Happiness is the ultimate goal in life, we want it for ourselves and wish it for our loved ones. Yet, despite happiness being the universal aspiration we humans find it incredibly elusive.
Some people may say that happiness means different things to different people. I disagree. I think that the definition of happiness is the same for everyone but along the way we have all made things unnecessarily complicated and confusing. This is in part because the concept of happiness is so warped by those who wish to manipulate its definition in order to control your actions and take your money (because they are under the illusion that this will bring them happiness!) - You will be happy if you go on an expensive cruise, or buy those shoes or have 3 million followers on Instagram.
There is overwhelming evidence that none of these things actually lead to happiness. They may give the temporary thrill of accomplishment and there is nothing wrong with appreciating the beauty of an object or the exhilaration of a fresh experience but these will pass and more often than not you are left with another hole that you will tirelessly try to fill.
So, let’s try to push the reset button on all of these constructs and try to understand the definition of true happiness.
There are many definitions of happiness out there which have come from different schools of philosophy, psychology and religion. Put simply, I think that the definition of happiness is a state of feeling contentment and joy and a happy life means being in this state as continuously as possible no matter what life throws at you.
Sometimes you will experience the temporary thrill of a new purchase or experience, or you will go through the euphoria of falling in love or your first kiss but we should all strive to find a foundation of joy that does not rely on extraordinary occurrences or external influences but simply exists because we exist – this is the key to a happy human experience.
This is not to say that negative things and therefore negative emotions will be experienced in life, but the endeavour for us all has to be to limit these as much as possible. Sounds obvious, I know, but it is amazing how much we contribute to our own suffering.
In my opinion there are two keys to happiness - let's deal with them separately.
Training the mind to be happy
In the west we are stuck in Descartian concepts that the mind IS us. The ‘I think therefore I am’ movement has led many of us to believe that our mind is our actual identity and to ‘lose our mind’ is a fear of losing ourselves. Concepts of spirituality are often ridiculed by this Descartian logic because for some people, who believe that mind equals self, we can be nothing more than electric impulses in our brains. The concept of consciousness, to these people is an egotistical, mind manufactured construct made by these electrical impulses.
This is a very passive approach to the mind. It promotes the idea that the mind is the definition of our identity and therefore we have to nurture it and allow it to express us. The extension to this passive approach is that our emotions are natural, instinctive and uncontrollable reactions to whatever life throws at us.
The truth, in my opinion, is not Descartian. We ‘are’ before we ever ‘think’. Our mind is not us but is a powerful tool to use and not be used by – like a powerful car, it can get us places but we have to learn how to control it and not be frightened of getting out of the car when it is losing control.
The corollary to this is that much of our emotional reaction to things in life is a result of our mind and therefore by training our mind we can EQ our lives to a happier spectrum of emotions.
Here is one of the most crucial points regarding happiness. The vast majority of suffering that happens in your life is a creation of your mind rather than from real life events. This is something recognised by the oldest religions and philosophies and relatively modern theories in psychology such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
I am especially swayed by two schools of thought which developed at around the same time on two sides of the globe – Buddhism from the East and Stoicism from the West. Both understood that we are the creators of most of our suffering and that happiness comes from an enlightened separation fromthe mind no matter what the circumstances.
So how can you train your mind not to cause you unnecessary suffering? Some people talk about mindfulness whereas other may talk about no-mind or mindemptiness. Either way, we are trying to achieve the same thing – to be completely in and appreciative of presence.
Negative emotions are almost always a result of looking backwards or thinking of the future. Fear and anxiety are a result of our mind thinking of the future. Depression, anger and regret are caused by a mind dwelling in the past. Training your mind to either focus on the present or actively switching off the mind completely will magically shrug off these negative emotions instantly.
That is not to say that these emotions serve no purpose. Fear can prevent us making dangerous decisions or motivate us to prepare for a challenge. Sadness can help us learn to avoid mistakes or appreciate loved ones in our lives. There is an evolutionary advantage for a functional level of negative bias but this has been taken too far and we tend to be more trusting of those who put things down and criticize rather than praise.
