Happiness – a balancing act

Happiness and Beauty

happiness_gandhiWe are off to India. The arches in this image are located at the entrance to one of the world’s most recognisable buildings, the Taj Mahal. And the words of wisdom are those of  India’s most famous son.

Anyone who has visited this famous tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, wife of the emperor Shah Jahan, will be aware of the sense of calm and beauty that surrounds it. Every day thousands of people visit the site and swarm over the grounds, yet it seems to stand serenely apart from the throng. I was captivated by the beauty and symmetry of the structure. Built on the mathematical principle of the Fibonacci‘s golden ratio, it is one of those buildings that looks stunning from any angle and is irresistible to photographers.

Interestingly, when reduced to its individual components it becomes very ordinary and no single piece stands out. Collectively, however,  the parts combine to create a masterpiece of exquisite beauty. Below is a classic shot I took at dawn. While it demonstrates the Taj’s amazing symmetry, it is actually only half an image, the left half having been manipulated to mirror itself into a composite. Roll the mouse over it and you will see the original shot – as well as an interesting optical illusion of movement created by the rising sun.

What makes it beautiful? Why do visitors describe feelings of wonder and peace when they gaze on its splendour? It is obviously more than a wonderful building. Its form and symmetry first took shape in a great mind which still speaks to us four hundred years later. Beauty, for all its elusive complexity (and often simplicity), is something we intuitively recognise and respond to. While we sense its balance and symmetry it doesn’t always play by the rules. Asymmetry and stark contrast also have power to add to beauty. The same can be said of music. The great classics were created following well defined rules of composition. Then along came jazz with the joy of discord and swing, breaking many of the established rules, but still clearly music.

ContentSo, when we think about happiness we meet the same predicament. It is tempting to include ideas of balance, and centredness, control, order and righteousness in a definition of the happy life. But when the rubber meets the road the reality can be different. Many a person who has been dealt a dud hand will attest to being happy with their lot in spite of setbacks and disharmony.

Let’s fine-tune the definition of happiness. Because the word happy covers so many shades of meaning I want to focus on the state of happiness rather the feeling of being happy. Much and all as I revel in the exhilarating and fun end of the happiness spectrum, it usually ends up being transient often with its own built-in let-down. If the exciting fizziness of feeling good is the bubbling and sparkling waters of the fountain of life, then serenity, peace and contentment are the deep, calm waters of the river of life. It is this deeper water that I want to reflect on.

The ‘Rule of Two’ for Happiness:

For all that has ever been said about the subject, it reduces down to the relationship between two things: thought and action.

There is a simple logical progression here. Our thoughts are tempered and shaped by our core beliefs. Those beliefs in turn will direct most of our behaviour – what we say and do. The higher the degree of congruency between our beliefs and behaviour, the more likely we are to be happy.

unhappy When what we do and what we believe fail to align or are pulling in opposite directions, we will be unhappy.
The more consistently we live our lives in harmony with our beliefs, the happier we will be.


  • Happiness is not a reward reserved for privilege or success. While these may bring security they do not guarantee happiness.
  • Contentment is universally achievable regardless of circumstances. In other words anybody can take hold of it.
  • Happiness is found not in doing but in being. It is an illusion to think that we can do things in order to be happy. Rather, the state of harmony and balance between the inner and outer life is what eventually determines whether we are happy or not. It is largely attitudinal.
  • Neither is it the product of perfection. For all the effort we may put in to covering our flaws and imperfections,  we still have adjust, compensate and work our way around the many blemishes of character. It is not the minutia of imperfection that matters. That is the unhappy dilemma of legalism. Rather it is the direction of life and our choices resulting in a pattern of congruency that brings the inner peace that we associate with happiness.
  • A flawed belief system works against happiness. While this might sound a bit audacious, the reality is many people have never put their belief system through the hoops. It is tempting to underestimate the importance of a healthy belief system. Without it we are like a rudderless ship sailing without a compass. Hand-me-down beliefs and cultural rules, norms and mores; fragmented ideas; popular opinion; deference to authority figures and experts;  letting others do the thinking for us – are some of the blocks to testing and owning our own beliefs.
  • Happiness is not going to happen if we don’t make the effort to sort out what we really believe. Doing so can have its share of surprises and is often challenging but the willingness to go down that path does have its reward.
  • Just because a person thinks differently to the way I do and has a different belief system does not mean that they cannot achieve happiness. Remember, the clue is in the congruency between their belief and their action. That’s what makes the difference – even if I think their belief is wrong.
  • Inner contentment does not mean that we are content with everything in our lives. There are times when discontent can actually be a positive motivator for change. To use an analogy, it is rather like the body temperature. Our body can take quite a hammering and still maintain an even temperature, day in and day out over many years. It is one of the best indicators that all is well on the inside. Few things will prompt us to see a doctor more quickly than a rise in temperature. Likewise, the person who knows inner contentment is not going to avoid the stress and strain of everyday living, but their sense of well-being is an affirming indicator of their core emotional and spiritual health.

simplicityWe already have the answers to life and happiness in the common-sense solutions within reach of all of us . . actually inside of us. Sometimes we just need some simple tools to help us make sense of it all.

a few more favourite quotes