The Art of Happiness, Bali-style
Happiness is both an art and a science. My grandmother used to say that people were just about as happy as they decided to be. The Dalai Lama states that the purpose of our lives is to seek happiness. Back in the laboratory, psychologists and neuroscientists are trying to figure out what it is and how it works.
There’s something about Bali that makes a lot of people feel happy. I’m fascinated by that. Bali is full of people who came here for two weeks 20 years ago and never left. Grumpy, tired, stressed-out people wake up on their first morning in Bali feeling better. A week later they are trying to figure out how to move here.
According to psychiatrist Howard Cutler, many surveys show that unhappy people tend to be more self-focused and are often withdrawn, brooding and even antagonistic. Happy people are generally more sociable, flexible and creative, able to tolerate life’s daily frustrations and are more loving and forgiving than unhappy people. So we bring some baggage with us. We can change some traits by working on them consciously. But is there something else in the air here, some ubiquitous element that just makes us feel —well, happy?
I did a quick poll of some friends to see why Bali pushed their happy buttons. The most common answers were weather, the green, lush environment, the Balinese sense of community and the absence of ageism. Most often people just replied, “The Balinese.”
Weather is a big issue for those of us raised in grey and gloomy northern latitudes. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a condition in which people with normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter. It’s been argued that SAD is an evolved adaptation in humans that’s a remnant of a hibernation response in some remote ancestor. These days winter just makes us depressed when the sun’s not out. SAD affects up to 10% of people living in areas with dark winters, including me. The permanent cure? Move to the tropics.
Studies have shown that subjective wellbeing levels increase when people are surrounded by greenery instead of concrete. I also suspect that increased oxygen levels may play a role. And just being out of an urban environment with its many subtle stresses and strains is probably a huge plus.
But there must be more to it than that. I talked to professional happiness consultant Marisa Guerrini, who spends part of the year in Bali. Marisa designs and leads workshops on the science of happiness, resilience and well-being in the private and public sectors and in schools in Australia (www.positiveforce.com.au). The workshops help people look at their mind sets and investigate how they think about themselves, their worlds and what they can influence. “At the end of the day it’s about connection with others,” she told me. “Otherwise we live in a world of self-absorption which does not lead to happiness.” So when people replied that the sense of Balinese community, the connectedness, made them feel happy they were responding to a very profound instinct that is increasingly lacking in our own societies.
“Social connection is the strongest predictor of happiness, that’s very clear in the research,” said Marisa. “People live longer, have better marriages, experience more contentment, all based on the quality of how they connect with others. Depressed people often don’t have much social life.”
Perhaps westerners here are drawn to the community orientation instead of the strongly individual orientation we are used to. The Balinese learn at an early age not to assert their own individuality at the cost of group peace. Some westerners see this as a negative, but in fact the urge to constantly impose our personal emotions and opinions on others doesn’t demonstrate behaviours related to emotional intelligence and resilience such as impulse control and empathy. Science has traditionally looked at the survival of the fittest, at what we need to survive. The focus in the last 15 or so years has turned to what we need as individuals to thrive. Neuroscience is now looking beyond individuals and at social connections. Indeed, no man is an island. Bonding, connection and cooperation are the social glues that hold us together in coherent groups.
“The power of suggestion is huge,” Marisa pointed out. “Think of all the prayer and energetics we pick up here subliminally. Maybe we sense and respond to the energy of strong extended family bonds, social cohesion and the commitment to the banjar, the immediate community, that’s integral to the Balinese culture. They’ve learned to co-operate and get along at a deep level . ”
Marisa says, “To further explore the question of what is it about Bali that makes people happy, we should look at what we know through scientific inquiry about happiness. First we need to accept that happiness doesn’t just passively happen to us but is a choice. As with all personal growth interventions, awareness is key. Some of my clients are shocked when I point out that whilst there is a genetic component to happiness, research indicates that over 40 % of happiness is contributed by intentional activities. Many people argue that this figure under-represents the power of intention, and thankfully research is starting to investigate this further. Surprisingly, it turns out that our environment plays a relatively minor role in our well-being and happiness.
“We know that having solid quality relationships and social connections are the strongest predictors of well-being and happiness. We also know that we are literally wired to connect. In positive social situations, our brains respond to other people by producing feel – good chemicals and oxytocin, which is referred to as the ‘bonding hormone’. This also happens when we do volunteer work, or help others for the greater good.”
How to define happiness? A combination of many factors contribute to our subjective well-being, or happiness. These include having good quality relationships, clear purposeful goals, living a mindful conscious life, (with focus on others) having an optimistic style of interpreting your world, future and self, knowing and using personal character strengths in order to being in ‘flow’ states, having healthy habits in terms of sleep, nutrition and exercise and having more positive emotions to negative ones. It’s a mindset, a skill-set — habits that, when cultivated on a daily basis, make and keep us happy.
Often we see Balinese sitting around laughing, chatting, and relaxed. They spend a lot of time together raising children, walking, preparing feasts, praying or making offerings together. Basically, they’re doing what is referred to by psychologists and practitioners as ‘on task training’, which is essentially a form of ‘mindfulness’ practice. In other words, they practice mindfulness daily. We know that mindfulness training leads to a greater sense of calm, lower blood pressure, greater focus, greater memory, increase in grey matter and a positive effect on the limbic system in our brains (which positively effects emotional regulation). We tend to forget that tranquility is a positive emotion, which many westerners don’t experience often enough in their busy, crazy lives.
So maybe connection is at the core of Bali’s magic, connection to nature, people, beauty, culture and to self. The Dalai Lama says, “I think without that feeling of affection and connection with other fellow human beings, life becomes very hard.”
Indeed, people are as happy as they decide to be. People are happy by choice but they have to make that choice and cultivate it. And Bali is a fertile garden for those seeds of happiness.
Ibu Kat’s book of stories Bali Daze – – Free-fall off the Tourist Trail is available from :
– Ganesha Books in Ubud, Sanur and Seminyak
– Amazon downloadable for Kindle
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