When any negative emotion is not helpful but hinders your life, when it does not motivate action in the present but cause paralysis, indecision and inaction, then it is causing unnecessary and damaging suffering. This kind of negativity will fatigue you and can cause ill health and it will be more likely to be self-fulfilling.
It is your responsibility alone to use your mind as a tool to evaporate these negative emotions. This comes from an acceptance of yourself without judgement of irrelevant things such as failure or success and cultivating a stoic sense of satisfaction with what you have rather than what you need to have.
Stoicism has a bit of a boring image. We may think of a donkey who passively accepts his lot in life and just gets on with things. But Stoicism is a much more positive and active way of living. It is about realising that your happiness comes from an internal source and that your mind is the creator of the majority of suffering in your life. It is about actively listening to your negative thoughts, working out what is in your control and what is out of your control and taking positive actions but not allowing negative emotions to damage your happiness. It is about acceptance and appreciation and never ever taking anything for granted.
Buddhism and Stoicism both focus on training the mind to deal with whatever life throws at you so that you can be enlightened and happy. They both believe that to do this you must be fully present, but how do we achieve this exactly.
One way to be fully present is to put yourself through something extraordinary, a sensory overload such as jumping out of a plane, psychedelic drugs or an intense sexual experience. The issue with this method is that you cannot practice this all day (!) and the body will become accustomed to the experience through repetition. This will mean that you will need to find ever more extraordinary activities to feel fully present and that you may feel empty at all other times.
Another method is meditation, which is mostly about quietening the mind as much as possible, moving past your thoughts and into a simple state of self with no judgements. This is a valuable and active process which relinquishes Descartian identity – a kind of mind-emptiness.
The final method is mindfulness as promoted by the stoic philosophers. By focussing all of your thought on your current actions and appreciating this moment as if it were your last you can become fully present and content.
It is this final method that I think is the easiest to achieve in daily life. Tea can be the perfect ritual to achieve this and remind you to carry it through to the rest of the day. Thus, achieving mindful appreciation of the present is one of the key ways that tea will make you a happier person.
This is nothing new and tea has been used for millennia either consciously or unconsciously for this purpose. The reason is because this philosophy is intrinsically part of the DNA of tea separate from tradition, culture and philosophy. The nature of the leaf, the way that it is brewed, the taste and its effects all fit perfectly into the philosophy.
So let’s discuss how incorporating a daily Gong Fu tea session can actually make you happier.
1. THE AESTHETICS OF THE SESSION
In order to be mindful and present, it helps if your activity involves something which is beautiful, meaningful and natural. Loose leaf and its transformation into tea is aesthetically captivating.
A loose leaf session brings you closer to nature and a connection to the fields and farmers on the other side of the world which is both grounding and voyaging.
The colour and texture of the leaves and the hue of the tea liquor is visually engaging with so many variations between different tea and different infusions. The tactile and visual appeal of the teaware, the warmth and sound of pouring water and rising steam – these all play their part in drawing attention to the present.
The transformation of the leaf from dry to re-hydrated gives an underlying sense of rebirth and a returning to a natural state. The way that a tea opens and gives its shifting flavours over many infusions before fading helps us accept and appreciate the inevitability and beauty of change and mortality.
In these and many other ways, the aesthetics of the tea session helps us to achieve mindfulness and therefore happiness.
2. THE ATTENTION OF BREWING
Tea requires leaf, water and YOU the brewer. If you are not truly present and focussed on the process then you are less likely to make good tea. In this way brewing demands attention which brings us into the present.
I think that it astounds us all that something as simple as infusing leaf in water can become a lifelong craft which seems to forever evolve. Small changes in parameters and we can produce radically different tea from the same leaves. Throw into the mix the different types of teaware and the hundreds of types of tea with thousands of different batches year on year and tea making becomes beautifully complex.
I think that it is true that in our lives we will never taste exactly the same cup of tea twice – another metaphorical reminder to accept that nothing is ever fixed or constant except change.
The art of trying to express not only the character of the leaf but your individual preferences for taste is a perfectly symbolic act of the relationship between you and nature. It is a reminder to craft what you can control in life and relinquish what you can’t control in order to appreciate what you have been given.
