I called Pidkamin, Ukraine several days ago to pass on Christmas greetings to my cousin Hryts, pre-eminent grower of garlic and horseradish, and self-professed village philosopher. As usual, he was in a fine mood and I could not help but feel the good vibes being transmitted even though it was a very virtual SKYPE connection. Happiness obviously is contagious, and Hryts seems to have mastered the secret of being happy even though he has faced no shortage of challenges and turmoil in his life.
Ukraine continues to be at war with its quarrelsome northern neighbor, winter weather has set in, Hryts’ miserable state pension barely covers his necessities, and yet Hryts’ irrepressible bliss stays undiminished and unaffected by the tribulations and turmoil around him.
“Hrytsiu,” I exclaimed, “I am amazed by how you can be so happy when most people in your circumstances would have long ago succumbed to depression or alcoholism. What do you know that I don’t?”
At this, Hryts burst out laughing before finally replying – “Its not hard to know more than a turnip, which is what you seem to have in place of a brain!”
“Oh, my poor foolish one,” he continued, “I thought you were an educated person! What exactly did you learn in all those years at school and university? And did the last sixty years of life not impart a modicum of wisdom into your being?”
I was somewhat nonplussed for a moment before being able to recover and continue the dialogue.
“But Hrytsiu,” I retorted, “Happiness is a complex psychological and emotional state that has perplexed philosophers for ages. Are you implying that you understand the secret of happiness?”
I could hear Hryts chuckling back in Pidkamin, as he cleared his throat and continued with what was proving to be an impromptu lesson in life from the Pidkamin School of Philosophy.
“There is no secret as to what it takes to be happy” he replied. “I have even done some “scientific” research on the Internet using the “planshet” (tablet computer) you gave to me as a present last Christmas, and discovered that from a chemical point of view, the sensation of happiness in our brains results from increased levels of certain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, which our body creates and releases in response to certain stimuli. From a psychological point of view, scientists have also recently discovered that about half of our normal level of happiness is determined by genetic factors. Another ten percent is dependent on environmental factors such as health, wealth, social standing and living environment. The remaining forty percent is determined by what we do within our day to day lives.
We can’t do much about the genetic factor, and we may have little control over our socio-economic status, or the environment and conditions we live in, but we do have full control over how we spend our time. Unfortunately, most people spend most of their time on things that have marginal payback in terms of happiness, such as the pursuit of money, wealth and material things. The truth is that once you have attained a basic level of security in terms of food, clothing and shelter, any further pursuit of greater creature comforts produce exponentially fewer increases in happiness. It seems that the more you have, the more you want, and that appetite is never satisfied.
It has been shown conclusively that the most beneficial investments of time in terms of increasing our levels of happiness comes from friendships, social interactions, creative artistic endeavours, involvement in sports and recreational activities, community service and engaging in productive activities that improve the world around us and the quality of our lives. Doing those things increases the production of serotonins and dopamine in our brain, and we feel happy as a result.”
As usual, I was overwhelmed by Hryts’ innate ability to take a complicated concept or issue and explain it in such a simple and obvious way, that I felt embarrassed at not being able to grasp it instinctively the way he did.
“Hrytsiu, “ I said, “As usual, you have made my day, and I go away happy. One last question – what makes you so happy right this instant?”
“Aaah” he replied, “That is elementary my young turnip. I am happy because I am talking with you. Have a Good Christmas and a Happy New Year!”