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Abdu’l-Baha, the son of the prophet Baha’u’llah, would often address congregations and guests with this simple but profound question, “Are you happy?” He dearly wished to see everyone happy and united:
Think not of yourselves, but think of the Bounty of God. This will always make you happy. You must be happy always. You must be counted among the people of joy and happiness and must be adorned with divine morals. In a large measure happiness keeps our health while depression of spirit begets diseases. The substance of eternal happiness is spirituality and divine morality, which has no sorrow to follow it. – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted in Annamarie Honnold’s Vignettes from the Life of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 129.
Though Abdu’l-Baha suffered greatly during the majority of his life, he retained his happiness:
I myself was in prison forty years—one year alone would have been impossible to bear—nobody survived that imprisonment more than a year! But, thank God, during all those forty years I was supremely happy! Every day, on waking, it was like hearing good tidings, and every night infinite joy was mine. Spirituality was my comfort, and turning to God was my greatest joy. If this had not been so, do you think it possible that I could have lived through those forty years in prison? – Paris Talks p. 112.
That raises the question—why are some people happier than others? At his lab at the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Richard Davidson has devoted his life to researching” happy brains.” He has studied the brains of Buddhist monks, men who spend their lives deliberately evoking uplifting emotions, and their remarkable levels of happiness. Dr. Davidson’s data has shown that if one sits quietly for a half-hour a day just thinking about kindness and compassion, their brain will show significant changes in only two weeks.
Some people are happier than others because happiness is a choice. Researchers believe that between 50—70% of our happiness level is genetically predisposed; while approximately 40% comes from our own volition. A large part of happiness depends not on outside circumstances, but rather on our attitude, behaviors, and values.
While he was still alive, my uncle Mack taught me about happiness. He always had a happy, joyous demeanor, making someone smile, or in the children’s case, making them laugh. He acted as if he didn’t have a care in the world. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized the difficulties uncle Mack faced. As a newlywed with his first baby, my aunt had a life-threatening brain aneurism and became permanently paralyzed and speechless. Nevertheless, Mack lovingly cared for her all her life. This tragedy did not change his attitude or his happiness. We still held large family gatherings and summer pool parties filled with fun and laughter at his home, and at Christmas he played the jolly Santa. In his later years, after my aunt passed away, he became very sick with Graves disease and regularly went to dialysis, yet his cheery demeanor never faltered. Up until the time he died, I never heard him complain about anyone or anything, even though his life had been filled with heartbreaking sorrows. Uncle Mack truly exemplified the nobility of happiness:
Anybody can be happy in the state of comfort, ease, health, success, pleasure and joy; but if one will be happy and contented in the time of trouble, hardship and prevailing disease, it is the proof of nobility. – Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, Volume 2, p. 263.
So how do we infuse more happiness into our lives? Try these simple four steps:
1. Practice gratitude – Rather than mindlessly searching for external things or situations to make ourselves happy, simply focusing on what we already have can bring the natural by-product of happiness. The more gratitude we have, the more happiness we will bring into our lives. There’s an old saying that if you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude, you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness.
It is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy. – David Steindl-Rast
I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. – Gilbert K. Chesterton
2. Avoid dwelling in the negative – In regard to negative thoughts, Eckhardt Tolle said:
If there is awareness in you, you will be able to recognize that voice in your head for what it is: an old thought, conditioned by the past. If there is awareness in you, you no longer need to believe every thought you think. It’s an old thought, no more.
Happy people have episodes of negative emotions, just like everyone else, but they do not let those thoughts linger:
When one door of happiness closes, another opens, but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us. – Helen Keller
3. Focus on service and kindness to whosoever crosses your path – Abdu’l-Baha’s advice about happiness emphasizes our recognition of the true unity of humanity:
Do not be content with showing friendship in words alone, let your heart burn with loving kindness for all who may cross your path… Let it be seen that you are filled with universal love. When you meet a… stranger, speak to him as to a friend; if he seems to be lonely try to help him, give him of your willing service; if he be sad console him, if poor succour him, if oppressed rescue him, if in misery comfort him. In so doing you will manifest that not in words only, but in deed and in truth, you think of all men as your brothers. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 16.
4. Associate with loving, positive people – Happiness is contagious. Have you ever noticed how being with happy people can lift your spirits? For me, even hearing joyous laughter from someone nearby (especially if it is a baby’s) will make me smile and bring on a wave of happiness. I am then connected to that joy, and it becomes mine.
A new study by researchers at Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego has documented how happiness spreads through social networks. The study found that when a person becomes happy, a friend living close by has a 25 percent higher chance of becoming happy themselves; while a spouse experiences an 8 percent increased chance, and for next-door neighbors, it’s 34 percent. If you need a boost of happiness, associate with those who already have a happy outlook on life.