3. THE TASTE OF TEA
Tea tasting demands attention. The reason is that the flavour compounds in tea are rich and diverse and yet they are expressed in a subtle, light and elegant way. Unlike, big flavour foods which hit you with intense and obvious references, tea requires you to go searching. This hunt for flavours is what is so engaging about tasting. It is the reason why you can spend valuable hours being in the present and focussing on the cup. It makes the resulting tasting notes more personal and individual.
I can think of no other food or drink that offers such a varied tasting and smelling experience. Sniffing the warm dry leaves, then the wet leaves, then tasting the liquor and sensing the temperature, texture and finish before sniffing the empty cup, and then repeating for several infusions – it is such an involved process that you cannot help but be present and mindful.
The references make us reflect on memories and encourage us to go searching out aroma and flavours outside tea to better inform our tasting notes. In this way tea tasting encourages us to be more present and aware of flavour and aroma in our day to day lives and appreciative of our memories of taste and smells built up since childhood – it makes us appreciate our surroundings and what we have been given.
This mood-enhancing amino acid is almost exclusively available in tea. Within about half an hour of drinking tea, L-Theanine crosses the blood-brain barrier to actually affect your brain chemistry.
L-Theanine has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress. It does this by stimulating GABA and Dopamine production.
L-Theanine has been shown to stimulate alpha brain wave activities which brings about a state of relaxed alertness and are the same brain waves activated during states of meditation. This is probably one of the main reasons why the Buddhist monks historically used tea.
L-Theanine works synergistically with the caffeine in tea to achieve energy whilst remaining calm which is perfect for being productive and reducing errors.
In these ways L-Theanine helps you to be a calmer, more clear minded and a more productive person. The recipe for a happier life!
The second key to happiness may seem obvious but it has been demonstrated in the longest study of happiness ever performed. In 1938, Harvard researchers began following 238 undergraduates. For over 75 years, the researchers (who changed over the years) met regularly with these participants and recorded the intricacies of their lives. The study has since been extended to include their 1300 offspring.
The conclusion of the researchers are very clear and valuable. Happiness is not fundamentally dependent on money, success, belongings, location etc. The foundations of happiness are to have strong, close and loving relationships and to make sure that we train our minds to deal with setbacks so that we do not push away those relationships.
The main headline from the study is that having trusting and loving relationships is the fundamental requirement for happiness. It is not about the number of relationships but the quality of those relationships, the feeling that you have support during the hard times and companionship to share joy.
So where does tea fit into all of this?
5. BUILDING STRONGER RELATIONSHIPS
Sharing a tea with someone builds stronger relationships. Throughout history, sitting down and sharing our lives over tea has been a part of global tea culture. Because of all of the symbolic, aesthetic and chemical attributes mentioned earlier, tea is the perfect centrepiece to a meaningful conversation or to share a moment of appreciation.
The great thing about Gong Fu brewing with another person is that either we can discuss what is on our minds in a calm state against a backdrop of meaningful aesthetics, or, if the flow of conversation is stagnant, we can draw attention to the tea and focus on the cup together. Most shared tea sessions flow back and forth between the two conversations seamlessly and the shared experience brings us closer. Often, the search for tasting notes will lead people to share personal memories and experiences. In this way tea helps us to build deeper relationships which, as we now know, leads to happiness.
We have received letters from teaheads thanking us for helping to re-forge relationships within families or couples by encouraging them to share tea sessions. These are the most valuable messages that we receive because we feel that in our own small way, we are contributing to increasing happiness out there.
I am so thrilled that we are a part of building the global teahead community. I believe that it can be a rich source for finding these meaningful relationships and I encourage all of you to dive in and forge social bonds which may positively influence your lives.
So, as we begin a New Year, these are my thoughts about happiness. Beyond all of the teas, teaware and videos, the ultimate aim of Mei Leaf is to use TRUE tea to contribute to TRUE happiness in our clients - separate from the superficial thrills of consumerism. This is at the heart of all that we strive to do.
Feel free to add to the conversation on our social feeds and let's all actively spread the word to bring more happiness to ourselves and all who surround us.
Wishing you all a HAPPY 2018.