“For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all of the horrors of the half-lived life” – Moby Dick, by Herman Melville (1819-1891)
Oh, the horrors of the half lived life! I have no problem with dying but I have a huge problem with dying without having lived. I’m writing this column from Vietnam, in the middle of the bustling city of Hanoi. There’s a mass of people taking exercise all over the streets. Many are still wearing those conical straw hats, with those famous black pyjamas and they are riding bicycles. Streets are clogged with people cycling. They have cartloads of stuff for the market on the backs of their bicycles. I’ve noticed two things about these people:
1. I didn’t see one obese or overweight person on a bike.
2. I’d say I got more genuine smiles before breakfast here than I’d get in a week in Ireland.
From the slums of this Asian city, Ireland looks like a never-ending Celtic Tiger. Materially, we have 10, or maybe 100 times more than they can ever aspire to have. Yet they are so happy. I heard Maureen Gaffney some time ago talking about the 20 per cent of us who are floundering, living with a kind of permanent, low-grade depression. Most of us at this level are sucking your energy from you like a vacuum cleaner. Every day is a dreadful day. She said that there were another 60 per cent of us that are at the ordinary functioning dial in life. We turn up for work. We try not to get sick. Mediocrity rules. The problem is not absenteeism; it’s presenteeism (going to work, just turning up). We are into compliance, but not full engagement. You can’t say we’re not there.The final 20 per cent of us are flourishing. We are full of energy. We are creative, innovate and good-humoured. We are fully alive. In a word, we are happy.
How do we become fully alive, joyful and happy?Some years ago I remember seeing a programme that the London psychologist, Robert Holden, nicknamed the “Happiness Psychologist,” did on television called ‘How To Be Happy.’The challenge was to see if he could take three clinically depressed people, and in a short period, make them happier. As part of the process they participated in a university study to measure the activity in the left prefrontal lobe of the brain, a reliable indicator of the level of happiness they were experiencing in their daily lives. He simply asked them to do three things:
(1) Daily Exercise – The first was a daily habit of physical exercise. He knew that the body is the greatest pharmaceutical plant in this world and that exercise is a natural antidote to depression.It does this by using up the adrenaline and other chemicals released in our bloodstream by stress and also by relieving tension in the muscles.Regular exercise releases the body’s natural opiates, giving you a warm, relaxed feeling afterwards. The only way you’ll feel is better. Gradually this habit of exercise becomes your new normal, your body’s natural default setting.
(2) Laughter – Secondly he opted for laughter. Genuine laughter is the single biggest boost for the immune system. Like exercise, laughter produces endorphins to make the body feel good. Even just smiling releases serotonin (a happy neurotransmittor), into the bloodstream and acts as a powerful anti-depressant. Robert asked them to laugh for 20 minutes a day, even if they had to force it at first. A real case of, “Fake it until you make it.”Norman Cousins in his book, ‘Anatomy Of An Illness – How One Man Proved Your Mind Can Cure Your Body’ used laughter to great effect to boost his immune system in the process of his healing. Since Cousins’ groundbreaking subjective work, scientific studies have shown that laughter has a curative effect on the body, mind and emotions.Norman saw laughter as inner jogging: “Hearty laughter is a good way to jog internally without having to go outdoors.”
(3) Positive Thought – Thirdly, they had to consciously decide to have positive thoughts. They all had to place coloured stickers around their work areas and homes. Every time they saw one they had to think of something positive that made them feel good. This strengthened the neural pathways in their brains and reinforced the happy chemicals (the “endorphins”) in their bodies. They actually developed new synaptic patterns in their brains and changed the physical landscape in there. The newly discovered “plasticity” of the brain makes this possible. By the end of the first month, each of these “new behaviours” had become automatic and habitual. At the end of the study, the people had their brains measured. The results stunned the university researchers. The differences in the levels of happiness were so astonishing that one of the scientists demanded to have the equipment checked.
All three people moved from being classed as “clinically depressed,” to being classed as “extreme optimists.” They had moved from one end of the scale to the other. They had literally rewired their inner software and changed the inner physical landscape of their brains to become happier. So if you want to accelerate the process to your own personal happiness, follow Robert’s simple three-step formula.
1. Daily Exercise – Simply decide to exercise for about half and hour each day with someone.
2. Laughter – While you’re doing it, decide to have a good laugh. Cut yourself a bit of slack and have a bit of fun. Let go and release that tight-lipped, teeth-clenched, tight-fisted determination fuelled by destination addiction.
3. Positive Thought Reminder Stickers – Step into positive mode and keep thinking positive thoughts. That only takes one extra thought to happen. You decide that, come what may, you are going to be positive and enjoy this day. Put up your “positive thought reminder stickers” around your home.
The good news is you can then turn around and do the same tomorrow. And the day after. It has all the appearance to me of the daily life of a person living on The Green Platform. Forget the “horrors of the half-lived life”. Don’t swim in that appalling sea. Be the best that you can be. Find your inner Tahiti, full of peace and joy by taking exercise, laughing and smiling like the Vietnamese and by replacing the Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS) with Positive Automatic Thoughts (PATS). Then you’ll be catapulted into that top flourishing 20 per cent of people who are flourishing, free and fully alive.
Red Platform: No time to exercise. Far too busy. No fun in my life. Definitely no laughter. I swim in a sea of automatic negative thoughts. “The horrors of the half-lived life.”
Green Platform: Exercise. Laughter and a bit of fun. Positive thought reminders all over the place. Flourishing, free and fully alive.