult challenge! !
  • Jan 11 2012: One man that should not be left out of a conversation about happiness is John Stuart Mill. Mill spent the entirety of his life literally from the time he was six learning greek till his death in 1873 thinking about happiness, Specifically in the form of utility i.e. "The greatest happiness for the greatest number" or the greatest happiness principle. He was trained up by his father in one of the most rigorous courses of education in the history of the world, and by 20 Mill had his first nervous breakdown, in which all of his conviction about the things he had been taught were called into question. This breakdown would repeat itself at other times in his life, but the conclusion he comes to about happiness is known as the Paradox of Hedonism. The paradox was realized by mill when he began to question himself asking '"Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?" And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, "No!"' Mills conclusion at this was that if your objective is happiness, you could not go at it directly. If you do some action solely with the intent of increasing your happiness, when you review and ask the question "did this work" you will find that it didn't. upon much time of reflection Mill concluded with this thought: "But I now thought that this end [one's happiness] was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness[....] Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness along the way[....] Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so."
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      Jan 11 2012: Something else.. quite true. Just reading comments is making me happy.
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    Jan 11 2012: I am one of the people out there that believes happiness is a choice we wake up and make each day. We have the option of letting fear, hate, and intolerance consume us - they find us no matter where we are. But if we choose peace and happiness we will find it every time.
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    Jan 11 2012: Recipes for happiness? We all know the things that can bring us happiness in a fleeting moment - which has great value.... For lasting happiness however, there is no short-cut to doing the work on ourselves. My experience in finding lasting happiness is layered with many ideas but a start is: 1) The pursuit of finding and living one's mission on earth. Going after it with the same intensity as if you were thirsty for water in a desert. 2) Choosing self-acceptance love and compassion in every moment possible. 3) Working every day to remove the blocks that make us feel stuck, numb, or shut down. 4) Connection to others, hugs, feeling loved, playing. 5) Acceptance that pain is always going to be a part of our existence - (when a loved one dies, the longing to be loved etc.) - And removing resistance to that reality.
    There is so much more to say!
  • Jan 11 2012: I've found a great deal of happiness through meditation, a deeper lasting happiness than the things that I used to think made me happy, like food or owning new things, or even the temporary thrill of success or stimulating ideas. It has turned my life around, and although I'm glad that a great deal of research on the neuroscience of meditation is demonstrating its positive benefits, I don't need anything more than my own profound experiences to convince me. People who know me tell me all the time that I have changed since I started. It's not a quick fix though, it requires time and patience, but working deeply on yourself, and not blaming other people or circumstances of your life, is the only way to get past our habitual patterns.
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      Jan 11 2012: Hi Adam, I have also started meditation and from the first time I was amazed with the relaxation and peace I had inside. Could you share your method with me? I would like to try new ways. Thank you!
      • Jan 11 2012: Hello Shabnam! I practice mostly vipassana, or insight meditation, which has been the most beneficial to me. But I have explored many types of meditation including movement meditations, which are also wonderful. Anything that we do that brings us into the present moment, and out of the stories in our heads, if only for a little while, is a meditation. See what works for you and stick to it, is my advice!
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          Jan 11 2012: Thanks Adam! Would you advise any good web-site, or a channel where I could learn different types of meditation? So far I have done the original meditation (sitting straight, breathing, eyes closed, concentrated), but I would like to try other types as well.
      • Jan 11 2012: I chant Nam Myo Renge Kyo. I am a practitioner of Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism and a member of Soka Gakkai International. I have been practising for the last 6 years and it has turned my life around from one of sadness and mere existence to one of joy and happiness, even in moments of struggle and challenge. http://www.sgi.org/ for more info about our organisation.
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          Jan 11 2012: My sister chants ... she has found it very calming ... mindfulness training has also been shown to be very beneficial to happiness ... and of course one of the most popular sports is fishing ... and if that is not mediation then i don't know what it is!
      • Jan 11 2012: I practice with a Buddhist group here, they have some resources on their site: http://imcw.org/Resources.aspx

        Since many people are anti anything religious, probably especially on ted, I want to make it clear that not only are there forms of meditation for every religion, but it doesn't have to be religious at all. There is a program called MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) which is completely secular and is researched in hospitals: http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/stress/index.aspx

        While a lot of western yoga is very workout oriented, originally it was intended to aid the body in sitting meditation, and a good yoga teacher can teach a very mindful class.

