Sky Is The Limit Vivek Paul
The Times of India September 19, 2005Philosophers have long held that happiness is the ultimate goal of existence. Aristotle called it the "summum bonum" — the "chief good" — in that while we desire other goods such as money or power because we believe that they will make us happy, we want happiness for its own sake. So do material goods really lead you to happiness? According to brain scientists, there is actually a specific area in the brain that sets expectations of material gain, and as material goals are achieved, it resets expectation levels. This means that you could be unhappy despite being wealthy, if your expectations were higher, and happy in penury if you exceeded expectations. MRI brain scans coupled with behavioural game theory experiments show that the human brain has a "fairness" switch. Even if you get a lot, if you think it was an inequitable split, you are unhappy, and as long as the split is fair, you can be quite happy even with little. One part of the physical brain recognises gain, and another, loss, so these two emotions are processed differently. This means a small series of gains can make you happier than a pattern of alternating gains and losses, even if the net gain was the same. It is a separate part of the brain that processes short-term gain versus long-term value and again, there is asymmetry: Long-term value is an acquired taste; for many, it is not a strong happiness signal. Abraham Maslow, a psychologist, enumerated a need hierarchy with material needs at the bottom and self-actualisation at the top. Material gains offer happiness up to the point that ensures survival and provides some social status. After that comes security, an ability to feel sure that you can defend what is yours. After that comes a desire to love and be loved, to belong to a community or group that is greater than oneself. Many stop here and lead happy lives. Others keep climbing to the next level of self-esteem, and finally self-actualisation. What is this elusive self-actualisation? It comes from recognising that you are exercising 100% of your mental and physical facilities in your own unique way, towards a goal that is greater than the needs of your own self. Psychotherapist Viktor Frankl said if you could find an individual's purpose, you can find his happiness. We are all born with a unique bundle of aptitudes. Purpose has two elements — a uniqueness that relates to why an individual uniquely is suited to do something and integration, or the way that uniqueness either harmonises or helps others or a greater group. Research has indicated that most people move from an emphasis on integration (for example, in childhood) to uniqueness (in adolescence) about 10 times in their lifetime. The need for a purpose arose around the same time as the emergence of self-reflective consciousness, which is believed to have followed the evolution of the bicameral (two-lobed) brain. This consciousness is the ability to examine the mind as if from the outside, as an objective reality. This purpose also came to be tied to the soul; the soul manifests connection to a greater entity and the home of those energies that go beyond those needed for our own personal comfort and well-being. In fact, the word magnanimous comes from the Latin ‘magnus' or great and ‘animus' or soul — the exact equivalent of mahatma. Yet another road to happiness was found by the Hungarian psychologist, Csikszentmihalyi, through what he calls 'flow'. Flow is happiness through action that creates the exhilarating sensation of being alive. Mountaineers experience it when climbing, fishermen after a fighting catch, cricketers during a long turn at the crease and mothers when tending to a child. His research indicated that flow comes with clear goals: Hit a century, climb that mountain, when feedback is immediate. Flow occurs when difficulty and ability are both high and roughly equal. Concentration deepens. Action and awareness merge into a seamless wave of energy. There is detachment. The term ecstasy in Greek means literally 'to stand to the side'. In flow, the present alone matters. You are in absolute control. Sense of time is altered. Minutes can feel like hours or seconds. In flow, there is a loss of ego, as if awareness of one's personhood is temporarily suspended. When a climber reaches the top, there is a unity between the mountain and the self, not the sense of a competition won. So here then is the road to happiness: Working hard at something you enjoy that challenges your abilities, can give you happiness everyday as you experience flow, the material results of which can satisfy the fundamental layers of your needs. If that task can also have a greater purpose, you are on the path of self-actualisation, opening the doors to lasting happiness. The writer is partner, Texas Pacific.