Thursday, May 23, 2024

Mind Your Health

It's May - Mental Health Awareness Month! Let's break the silence and shine a light on the essential aspects of our wellbeing.

Finding Optimal Happiness According to Happiness Expert Roman Russo

Roman Russo is a happiness expert and the author of Optimal Happiness: The Fastest & Surest Way to Reach Your Happiest Potential, a book that offers a new approach to achieving happiness. He is the founder of Optimal Happiness. After years of dealing with personal challenges, Russo made it his mission to uncover the truth behind true happiness. His research led to the development of the Optimal Happiness model after six years of studying the subject.

According to Roman, everything we do is for the sake of happiness, and anyone can find true happiness if they have the right support and information. His book offers practical guidance to readers who wish to become the happiest versions of themselves and reach their happiest potential. Roman claims to be one of the happiest people alive and states that everyone can reach the same goal when they have the proper knowledge.

We are honored to share this conversation with Roman as a continuation of our ‘Mind Your Health’ series. Join us in unlocking the science behind happiness and discover how we can achieve true bliss, unconditionally.

What is the science of happiness according to you?

Very few people understand what happiness is on a deep level, and it’s no wonder the world is suffering from so much unhappiness. Everyone wants to have a good life, but the reality is that it’s so easy to be unhappy. Statistics prove that almost half of Malaysians are depressed or on the verge of it, there’s a rise in depression rates among teens, and work-related anxiety and stress are very common.

What it all boils down to is that happiness is something we all strive for and yet very few of us find it. This is largely due to the misconceptions surrounding it and people often search for it in the wrong places.

So, what is happiness and how can we find it?

Happiness is different from what most of us think it is. We wrongly believe that things such as being married, having kids, traveling, financial stability, owning a car and so on are what make us happy. There are many famous and wealthy people who have all those things yet struggle to find happiness and even suffer from anxiety or depression.

In short, happiness is an emotion that’s connected to our wellbeing. When we feel good, we are happy. A very quick definition of happiness is that it is the percentage of time we feel positive about our lives.

But how do we actually cultivate happiness?

The good news is that cultivating happiness is less complicated than we think. Happiness is hard, but not difficult. It is hard because there are several things we need to do to become happy. However, it isn’t difficult because the number of things we actually need to do is finite, and we know exactly what these things are that will contribute to our sense of happiness. Once we have done that, we are guaranteed to become happy by meeting our mental and physical requirements for happiness.

To sum it up, we are biological machines and, once we understand what it takes to make us happy, we can provide all the requirements and achieve long-term happiness. It’s as straightforward as that.

We can also measure it through the amount of time we experience this positive emotion. Going deeper, there are technical aspects to consider. But what’s of utmost importance is understanding that if we pinpoint what’s necessary, we can start to identify what activities and events will bring us positive feelings.

But the definition of happiness can vary between each one of us. For example, is being in a relationship a way to be happy?

It’s not an ideal scenario for everyone, probably for some being in a relationship can be the reason for their misery. So, I would say it depends on case to case.

Exactly, you got it completely right. Something that brings happiness to one person can mean something completely different to another person.

So, how do you address this paradox of happiness?

By going back to the definition of happiness and wellbeing. Sometimes, what we see is that if we try to go for short-term gratification and please ourselves by stimulating our emotional system, such as fooling around, going clubbing, and meeting tons of people at parties, can bring short-term gratification to our emotional system. However, there is often a cost that we have to pay for it in the long term. For instance, if I drink alcohol, smoke, gamble, or otherwise lead an unhealthy lifestyle, then at the end of the day, I must face the consequences that come in the long term. An unhealthy lifestyle leads to feeling less happy.

Therefore, short-term gratification often leads to more problems than a long-term pursuit of happiness. So, if we focus on long-term goals, then it is easier to become happier and lead a more stable life.

I’m with you on a lot of things, but I’m particularly curious about one thing that you’ve mentioned—that even successful people can still be unhappy with their life despite having achieved all the social expectations. Since the definition of happiness differs from person to person—how can one figure out which elements bring them the most happiness? What’s the feeling or signal that we need to be conscious about?

You need to follow a certain number of steps in your life and check certain boxes. One of the boxes is having a certain alignment in your life. You need to be true to yourself. For example, you can be an entrepreneur, engineer, or even a Prime Minister with a very lucrative income, but if you don’t enjoy what you do and it’s not aligned with you, it doesn’t matter how much money you earn. In the end, you’ll be unhappy and depressed. Many people lack alignment in their lives, and that’s why we see so many unhappy individuals. Generally speaking, people who have this alignment but lack the wealth associated with a higher income are often happier than those who are supposed to have a good life.