        For some of the brain research about meditation, check out Dan Siegel: http://drdansiegel.com/
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      Jan 11 2012: Agreed. Meditation brings wonderful benefits, the most is "absolute" happiness. (see below)
  • Jan 11 2012: There is plenty of evidence to show that creating a happy workforce leads to a higher levels of job satisfaction and lower levels of staff turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism. Business in the Community has a couple of examples from our awards last year... http://www.bitc.org.uk/resources/case_studies/afe3029.html http://www.bitc.org.uk/resources/case_studies/afe3000_1.html
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    Jan 11 2012: I spent two long years on looking for happiness... I read about it, chased it, learnt it, observed it and found it... Being happy requires a training. Like a baby, who learns to walk and falls down a lot, you also need to train yourself to stay positive, peaceful and happy no matter what... Every person has a frequency. Those, who are on high frequency are happy. How do you lift your frequency? Every kindness you do for others, every positive thought you think, every smile, every "thank you" lifts your frequency... And like a baby mastering walking, by time you also master happiness...
  • Jan 11 2012: I believe making self happy is one step to create happier society and also creating happier environment to others is also creates happiness to self. Making self happier by taking others happiness in a selfish way destructs self happiness no mater how late it will be. Just follow the 10 Commandments not just only for religious purpose but also for creating better love and peace!
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    Jan 11 2012: I've given up being happy. Emotions are reactive and I don't get to choose how I feel. I do get to decide how I react to life and all the circumstances that affect my emotions. I make a conscious decision, every day, to be content, which seems much more important than my being happy. Even in the midst of continual medical issues, job loss, financial setbacks, I am content. Because of my contentment, I am able to look for the significance in each situation. And because I look for significance, I find it easier to live in contentment.

    If I were to focus on being happy, there would be so much disappointment, too much.
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      Jan 11 2012: I do know what you mean ... and happiness can be understood in different ways ... short term pleasures (more closely related to emotions) and medium/long term satifaction - functionality ... we'll never be high-emotion happy all the time ... indeed that would be dysfunctional ... but listening to our emotions can give us feedback on how to live our lives ...
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        Jan 11 2012: Absolutely - emotions can give us feedback. I try to listen to my emotions, especially when they catch me off guard. "I wonder why I'm feeling that emotion right now?" Looking at the emotions let's me make better decisions on how to deal with those emotions, and the situation that caused them.

        And even though I believe we don't get to choose emotions, I am also a believer that what I think affects how I feel, and how I feel affects what I do. I may not be able to change my circumstances, but I can certainly change my perception of them, which will definitely affect my emotions, hopefully making me happier, in the midst of my contentment.
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      Jan 11 2012: But that consciousness makes you happy isn't. Happiness has many faces.
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        Jan 11 2012: Happiness does have many faces. As a school counselor, I spent a lot of time talking with students about emotions, and that emotions aren't good or bad, they're just emotions. Certainly some emotions are more comfortable than others, and we might prefer one over another. But we don't get to choose our emotions. When someone jumps out of the dark and yells, "BOO!" my fear is not a choice, nor can I choose not to be afraid. The emotion of fear happens in response to the circumstances.

        Likewise, happy is an emotion (at least in my life and my definition). So it's not something I choose. And faking happiness is worse than being unhappy.
        • Jan 11 2012: Do you make a distinction between "happy" and being content, being at peace, being joyful, being hopeful?
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    Jan 11 2012: I'm happiest when my actions have a purpose and match my ethos. Which is sometimes a difficult state to acheive.
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      Jan 11 2012: A sense of purpose - a feeling one is moving in the right direction is great for our long term happiness ... I think I always astounded my friends when i was young (i am not so young now!) ... but when i was I used to think about how it would be to be old looking back on my life ... had i led a life i could be proud of?
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    Jan 11 2012: I wish I had found this conversation with longer than two minutes left to comment. Such is life. Seeing as I have sixty seconds, I'll leave this with a quote I heard. not sure who said it.

    Happiness is like a butterfly. Chase it and it will always elude you, but divert your attention to other things, and it will come and rest quietly on your shoulder.
  • Jan 11 2012: Happiness is a way of life. Sharing kindness and positive energy can change people around us & impact our community. Being grateful for life, health and all the blessings in life are essential for happiness.
  • Jan 11 2012: Very interesting discussion. I have come to understand that there is a huge difference between happiness and joy/contentment. It is very difficult to be happy when someone close has passed away but it is possible to be at peace and have joy. This may be just semantics, of course, but I feel that happiness depends on circumstances and cannot be chosen.

