I’m not an expert but over the course of my relatively few years so far, I’ve come to realise a few things.

Happiness comes from within.

Finding Happiness

First, let me briefly describe the conditions that have led me to that conclusion. When I was much younger, I used to think that happiness was something that external circumstances or objects brought you. For example, if I was happy, it was because my favourite show was on the television or my parents bought me a new toy. If I was unhappy, then it must have been because the helper cooked something I didn’t like (e.g. bitter gourd) or I was forced to do homework.

If you think about it, that’s an entirely valid way to see the world. After all, we humans are just like any other creature in this universe, drawn to pleasure and feeling repulsion to pain or suffering. That’s how evolution works.

Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple. After all, things like exercise are good for us but it doesn’t feel good for many of us. Even for those who get that rush of dopamine from exercise, too much exercise causes inflammation of the joints and some other negative side effects. It’s even worse for sugar where we get hit with a sugar high that causes us to crave more but sugar when taken in excess causes all sorts of health issues like diabetes and obesity. i.e. Too much of a good thing can also be a bad thing.

It took me many years to realise that and in those formative years, I basically sought happiness from video games, things, good food, alcohol but the kind of joy these things bring is fleeting and doesn’t bring lasting satisfaction.

First Hints

My first hint of what happiness might be, came when I heard about Buddhism. Unfortunately, it didn’t appeal to me with all the esoteric jargon and Dos/Don’ts. At that time, it felt like any other religion where you have to follow these set of rules and dogmas without questioning what they mean or are supposed to be. That’s blind faith and not something my rational mind could live with.

Then, I read about the happiest man on earth. And he just so happens to be a monk. This time, the appeal was that the title of ‘happiest man’ wasn’t just something some people gave to him but was a result of neuroimaging scans done on his brain while he meditated.

That kind of made sense. After all, there are plenty of people around the world that live on incomes that are poor by developed world standards but still report higher levels of happiness. There have also been studies that show that happiness levels don’t rise once you go beyond a certain level of GDP per capita. Pop psychology also shows that if you want to feel happier, you can try using your teeth to hold a pencil lengthwise. This activates the muscles involved with smiling.

Ok, so I knew I needed to meditate but how do I go about doing so? I didn’t really want to read books by monks as the description by these masters of meditation always seems very fluffy and esoteric. I guess it’s like trying to follow the steps to create a michelin-starred dish when you don’t even know how to scramble eggs. So I put it off for many years.

What helped

Then, Tan Chade Meng came out with his book, Search Inside Yourself. A former Google employee and an engineer by training. There’s probably no one more rational and systematic than an engineer right? So I bought his book. He described the steps and rationale behind each step in simple enough terms but his folksy, “isn’t-it-simple?” style of writing turned me off after a while. Too much spun sugar. So I put off meditation again for what must have months or even up to a year.

Then, last December, I came across Dan Harris’s book, 10% Happier, and this was the turning point for me. A news anchor and journalist by training, he detailed his journey of finding inner peace. Basically, if you are a skeptic and hate the esoteric fluff that sometimes comes with a lot of self-help books, Dan Harris’s book is a great starting point to convince yourself that meditation (1) works and (2) it doesn’t have to be religious.

All it takes is to be aware of your breath. Breath in. Notice the changes in your body- the chest rises, your lungs fill up with air and your diaphragm expands. Breathe out. Your stomach gets sucked back towards your spine. And repeat. If your mind wanders, just notice the sensations you felt that was associated with those thoughts. Maybe you remembered how your boss did some asshole move by piling work on you. Just notice that your ears felt hot and maybe your cheeks felt flushed. Bring the awareness back to your breath. And repeat.

My own experience

I’ve been, more-or-less, meditating for about 15 minutes every day and I can tell you that I’ve never felt better. I still get pissed at people who hog the lane in traffic. I still get pissed at colleagues who make me do more unnecessary work. But I quickly let it go.

On the other hand, when I notice something great. I hang on to it a little more. It could be the kid that waved to me and held the door open for me in the lift. It could be the sky looked a little clearer and the burst of blue that’s dotted with clouds. Whatever it is, I’m aware of it and I cherish it.

Why does it work? I think this short clip explains it very well. The guy in the middle (Jeff Warren) explains quite well from 1:09 to about the 2 min mark. Meditation gives you that mental clarity to figure out what to focus your energy on. I remember reading somewhere (could be the Dan Harris book once again) about someone asking the Dalai Lama what he would do if confronted with a robber in a bank and the robber potentially was going to shoot other people. The Dalai Lama said that he would snatch the gun from the robber and shoot him in the leg, then go and comfort him.

So, it’s not like meditation means you have to be nice and kind and icky-gooey all the time. It simply means having the ability to choose what to focus on. And if you choose to focus on what makes you happy while using your mental jiu-jitsu to deal with what makes you unhappy, life turns out to be a net positive. It’s all about gaining control over your emotions and using them to make your life better rather than letting your emotions affect you in whatever way the world chooses to.

Like Dan Harris, I’m nowhere close to being the “happiest person” alive but I think I’m ever so slightly closer.


*Sorry mom. Chinese folk tradition isn’t the same.