One way to ensure more happiness is to find a group of people that are committed to making their lives happier, calmer, better.
I don’t think it matters if the group is Christian, Buddhist, Secular or Hare Krishna (even a local group of photographers or painters!) – there are a thousand paths to happiness, and we have to be our own best judge as to which one is right for us.
Over the past few years I’ve been attending meditation groups in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, because years ago I read his book, Peace is Every Step, which struck a deep chord in me, and so it happens that it is the path I most closely follow at the moment.
His book led to going to family retreats at his Plum Village center in France (where on my first visit the head nun said “don’t worry, you don’t leave here as buddhists”, and I was relieved to find it wasn’t a crazy sect bent on converting me to some drastic dogmatic religion or taking all my money!), and from there to local meditation meetings with others that also appreciate his teachings on mindfulness and the ‘art of mindful living’.
Tonight I went along to check out the local Wake Up group – for 18 to 35 year olds, an age range I just pass, but no one seemed to mind. We met in a big park, did a guided meditation to calm us down and come back to the present moment, a walking mediation around the park, sang a song, did another guided meditation on gratitude, then shared stories from our experiences of becoming calmer and happier.
Finally, one of the girls in the group read a meditation she’d devised on joy, then pulled out paper and coloured pens, and had us all draw our interpretation of joy. 16 adults sat under the trees in the park with big smiles on their faces looking like a bunch of happy kids.
I came home calm and extremely happy. Much happier than I’d been earlier that day. And I found a decidedly unhappy wife waiting for me!
She’d had a hard day, and was exhausted. Half an hour later, after I told her all about the meeting, she was smiling again. The happiness group had cheered me up to such an extent that I could pass on that good energy to her too. Happiness, it seems, is more easily generated in a group of people with happiness as a clear intention, and once you’ve had a good dose of it, it is clearly contagious.
The shy, retiring, protestant-upbringing, ‘our family doesn’t do that sort of thing’ part of me cringes at the idea that I should be encouraging people to go and join groups of happy people, let alone groups based around eastern philosophies and mediation. But the fact is that as a supporting presence it’s done me an awful lot of good.
For me the key to the Plum Village/Thich Nhat Hanh path has been the focus on mindfulness, cultivating an awareness of what is going on around us, and crucially, inside us – keeping an eye on our internal landscape of emotions, thoughts, feelings, consciousness – a careful appreciation of our own personal inner weather report. We learn to transform our suffering, stresses and problems first, and then are better able to be happy and present for others.
(By the way, these are two good questions to ask yourself regularly – How’s my internal landscape today? What’s my internal weather report? Stormy? Catch it early, get some space, and hold off the hurricane!)
If buddhism-based practices put you off, try a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, or check out other secular initiatives like Action for Happiness groups. Try a few until you find one you like. If you want to find a Plum Village/Thich Nhat Hanh group, then there is an international directory here, and for the Wake Up intiative, “Young Buddhists and non-Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society, .. a world-wide network of young people practising the living art of mindfulness” – see http://www.wkup.org/
In the end joining any group of nice people based around a healthy activity can lead to more happiness – it’s about finding community with similar aspirations to you. I always thought that this group of sketchers in Singapore look like they have the best fun in the world!
Despite all my original ingrained British reticence, scepticism and, at the bottom of it all, fear, hanging out with a group of other people that are firmly stepping along a path of happiness helps more than I could possibly have imagined.