Wanna be happier? The good news, according to American psychologist Daniel Cordaro, is that anyone can. The better news is that it may not cost you a cent. Since time immemorial, the sages of the world – such as the Greek philosophers, Confucius, Jesus and Muhammad – have told people to learn to be “content” with their lives. Gandhi said: “Man’s happiness really lies in contentment.” Most of us, the sages say, already have all we need within ourselves to be content.
This is in contrast to the relatively modern phenomenon of “pursuing happiness”, which urges people to seek objects or situations outside of themselves in order to experience a rush of positive emotions. Because of this misconception, modern happiness has essentially been characterised as the result of getting things, which in turn gives rise to chronic dissatisfaction, misery and anger.
Dr Cordaro, who taught psychology at Yale, is the founder and CEO of The Contentment Foundation. It’s an organisation that combines rigorous scientific research with centuries-old philosophy to provide grounding for anyone to find their inner bliss. Dr Cordaro was scheduled to give a speech at the Inner Leadership conference here in March, but it’s been postponed to a later date on account of COVID-19.
Many well-being experts use the word “happiness” in their book, conference or organisational titles, but you’ve chosen to call your organisation The Contentment Foundation. Why?
In American culture – and perhaps Singaporean too – people perceive contentment as kind of laziness or complacency, or even apathy. But contentment is far from being those things. When we look at various cultures and their ancient books – from the Vedas and the Analects of Confucius, to the Bible, the Torah and the Quran – we find that the ancients never used the word “happiness”. The word they used instead was “contentment”. They talked about this state of “enoughness”, the idea that you have everything you need right here, right now. Jesus used the word “peace” a lot. Now he wasn’t referring to the “absence of war”, but rather “inner peace”. You find the same concept in the Judaism and Islam, which use the words “shalom” and “salam” respectively, meaning “inner peace”. In short, our ancestors have been laying down the breadcrumbs throughout history. Are we ready to pick them up?
How did happiness become such a popular concept then?
It’s a modern phenomenon originating essentially from North America, where in our constitution we have a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. But “happiness” here suggests a state of intensely positive emotions from getting the things that you want. And it’s not sustainable. When we rely on things outside of us to bring us happiness, we’re in trouble… This is why money doesn’t always bring an individual happiness, because even though money is great in getting us what we want, it doesn’t bring intrinsic joy, the kind of solar-powered inner joy that doesn’t need anything external. The happiness you get from, say, buying a nice car dissipates over time. And then you find yourself pursuing another object to get that same dopamine rush. And that strategy takes a lot of time and energy.
What are the first steps towards cultivating this solar-powered inner joy?
You must first recognise that this is an option and worth your attention. Then, you have to get interested in who you are on an individual level, instead of having your attention distracted all the time. If you can take small moments during the day and direct your attention inside, asking yourself some curious questions, such as: “What makes me joyful? And what triggers me, upsets me?”, you can slowly work towards a greater understanding of yourself, and then learning to accept yourself for who you are… You know, typically what separates a great leader from a not-so-great leader is that the former is calm and reflective when a problem is presented to them, whereas the latter tends to freak out over problems. But problems inevitably happen all the time. The question is, how are you relating to them? Are you trying to reject them and push them away? Or are you allowing them to be there and then focusing on how we can solve it together? Contentment actually plays a strong role in leadership, creativity and problem-solving.
Are our contemporary lifestyles preventing us from developing our contentment?
We live in an era when many people are experiencing isolation. I recently met a 13-year-old boy who had a thousand friends on social media. He said: “I’m very popular at my school. But I don’t feel like I have any real friends.” Now when I was young, I had less than 10 friends. But I felt a deep connection with them. So I didn’t feel lonely. Social media may have, in some sense, eroded the actual communities people used to have. Virtual Facebook communities are not the same thing as traditional communities, and we need to figure out how to bring back community and face-to-face interactions into our lives so we don’t feel so isolated. The second thing is our relationship with technology. Our iPhones, laptops, the pings and push notifications – we live in one of the most distracted times in history. And when our minds are trained to be constantly distracted by technologies, we find it hard to attune ourselves to our present moment. Mindfulness, or being able to hold your attention on a particular thing, is an important component of contentment. The longer you can stay focused on a task, the longer you can stay in optimal flow states. Mindfulness is a very important skill that we’re losing because of these technologies. Don’t get me wrong – I love technology and all that it’s made possible. But we need to look at our relationship with it for the sake of our own mental health.
How does one engage in contemporary issues while still being able to retain one’s peace of mind? I find that being concerned about, say, climate change or human rights violations, makes me anxious.
There are grand challenges that humanity is facing right now. And they induce a lot of stress and anxiety. But the last thing we want is humanity becoming so depressed, they become apathetic. There’s a numbing quality that happens when you experience so much bad news constantly. And if we stop caring, there’s no chance of a solution. So we need skills to move through these challenges and work together as a common humanity to solve them. We need to create a psychological resilience within ourselves. Now, if, say, the refugee crisis gets to you, that’s a good thing. That means you’re experiencing empathy with those refugees who need help. So many people try to live lives experiencing as much joy as possible. But if you care, that’s a hint there’s something there for you to work on and get involved in. So let that activate you, let it make you angry, let it make you sad. And then through those emotions, find the passion to do something about it. Part of inner contentment is having a good relationship with all your emotions, whether it’s anger, sadness or loneliness. Accept those emotions as being part of who you are, enjoy them even. With that acceptance, you can strengthen your inner contentment and take productive steps towards improving the things you care about.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.