Friday, December 5, 2008

The infectiousness of Happiness

A 20-year study released today purports to show evidence that happiness is infectious. (As my brilliant sister said to me this morning, “I could have told them that without 20 years of study!”) It appears that our closest relatives, friends, and neighbors exert the most potent influence, and our own happiness can be increased by people who are two-or three-degrees removed from us.

There are many forms of happiness in Buddhist psychology; some distinctly associated with the experience of annata or non-self. There is the unconditioned bliss associated with the recognition of parinispanna or emptiness (interbeingness and interdependence) and the bodhichitta or altruistic intention to cultivate compassion through the recognition of and desire to relieve suffering.

Emptiness and compassion are the building blocks for the cultivation of the Brahma Viharas, the positive mental states of lovingkindness metta, sympathetic joy mudita, generosity dana, equanimity upekkha, and contentment sukkha. Each of these “divine abodes” generates waves of joy in the mind that radiate out, and produce similar feelings in others. At times we intentionally practice metta or compassion meditation for others; at times for ourselves.

The Buddhist texts are replete with instructions on how to cultivate positive states of mind from the mundane to the supramundane. However, bodhichitta, the desire to heal the suffering of others, is state of happiness in the mind/heart that we can generate in any moment of our lives through intention and action. The 1st century Indian Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna, initiator of the Mahayana form of Buddhism and the Madhyamaka School describes the tender openheartedness of the cultivation of bodhichitta:

May I be as dear to sentient beings as their
Own life and may they be very dear to me…


As long as space endures,

As long as sentient beings remain,

Until then, may I too remain

And dispel the miseries of the world.


As you can well imagine, this kind of heartfelt intention to be of service to those who suffer, would naturally give rise to deep states of happiness in the mind, which would in turn lead to happiness in others.

One of the researchers of this study recognized the profound impact his own mental state has upon his family, “This now makes me feel so much more responsible that I know that if I come home in a bad mood I’m not only affecting my wife and son but my son’s best friend or my wife’s mother,” Professor Fowler said. When heading home, “I now intentionally put on my favorite song.” (New York Times, Dec 5)

Think about the joy you will experience generating happiness as you arrive home from work, or greet your family as they arrive home at the end of the day.

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