I couldn’t agree more. According to the World Happiness Index, Scandinavian countries are always in the top rankings suggesting that the people who live here are happier. My understanding is that it’s mainly because it contributes to a stable society due to the safety net provided by the state. Does this mean that the stress associated with making a living plays a big factor in unhappiness? What differentiates people in Scandinavia from the rest of the world?

That’s a very good question. I think one of the things that most people don’t realize is that there are levels to happiness and that it is a personal pursuit. Happiness at work will be different from happiness in relationships. We are now talking about happiness on a more macro level, on a political level, and on a country-to-country level. Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway rank consistently as some of the happiest countries in the world.

The metrics used in these reports only look at certain things like income and stability at work, whether the government provides a safety net, etc. However, they do not look at other metrics like how much people smile, how much stress is happening in their lives, and the rates of suicide. If you incorporate these metrics into your analysis of whether the Scandinavian countries are the happiest in the world, the ranking will be completely different. Recently, I posted on my socials a nice picture that says that Finland is actually one of the most depressed countries in the whole of the European Union, but it is supposed to be the happiest country in the world.

On the other hand, countries like Bhutan which are the first to measure happiness using National Gross Happiness, and growth, focus on psychological wellbeing and the things that are supposed to make people happiest rather than the country’s economic level. So, countries in the Western world should listen to them because that’s exactly what matters.

It falls back to what you highlighted before that the definition of happiness can vary from one person to another – so the metrics considered for World Happiness Index may not necessarily match your own requirements to be happy.

Having said that, oftentimes external factors come into play. For example, an uncomfortable situation may be created by society, the people around you, or your family, which makes you unhappy. So, how can an individual overcome unhappiness triggered by external factors and not by themselves?

Again, that’s a very good question. One of the things we observe is the dynamics between what happens and how we quantify it. From my personal perspective, I talk about unconditional happiness. Happiness without conditions – meaning that no matter what is happening in your life, you are supposed to have enough internal resources to be happy. For example, we have bad situations happening all around the world, such as the pandemic, war, and inflation.

So, how are people supposed to be happier, regardless of the circumstances? The idea is that happiness is an internal feeling that comes from within. I feel happy because I have enough internal resources to maintain my happiness – it doesn’t depend on external conditions, like how rich or famous I am, how many fans I have, or how much money I have in my bank account.

In reality, I can be very sick, in the middle of a warzone, have no friends, no one knows me and everybody hates me, and I can still be happy because we’re talking about this level of happiness that very few people achieve. However, this state of happiness without conditions is not completely impossible for everyone in the world to reach.

So, you need to really understand happiness on this profound level. But you can also just take all these different boxes that come with being happy – if we talk about the government, they can tick the boxes in the correct fashion, if they understand what happiness is on a very deep level.

So, are there any interesting observations about the happiest people in the world and what makes them so happy? Are there any unique conclusions that we can draw? Can you elaborate on them?

One of the biggest conclusions is that materialism, which is a modern, central model of happiness in the Western world, is actually somewhat incorrect. More is not necessarily better, and in many ways, minimalism can be beneficial. This includes digital minimalism, reducing the amount of stimulation we get from our environment, and not letting our emotions be conditioned by what is happening in the outside world. Additionally, those who are the happiest are often connected to the spiritual aspect of life. One does not need to be religious to be happy, but having a spiritual presence can certainly be beneficial.

Interestingly, when examining people from all over the world, everybody can give different answers to what happiness is and how to achieve it. What is even more interesting is that most people don’t understand the full picture of what they are doing right and wrong. It thus becomes almost as if there are eight billion definitions of happiness in the world today.

In reality, there is only one formula for happiness. This formula incorporates the answers of everybody who has ever considered what happiness means. Therefore, even if we don’t all agree on certain aspects, disagreement is still part of the formula. For example, if doing something makes you happy, but it doesn’t make me happy, then I should consider trying it. This idea demonstrates how everyone’s answers are part of the definition of happiness. As previously stated, one person may be happier doing one thing while another person may be unhappy doing the same thing. For instance, I follow my spiritual practice, while you invest in a 401K; who is right and who is wrong? All of these answers are included in the definition of happiness.

But then, don’t we end up comparing ourselves and our situations to others? What are the things we need to avoid that stop us from being happy?