    Contentment, peace, and joy all are choices and depend on hope.
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      Jan 11 2012: I think we can choose where we put our energies ... our attention ... and if we choose wisely happiness flows out the side ... tis elusive - we can't go directly for it (like love!) ...
  • Jan 11 2012: What about the role of memory in happiness? I often ascribe my ability to be happy to how easily I forget social slights. A lot of unhappiness seems to result from dwelling on how people have wronged you or how you behaved imperfectly.
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    Jan 11 2012: Happiness is just a matter of choice... If you decide to be happy, you will find reasons to be happy...
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      Jan 11 2012: Dolly Parton says this! I once wrote an article about why she was 50% right ... basically our environments are also important ... harder to be happy with an abusive partner/parent ... harder to be happy if your friends and family are dying of malaria, HIV/Aids or in conflicts ... more people thrive in benign environments and more sink in deprived ones - but some struggle in objectively very nice circumstances and others do well in spite of adversity ... we are ourselves and our environments ...
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      Jan 11 2012: For myself, this is completely true! When I was homeless and completely unloved, I was still very happy. I wasn't happy about my situation, but I still giggled and found silly things funny. You really do decide.
  • Jan 11 2012: "To the degree we have desire, to that degree we suffer."
    Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness (I strongly recomend it)
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    Jan 11 2012: I think happiness is an idea, we are sold the idea that we can be happy if we do such and such. In truth, I've usually found myself being 'happy' when doing absolutely nothing. I was just paying attention to what I was doing and where I was and voila! I've since read books on being here now and it's a recipe that works for me. I notice that when I start living in the regrets of the past or drown in the worries of the future I get agitated. But the moment I come back, I feel a sense of relief, that can be called happiness.
  • Jan 11 2012: Everyone's personal happiness plays out very differently just based on each person's definition of happiness. However, if everyone was happy, it would certainly make the work place and or community a much better place. Does that mean not everyone is happy? not sure

    Example; You may hate your job but live a very fulfilling life outside of work.

    Each person's Paradigm is what defines their definition of happiness
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    Jan 11 2012: Happiness is the result of inner harmony. It can't be bought or provided by anyone.

    To give an example. I wasn't happy with my work at first to use an understatement.
    At one moment I realized that it was my attitude that made it as bad as it was.
    As I changed the work became fun because I loved to do it right, do it the best way possible, got incredible results.
    Happiness you have to bring out from within and can't be brought in from outside.
    You can't chase it, just be in peace by acceptance and doing the best you can while being, concentrated, mindful and alert.
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    Jan 11 2012: Nic, I love your work in the world. I absolutely believe that we can become lastingly happier as individuals - and within highly effective organizations as well. Happiness (and love) create an experience of being open and moving forward. Fear and other emotions that do not fully embrace happiness create an experience of contraction and holding back. I see this every day in my coaching practice with people. When people remove the blocks within themselves and they come alive, they walk through life with full strides. They become exponentially more effective in their lives in every way.
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    Jan 11 2012: (my comment was deleted. I am reposting)

    There are two types of happiness: relative and absolute. Relative is dependent on the environment, such as getting a new car, seeing your boyfriend, laughing at a funny show. But when those things disappear - your happiness may disappear as well. With absolute happiness - it's about manifesting the highest possible life condition (energy) so that you are able to be happy even in dark times. It's taping into a life condition of happiness that is inherent in everyone. It takes work but you can achieve absolute happiness through helping others, and through making good causes- but mostly through meditation.
  • Jan 11 2012: In Bhutan, they have Gross National Happiness instead of GDP. Have you read about this? Their government wants their people to be happy, and that is what is most important to them. I love it!

    I think we could become lastingly happier. Unfortunately, happiness can take some work. I think our mindsets play a major role in it, and there is so much pessimism that can get in the way. We need more happy thoughts, fueled by ourselves and those around us!

    The recipe for happiness can be as simple as showing gratitude and lowering your expectations (somewhat). For example, our expectations of others can cause us to become sad and disappointed when said people do not uphold to them, and that is not their fault, it is our own for having them! Also, we need to accept change and be okay with not having control over everything, or even having control over most things. Looking on the brighter side of situations can definitely improve your mood and elevate feelings of happiness, but always thinking about what you do wrong and what would make your life better does the opposite. Furthermore, having goals and something to work toward that is reachable can make you happier. There are just so many ways to BE happy!

    I feel that some societies want instant gratification and for everything to go their way all the time, and that is not realistic or healthy. We can be our own downfall, and we can get in our own way of being happy, but often times we blame others for how we feel. Pointing fingers instead of dealing with problems and emotions solves nothing. Better coping would be another way for us to be happier.

    I'm sure there is more I could say, but it would take too much time, and I would run out of characters to use on here. In conclusion, let's be happy, people! :-)

  • Jan 11 2012: I think it's important to distinguish between moments of happiness, which can be meaningful but transitory, and happiness as a more general state of being, perhaps more akin to being content. And I view happiness as a habit that can definitely be learned and practiced so that even when an individual encounters setbacks, s/he have the resilience and the confidence to accept that happiness exists along a range of emotions and can be regained.
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    Jan 11 2012: Nic, I love your work in the world. I absolutely believe that we can become lastingly happier as individuals - and within highly effective organizations as well. Happiness (and love) create an experience of being open and moving forward. Fear and other emotions that do not fully embrace happiness create an experience of contraction and holding back. I see this every day in my coaching practice with people. When people remove the blocks within themselves and they come alive, they walk through life with full strides. They become exponentially more effective in their lives in every way.