Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Measuring Happiness

I am looking at a poll conducted by research company Ipsos on the global state of happiness and lo and behold, the country that tops the list whose respondents describe themselves as ‘very happy’ is, Indonesia.  Yes, it came as a surprise to me too, considering that there are a lot of things in this place to be unhappy about.  Why, just turn on the television, read the newspaper and follow the social media, and what do we get day in day out?  One endless gripe after another.

About the way the country is governed, rampant corruption, shameless politicians, the lack of infrastructure and basic facilities, not enough park for children to run around in, not to mention widespread poverty and poor education.  About how awful life is in general.  So, what on earth can Indonesians be happy about?

And yet, there it is.  Indonesia, topping the happiness index above India, Mexico and Brazil.  Way down the bottom are the miserable South Koreans and Russians.  The Italians and the French too seem to be a grumpy lot, but perhaps it’s related to the current mood of economic crisis and rising unemployment.  Life is getting harder for the Europeans these days. 
The Economist points out that ‘all such polls come with a health warning.  The level of happiness is self-reported - and the term means different things to different people.  The Ipsos poll, measuring degrees of happiness, is not strictly comparable with those that ask about “well-being” (such as Gallup) or “life satisfaction” (the World Values survey), so it is hard to test the validity of the conclusions against other efforts.’

But then, the word ‘happy’ is a lot more powerful than ‘well-being’ or ‘satisfied.’  People know when they are happy or not and most people make the ‘pursuit of happiness’ not of satisfaction, their life’s objective, with the state of unhappiness being a fate more fearful than death.

For instance, one could respond to experiencing ‘well-being’ when relaxing in a comfortable house after a delicious dinner, or feel ‘satisfied’ about having attained that managerial position at the office and being able to afford a new car, but these things do not necessarily constitute happiness. 

On the contrary, one could find oneself idly sitting under a tree or getting drenched in a torrential rain and feel perfectly happy.  As The Economist concedes ‘levels of income are, if anything, inversely related to felicity.  Perceived happiness depends on a lot more than material welfare.’

Happiness then is a state of mind and not a possession.  You can’t possess happiness, even though it’s tempting to think that money can get rid of your unhappiness.  Greedy people for example, are rarely happy people.  The very act of wanting more is a sign they are unhappy with what they have.  And their greed makes others unhappy.  We know this because we have more than our fare share of greedy people in this country.  

Still, despite the plethora of shenanigans and challenges that the ordinary Indonesian is constantly subjected to, we obviously have a state of mind that makes us naturally more cheerful than our friends in Europe, their better quality of life not withstanding. 

So, what exactly is happiness and what makes a happy mind?  And, for the miserables, how to achieve this desirable feeling? 

The answer must lie then, not in the events themselves but in how we react to them.  In our ability to deal with disappointments, disasters and adversities without falling headlong into the abyss of despair but by being able to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and move on.  In other words, in how resilient we are to all the hardships and sufferings that life dishes up for us and in our ability to view the future with optimism.    

In the latest edition of Newsweek, the magazine explores recent findings by professor of psychology and psychiatry, Richard J. Davidson, that answers the question why some people are better than others at shrugging off life’s trials and tribulations that would leave lesser resilient individuals wallowing in self-pity, misery and despair.

It’s not a case of hormonal imbalance, uncontrollable emotions or mysterious mood swings, but is what Davidson calls ‘Emotional Style’ - ‘a constellation of reactions and coping responses that differ in kind, intensity and duration.‘  Through neuroimaging and tracing specific patterns of neural activity in the brain, Davidson discovers that ‘Emotional Style arises partly from activity in regions involved in cognition, reason and logic - functions that textbooks tell us are as unrelated to emotions as apples are to squid.’  Meaning that thoughts (seated in our more evolved prefrontal cortex) and emotion (residing in the amygdala in our more animalistic limbic system) are not so separate after all.

The key is activity in the left brain.  In his experiments Davidson discovered that ‘People with greater activation on the left side of the prefrontal cortex recovered much more quickly even from the strongest feelings of disgust, anger and fear... From this, we inferred that the left prefrontal sends inhibitory signals to the amygdala, instructing it to quiet down..’

Moreover, ‘the more axons you have connecting one neuron to another between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the more resilient you are.‘  And you can actually train you brain to have more of these axons.  ‘When it comes to Emotional Style, we know that changes to the neural structure of brain are possible,‘ wrote Davidson. ‘Mental activity, ranging from mediation to cognitive-behaviour therapy, can help you develop a broader awareness of social signals, a deeper sensitivity to our own feelings and bodily sensation, a more consistently positive outlook and a greater capacity for Resilience.’  

May be we Indonesians are so used to disappointments and to all sorts of sufferings, that overtime we’ve developed bundles of these neurons in our brain that allow us to bounce back quickly and move on, most likely to the next problem.

As for our more miserable friends, you might want to take up meditation.

(Desi Anwar:  First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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