The Art of Happiness

In the West, we normally perceive thought and feeling as two distinct phenomena.  Thought is understood as an active process, reflected in certain English idioms such as "giving it some thought" and "spending time thinking about it".  Emotions, feelings, on the other hand, are seen as involuntary responses to experience.  The   language reflects this when we talk about how something or someone "makes us feel".  Although we may complain of "feeling down", the experience of a general emotional state instead of a reaction to a specific cause, this, too, clearly describes a passive process rather than a deliberate action.

Chinese medical theory, however, challenges our normal Western suppositions by grouping thought together with the seven affects of anxiety, sorrow, joy, anger, fear, and fright.  Based on this traditional group, it is evident that the ancient Chinese viewed cognition and emotion as synonymous.  From our modern Western perspective, this attitude towards thought and feeling is bewildering.  How is it possible, one might ask, to lump together the activity of thinking carefully through a math problem, for example, with the sudden feeling of sadness we experience when hearing of someone's death?

Examples both of thought without deliberation and conscious feeling do, however, abound.  We typically refer to the former as instinct or intuition, experiences many cultures tend to associate with certain individuals.  In Western societies, for instance, there is the popular notion of "feminine intuition".  This reveals the fact that, although our culture recognizes inclinations that arise halfway between heart and head, we often characterize these thought-feelings as special gifts instead of identifying them as part of a common human experience.

Conscious feeling, too, is not unfamiliar to us.  Actors are trained to consciously control their feelings with the intention of causing their audience to laugh wholeheartedly or cry bonafide tears.  The power of positive thinking converts optimistic thoughts into a state of joy, and we manipulate our moods with drugs, both prescribed and recreational.  Like the pumping of the human heart, our emotional responses reflect both voluntary and involuntary processes.

With the recognition of the proximity of emotions and thought a comes the potential for a new, revolutionary way of thinking and feeling.  On the one hand, intuition gains credibility as an alternative form of thinking, one where, instead of depending on plodding logic, we can spontaneously leapfrog to a conclusion.  Fundamental to the workings of the mind, our gut feelings and instincts are then seen not as the domain of the chosen few but a natural human response when we need to react urgently.

Perhaps even more relevant to modern life is the realization of how inextricably our moods relate to our thoughts.  While it is not only misguided but potentially fatal to try and will oneself out of a clinical depression, we should also understand that, behavioral illness notwithstanding, we can play a pivotal role in whether or not we wake up on the wrong, or right, side of the bed.  To a great extent, happiness is a choice.  The secret, in turns out, lies in cultivating gratitude and appreciation at every opportunity.  Great expectations and the ability to see the silver lining even in misfortune are the building blocks of a lifetime structured to provide satisfaction and joy.