Happiness is an instant to catch


MIND MATTERS:Wellbeing denotes a positive condition that allows individuals to thrive and flourish

IN THE middle of our current economic meltdown, at the epicentre of the banking crisis in London, I participated in a two-day conference titled Happiness and its Causes.

How irrelevant, I hear you say. To everything there is a season, and surely anyone with a brain can see this is a time to feel justifiably gloomy.

In Ireland, we have always harboured certain scepticism in respect to happiness. Given the complexity of life and the heartache it inevitably brings, happy, contented people are surely missing something. They obviously lack any depth of mature insight.

Their sense of wellbeing is shallow, transient and doomed. They may run, but they can't hide.

Philosophers such as Seneca and Nietzsche would have been right at home with this take on happiness. These men prided themselves on being able to see fate for what it really is, and not be lulled into the delusion that one could simply be happy.

Seneca, foremost among the Stoic philosophers, believed that one could be happy only by fortifying oneself against inevitable disaster. For Nietzsche, happiness was the outcome of enduring all kinds of "unhappiness"; We could have as much of one as we wished, but it had to be paid for by the other.

This conference also took the subject of happiness seriously. Happiness was seen as having little to do with pleasurable sensations due to the fact that our sensations are constantly changing in response to outer circumstances.

It was thought of as having more to do with the experience of wellbeing which equipped us to engage with the real world, rather than to retreat from it.

Until recently, the focus of psychology and biomedical science has been on pathology and its remediation - on the diagnosis and treatment of discrete disorders.

But people want more out of their life than being "symptom-free". They want a life that makes sense to them, one where they experience health, vitality, creativity and growth. The term wellbeing refers to this state of psychological health and it is used to denote the achievement of a positive experience of mental health. A new science of wellbeing has developed to advance our understanding as to how we can foster this experience through our social relationships and through the institutions that have an impact on our everyday lives.

Wellbeing refers to a lot more than simply the experience of pleasant emotions. It denotes a positive and sustainable condition that allows individuals, groups or nations to thrive and flourish.

It recognises that "living" inevitably involves hardship and setbacks and thus the term encompasses resilience as a key factor in enabling us to grow and even thrive in the face of adversity.

Speakers presented a host of scientific papers that considered this subject from different viewpoints. Presentations from philosophy, psychology, social policy, neuroscience and Buddhism reflected a broader global discourse that has become known as "positive psychology" that is attempting to inform our wish to live a full and happy life.

A couple of nuggets of wisdom stayed with me as I returned from this event: we know a lot about what can go wrong for people.

We see pretty well through the many unhelpful ways we try to find happiness through material possessions, quick fixes, and going to all kinds of extremes to either forget, or insulate ourselves from, suffering. But we know very little about the art of living well and cultivating real inner strength and wellbeing.

Our liberal philosophy about virtually everything over-estimates our capacity to cope with all we're exposed to daily. We are more fragile than we realise; we need to discover some basic truths that keep us connected and grounded, but we are overwhelmed by messages about living that are confusing and contradictory.

We've largely ditched orthodox religion and become disillusioned by the gospel of free-market consumerism. What we need are opportunities in our everyday lives to acknowledge our frustrations and explore with an open mind how we can foster happiness.

Our goal should not be to deny adversity, but to discover a stable baseline: of inner strength, having compassion for others, being satisfied with ourselves, and the energy to effect change where we believe we can make a positive change, to which we repeatedly return.

One of the highlights of the conference was a talk by Nazand Begikhani, a Kurdish poet living in exile in the UK, in which she read out her poem Voice. She was kind enough to give me permission to quote her:

Life is a battle

but happiness is an instant

you have to catch

Happiness is beauty

you have to taste

Happiness is affection

you have to share

Happiness is conviction

you have to create

Happiness is speech

you have to articulate

Happiness is a ladder

let's climb it together.

• Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong - The National Centre for Youth Mental Health (www.headstrong.ie)