As I awoke on boxing day morning and the sad news of George Michael’s passing hit social media, I began to consider the validity of the “enough-of-2016-roll-on-2017” lament.
I do not believe that one year is any better or worse than another on any kid of grand scale; a year is simply a measure of time in which both good and bad occurs depending on which side of the fence you are on. But it could obviously not escape me that we had lost a great many wonderful people in 2016; Prince, Leonard Cohn, Mohammed Ali, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher and of course George Michael to name a few. We would all agree that these deaths were tragic for the world, as of course were the many deaths of innocent people in murders, suicide bombings and wars. But not all of us would agree for example that Donald Trump’s election was a bad thing. Many would say that this alone made 2016 a fabulous year. Good and bad is a very relative thing.
This got me thinking: is there a way to ensure that 2017 is a “good year” for us personally or are we simply at the mercy of the fates? Is such a guarantee of happiness possible for human beings or is it indeed true that the only things in life that are certain are death and taxes?
As far as I know, there is no formula for ensuring that good things will happen. However, there is a great deal of research and common wisdom that gives us techniques and disciplines that can safeguard joy, even in the face of bad stuff happening.
Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky tells us that around half of our levels of joy or happiness are determined by unchangeable factors such as genes or our personality. The other half is determined by our circumstances (over which we have limited control), and our attitudes and actions over which we have a great deal of control.
So, this suggests that we can at least contribute to 2017 being a joyful year by watching our attitudes and actions. What does this mean in practise? Lyubomirsky’s research confirms with hard data what many learned folk – including all the great spiritual leaders of history – have been telling us for centuries; that there are essentially 3 factors to increasing joy or happiness: the first is our ability to reframe our current situation or circumstances in a more positive light; the second is our ability to express gratitude and the third is our ability or capacity for kindness and generosity. I think two and three are self-explanatory although tough for many of us; we can all accept that grateful, generous people are happier and we know this because it feels so darn good to be grateful and generous.
But how do we reframe our current situation in a more positive light, especially when it is bad? From reading the thoughts of such thinkers as the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others, there seem to be two ways we can do this without slipping into denial. The first is to actively place oneself in the shoes of other people who are suffering worse than we are, and assist them in whatever way we can. As we do this our negative situation does not change but our perception of it does. Suddenly our lot is not so bad. We move from the victim position (from which no joy or creativity can flow) to the creator position, as we seek ways to alleviate the suffering of others. Joy is produced in the other and joy follows in us as an inevitable by-product. Every time we move towards others, we move away from self-centredness and joy can rise.
The second way of reframing our situation is arguably simpler than the first, but it challenges us very deeply. Contrary to what our culture would tell us, we must choose to view life through rose-tinted spectacles or “see the glass half full” if you prefer. Now, this is not to say that we should ignore the bad. It just says we should look at the bad in the light of the good. It also says we should choose to see good first – in every situation and in every person; the bad will always be there and it is in our nature to seek this out. We need to intentionally re-wire our brains on this one and as we do we will begin to experience awe and wonder again – both components of joy. Perhaps the best place to begin our re-wiring process is in our thoughts and opinions of our country, so deeply negative and mostly lacking all joy.
A deep awareness seems to be stirring globally; an awareness that we urgently need to move beyond ourselves to a place of radical gratitude, generosity and positivity. In short, we need to heed a deep call to love. If this is how we choose to do 2017, then it is going to be a fantastic year.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.