Happiness and Its Causes

I went to the ‘Happiness and Its Causes’ conference recently in Sydney, and I had my two little boys with me while I was picking up my delegate pass. The woman at the counter made a comment about taking them along, and I replied with something smart like, “That’s Happiness and Its Causes right there.”

I was being glib at the time, but in hindsight my comment held more truth than I originally realised.

Happiness is quite an ephemeral concept and it means different things to different people. Some of the causes discussed were that happiness can be achieved when you are experiencing a state of ‘flow,’ that those who are benevolent and engage in loving kindness are usually happier than whose who are not, and that we can achieve happiness by being mindful and living fully in the present moment.

When I spend time with my boys and I am not under any time pressure to be somewhere or do something, I both witness flow in action and can experience it myself. Children have an amazing ability to be completely engrossed in the world around them, to be fascinated by what may seem trivial, inconsequential parts of everyday life, and to revel in them.

If you have young children you will have experienced their (sometimes frustrating) tendency to dawdle, to become fascinated with some wet grass, or a tree, or a butterfly. Undisturbed they have the ability to stand there for five minutes or more, completely fascinated with a fascinating new discovery. Research has shown that large areas of a child’s brain light up when engaged in this kind of activity. Sadly as parents we often hurry them along.

Recently I went cycling with my youngest son to a cafe, and while I was drinking my coffee I watched him push a stool around on the floor with such innocent joy it almost made me cry. Then I took him and his big brother to the library, and spent most of the day with them at parks and at home, taking our time to get places, watching the world go by and just enjoying each others company. Sometimes at night they like to simply run back and forth in the living room with each other laughing hysterically at what fun it is.

On days like these time passes very quickly, and yet the days seem to last forever. One of the ways you know you are experiencing flow is that you don’t notice time pass, as you are completely absorbed in what you are doing.

Mihaily Csikszentmihalyi, a world expert and thought leader on flow, believes that spending time with your family is one of the most readily available and yet underutilised times we can experience flow. We’re so caught up in our schedules, in our ‘busy lives’ that we rush through these times, incognisant of what we are missing.

These days people wear their ‘busy lives’ as a badge of honour. We tell each other we’ve been SO busy, like it is something to be proud of. In my opinion, busyness is an affliction, something to be avoided. Sure, being CEO of a major corporate has a lot of upsides from a material perspective, and there are a lucky few who love their work so much they experience flow every day, however these people are in the minority. Plus being busy at work costs in other areas of your life.

Young children are effortlessly and more often in a state of flow than older people. Their young minds are so amazed at all the new things they are learning, seeing and doing, that they can’t help but be engrossed by the world around them. I’m always thinking, and saying, “If only I were so easily entertained.’ Over time I am training my mind to be more entertained by the simple things in life, and this by practicing mindfulness.

It is easy to be mindful when I am with the boys. It is easy to be really present, to live in the right now, and not only because they require tyour attention almost all of the time to ensure they are safe.

Watching them play is a joy in and of itself. I am amazed by the way they interact with the world and how they take such joy in the little things. In this way they are teaching me a lot. I am learning to pay attention to the little details, the small wonders that surround us. To pay attention to nature and to animals and to sounds, even in a big city like Sydney.

There is beauty and joy all around us, all you need do is look closely and you will see it. I hope you can take the time to do so today.

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