The ABCs of Happiness

03/05/2015 11:14 am ET | Updated Aug 21, 2016


Here are the ABCs of happiness:

A: Authenticity. The definition of authenticity is elusive. Provocatively and paradoxically I was taught that people can only be authentic when decrying their own inauthenticities. Thus one cannot authentically say, "I authentically love you" but one can say, "I was inauthentic - passive/aggressive - when I told you to go to the movies alone. I apologize."

The reason that authenticity is so difficult to define is that language itself is a "cage" that we are all trapped in, particularly if you only speak one language and/or do not possess an expansive vocabulary. So it could be argued - psychologically - that 100% authenticity is impossible because we all have prejudices - likes and dislikes, tastes, biases - and according to both Freud and the Buddha our minds persistently attempt to maximize and cling to pleasure and minimize and avert pain.

So experiencing phenomena in the present moment with as little biases, prejudices and expectations as possible, plus taking responsibility for previous inauthenticities, would be a good start at defining authenticity. However, I also believe that authenticity implies a certain honesty and awareness, a certain "mindfulness," a raised consciousness and ability to observe thoughts, feelings and actions as well as the reactions they evoke in others so that one can readily sense when one is out of integrity with oneself or attunement or alignment with others.

B. Balance. Robert Reich in "Supercapitalism" reports that most Americans do not use the meager one or two weeks of vacation time they are allowed for fear of losing their jobs. With the exception of Tim Ferris and people who subscribe to his "4 Hour Work Week," most Americans get their personal identity and senses of self and purpose through their jobs; thus they feel as if the more hours they dedicate per week to work entitles them to bragging rights - as if any sane person ever wanted "Worked Really Hard" or "Was Crazybusy" on his or her tombstone.

The word "slacker" is highly pejorative in our culture. If you are not busy earning money then there must be something wrong with you, we think. Sleeping 8 hours per night means you have 80 waking working weekday hours. Thanks to the Internet and smart phones it seems as if both employers and employees have less and less leisure time.

Americans do not appear to be preternaturally primed for moderation or balance, e.g., alcohol, caffeine, sugar, nicotine, narcotics. We enjoy extremes; we seek peak experiences. And we also seek peak distractions such video games and binge-watching the latest Netflix series ("Orphan Black" and "The Honourable Woman" are like blocaine for the eyes).

Cultivating a balanced life with a proper amount of healthy food, restful sleep, a modicum of physical exercise, a dollop of cultural experiences, and a few trustworthy heartfelt connections with a close friends and family members is the best way to keep at the high end of one's happiness range. Extremes do not bode well for long-term happiness because they excessively stress and tax the nervous system and cause the physical body to overheat and various parts to wear out. The second rule of mindful living is to strive for balance, moderation, and harmony.

C. Compassion. His Holiness the Dalai Lama famously states, "My religion is compassion." Compassion makes sense. If you believe in past lives then compassion makes sense because whomever you are having a negative or challenging interaction with could have been your mother or daughter in a past life. If you do not believe in reincarnation then compassion makes sense because we all strive to be treated compassionately so we need to be the change we want to see in the world; do unto others as you would have them do unto you is logical - right?