What is happiness? A perfect sunset? A mansion on the hill? A dog walking on its hind legs? It’s the question that lingers in our minds when we consider which job to take, what to have for lunch and the sort of person we should spend the rest of our lives with. But do any of us have the answer? Sigmund Freud was not convinced and insisted that ‘the pursuit of happiness is a doomed quest.’ Fortunately, it seems that few of us agree.
Dr Fernando answers my first question with a full-bellied laugh. ‘What is happiness? Boy, that’s a complicated one.’ For the average person, he explains, happiness is a type of positive emotional state that causes a feeling of exhilaration or accomplishment. For Dr Fernando, this might be delivering a good lecture, playing his favourite piece on the cello or watching the All Blacks win the World Cup (again). Chances are these things may not be happiness for other people (especially Australians). Instead, happiness might be a night out with the boys or managing to fit into your favourite jeans. It might be playing with a baby kitten or canoeing down a rapid river. The point is, it’s different for everyone.
Dr Fernando believes there are three types of happiness, each with their own evolutionary practise. The first type focuses on calm and contentment. You’re likely to experience this slipping into a hot bath after a long day, watching Netflix on the couch or tucking into a delicious meal. It’s the reason we do yoga, the reason we have a glass of wine with dinner or treat ourselves to a massage. It settles us, it makes us relaxed. This kind of happiness is essential for a healthy lifestyle and can often recharge us when other things are not going so smoothly.
The second type of happiness can be trickier. This one focuses on excitement and pleasure; the dopamine-filled rush we get from trying something new and exciting, or from indulging our vices. You might notice this feeling when you spend three hundred bucks on a new jacket, mountain bike down a crazy steep hill or when you turn up to a party with your dancing shoes at the ready. These pleasure receptors are extremely powerful but if you rely on them as your primary source of happiness, you will probably be disappointed. The happiness created by the excitement circuit is both unsustainable and addictive; a real problem in the Western world where success and status are so often valued above all else.
The third, and most important type of happiness, focuses on connection and compassion. This is the feeling you get when you receive a birthday card from your grandma, or when you laugh yourself sick with your best friend. It’s when your dog jumps with joy as you walk in the door or when your girlfriend kisses you, just because she can. The reason is simple: people are happier when they feel connected.Our need to connect is genetically hardwired into us, an ‘altruistic circuitry’ if you will. Unlike the pleasure circuit, happiness through connection is both sustainable and can be internally reignited. ‘We are social creatures,’ says Dr Fernando, ‘you can be the wealthiest man in the world but if you are disconnected, you'll be constantly looking for a way to put an end to your disconnection, your unhappiness.’ In 2014, Dr Fernando interviewed a number of palliative care patients in Auckland hospitals. A key question they were asked was, ‘What are you truly thankful for?’. Each and every one, regardless of age, talked about connection: with family, friends, partners and pets. ‘A fair number of them changed their concept of happiness, especially those who were career-minded,’ Dr Fernando said. ‘A lot of accomplishments are related to the self. On your deathbed, maybe this does not matter.’
With all this in mind, I asked Dr Fernando if he could offer any quick tips to become happier, truly happier, on a day-to-day basis. Again, he laughed, and began talking about a three-pronged approach he has been cultivating for some time.
The first prong involves developing an attitude of gratitude. ‘We have a natural tendency to look at what we don’t have,’ Dr Fernando says. ‘This has obvious repercussions for our happiness.’ The good news is, developing a more grateful attitude can be pretty easy. ‘Writing down three things to be grateful for everyday can make a huge difference. Anyone can do it and everyone should.’ To show how easy this is, I have included my three things below:
1. Having a job that enables me to learn new things every day
2. The amount of books in the Wellington City Library
The second prong focuses on mindfulness. This, Dr Fernando warns me, is trickier: mindfulness allows us to see what is happening inside our own head. Our mind is constantly being hijacked by negative thoughts and if we can make ourselves aware of this, we have the choice of overriding it. The benefits are many and far reaching but Dr Fernando warns that it can take a lot of work to achieve. ‘You can know a lot about mindfulness, but without practise it doesn’t result in much.’
The final prong focuses on compassion. ‘When you learn to see that people are all the same, you’ll be a far happier person,’ Dr Fernando tells me. ‘We all want to be safe, to be loved, to have three meals a day.’
So, the next time your co-worker starts in about his cat for the umpteenth time, take a moment to remember that he is a person with hopes and dreams similar to yours, who is probably trying his best to get through the day. It’ll take a bit of work, but reshaping your attitude can have effects that last a lifetime.
‘It’s unrealistic to have a goal of being perpetually happy,’ Dr Fernando told me as we finished up. ‘You have to be unhappy once in a while.’ It’s a long, hard road but by keeping your mind open, practising gratitude and understanding the importance of connection and compassion, there’s a good chance that the road will become brighter, grassier and filled with birdsong. And if things go really well, you might even forget you’re on quest and stop and look around.
Dr Fernando trained in medicine in the Philippines before completing his psychiatry studies in New York and Pennsylvania. In 2015, he was awarded the New Zealand Medical Award (NZMA) for his inspiring and pioneering work in medical compassion. He currently teaches at the University of Auckland.