Saturday, August 7, 2010

The secret to happiness

Well I'm not the Dalai Lama but I think I know one or two things about the subject.

I had an interesting talk with Jitka, one of the staff in the sports store I mostly frequent whilst in Wanaka, about friendliness. For sales people or people working in the hospitality industry it's part of their job, but for me it's part of my life. It's actually something I consciously do: I smile, I greet people, I make jokes with strangers and I try to genuinely feel compassion for my fellow beings. Now the important word here is genuine. I'm not being fake, I'm not trying to impress or play games, I really do want to be your friend, even if it's just to share a funny moment in time.

I started this habit some time after I left Sydney. In fact I remember that moment in time all too well when I flew back to Sydney mid windsurfing holiday to do a lucrative shift in Wollongong Hospital, spied the uptight drivers in their cars whilst I sat on a bus going somewhere, and said to myself: "Time to get outta this place". A few years later via 3 years in the NT, I'm ensconced on the beach at Drummonds, doing a job I am incredibly passionate about, and can't be happier. And when I return to Sydney for visits (not often!) my absolute favourite past time is to smile at people!!

Now this is what gets me: people are incredibly suspicious of people who smile at them or are friendly towards them. Obviously people who do this are either mad, on drugs, or crazy hippies. Or worse, emotionally needy! What people forget is that just maybe that person is happy, and wants to share a bit of it with you. Go on, try it right now, smile broadly and you just can't help but feel a buzz of the happy juices flowing.

Actually, there's some pretty good research confirming the positive effects of smiling and laughing on the psyche (I'm far too lazy to include links so feel free to google for them yourself). So it must be good for you! I've also found, learnt through my practice of meditation, that holding one's mouth in a gentle Buddha type smile (Mona Lisa does it too!), is as effective. And if you are feeling too stressed to smile? Just take a big breath, and let it out with the loudest deepest sigh you can make and VOILA!!! See how easy it is?

Another tip to happiness is the "live each day at a time" philosophy. If you don't spend time reliving the past or worrying about the future, but live in the moment, you haven't got much to upset you. Of course if you are hungry, have no job, no roof over your head or are in physical danger it might be a little hard to feel happy, but my travels to poor parts of the world reveal that probably what makes people most happy is their social wealth ie their connections to other people, not their material wealth. In fact, worrying about material wealth appears to be a recipe for unhappiness.

I'm going to add a caveat here, because I know those who know me may protest that it's easy for me to say these things when I am financially secure and have the ability to travel anywhere in the world on a whim, and engage in expensive sports like skiing, windsurfing and scuba diving. Sure, but that has never stopped me from being able to see the world through other people's eyes. I am incredibly lucky to have a huge dose of empathy ( I always cry in movies, and am sometimes moved to tears by the chaotic lives of my patients) which somehow allows me to learn from the many people I have met all over the world. And from the numerous couch surfers I host, who continue to enrich my life with their stories and experiences. Not to mention the incredible aboriginal people I work with and for, who have taught me a hell of a lot about social capital. One day I'm going to write about some of them.

I might also add that I am not always smiley and friendly. I can be a total grumpy bitch at times, but I'm working on it - that's where the meditation comes in. And I love spending time by myself, having never been a person who needs others around to make me happy. I never have got that idea, other people don't make you happy, it comes from within. And if you're happy, it feels great to share it.

Now I'm going to finish with an anecdote. Being a doctor, and an advocate of evidence based therapies, I just want to say that this is merely a story, a true one, to illustrate my point. In December 2008 I met a Dutch woman in northern Laos who told me her story. She'd been diagnosed with breast cancer, had the usual treatment, and a few years later it recurred, with spread all over her body and no hope of cure. Her doctors told her she had only months to live, so she and her husband went travelling with what time they had left. With so little time left, she made a conscious decision to live each day at a time. Every morning she got up and was thankful for being alive one more day.

Well day after day she did this, and began to feel better. So they travelled more widely, and she continued to feel healthier and healthier, and continued to live a day at a time. 18 months later she returned to see her doctor, who could find no evidence of the cancer that had ravaged her body. He was understandably amazed, and now that she was ostensibly cancer free, he could no longer give her a poor prognosis.

So here was her dilemma. With a limited future she had embarked on a day to day existence, now that that future was no longer limited should she plan for it? She actually asked my opinion on what I would do. I said I'd keep going, continue to live day by day and just enjoy the ride. She had, of course, also decided to do just that. And I'm sure she's still enjoying a quiet beer somewhere in this wide wonderful world.

So drink a toast to His Holiness, cause I'm pretty sure he knows a thing or two about happiness too!

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