The fact that we compare ourselves is what makes us unhappy. When we look at the grass on the other side, it appears greener than on our side, and this can lead to half-open or half-closed doors and half-empty or half-full glasses. While we may get some things right, we may also get some wrong.

Regarding things we should avoid, many people already know what they shouldn’t be doing, but sometimes they need external motivation to tip the scales towards positive behavior. Some examples of things to avoid include:

  • smoking,
  • excessive alcohol consumption
  • junk food,
  • violence towards others,
  • social isolation, and
  • procrastination.

It’s important to do the right things because the more we do them, the more we want to do them, and the opposite is also true. It is almost like a circle of positive actions leading to more positive actions, and negative actions leading to more negative actions.

Often, we are shaped by the society we live in, and we may believe that success and happiness come from having a good job, getting married, having children, etc. However, we should not rely solely on society’s definition of happiness, as it can be wrong in some aspects. We need to understand what our minds and bodies require to be happy and adjust our lives accordingly to fulfill our biological and psychological needs rather than social expectations. It is a complex topic that involves biology and psychology, but the point is that simply making small daily improvements will not lead to long-term happiness. To truly achieve happiness, we must deeply understand what it means and work to optimize that aspect of our lives permanently. Only then can we find true contentment and enjoy our lives.

I like this famous quote by Jim Carrey, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” So, it is not about acquiring material possessions, increasing educational qualifications, or starting a family that can guarantee happiness in life. We need to re-examine our role models of happiness and how society pursues it.

Yeah, that is a very interesting subject. I think we can dig deeper into that. For example, the pandemic hit everyone so badly and some of us even lost loved ones. When you are hit so badly it takes time to recover. So, during tough times how can one still stay positive? How can one still have the hope that life will be better?

Well, happiness comes from within, not from external factors. This means that we can technically control our emotional state to a high degree of perfection. While this is a good concept in theory, there are events in life that can still throw us off and make us unhappy. Even as a happiness expert, I still experience negative events that affect me emotionally. The difference is that I have more resources to deal with them and recover faster. The recovery process is considerably shorter for someone who has the necessary resources. Often, people carry emotional baggage from past events that can affect their current happiness levels. It seems that the longer we live, the more emotional baggage we accumulate.

So, for example, what I teach is how to let go of emotional baggage using techniques like probability theory. This theory states that bad things will happen in life, and accepting that fact can help us deal with them better. We will all experience losses and attachments that we must eventually let go of. It’s important to focus on our internal world because the external world is outside our control. I’m not fundamentally different from anyone else; I just have more information about how to deal with external challenges. With practice, I’ve developed a shield that helps me let go of negative emotions and move forward more quickly. This can be incredibly valuable, as holding onto negative emotions for years can significantly impact our lives.

So, if you want to put it in just a word, what would it be – is it resilience or willpower? What would you call it?

Emotional intelligence.

I believe Monks have mastered how to be content in life without the societal pressures that we often associate with happiness. They have let go of all social expectations, and sometimes live in isolation. They barely engage in activities like travel and have a mundane routine. Despite this, they seem to find fulfillment in life. What can we learn from these spiritual practitioners? Can we incorporate habits like meditation into our daily routines to achieve contentment? Although we may not become monks, can we still find ways to follow their path?

Yes, you have brought up a very good point. Tools such as meditation and mindfulness can certainly help, but it’s important to understand why we use them for us to implement them effectively. Just telling people to use these tools without explaining the reasoning behind them won’t be effective. Monks, over the centuries, have developed a minimalistic approach to life and focused on their internal lives, which has led them to find happiness. Thus, one of their major contributions to spirituality is the understanding that focusing on the internal life instead of external conditions is the real way to achieve true happiness.

Monks have developed mindful meditation over many centuries by observing what leads to happiness and what does not. They found that minimalism and disconnecting from external conditions to focus on internal life leads to a happier state. This is the primary contribution of spirituality; we must focus on certain aspects of life instead of all facets to make ourselves content.

So, to be specific, we can emphasize concentration and detachment from everyday perspectives such as our job and relationships. This is because the more we become attached to external conditions the more they adjust our sense of happiness. When work or relationship issues arise, our pleasure is impaired, just like when we can’t have what we want financially. This kind of suffering originates as a result of being too connected to external conditions.

However, when these factors are removed, nothing is left that can make us unhappy. Monks, for example, choose to distance themselves from possessions and relationships because they understand that the more they detach from the external world, the more connected they become with their internal world, resulting in a more peaceful state. By practicing awareness and mindfulness using tools like meditation, one can experience a more profound, long-lasting happiness that is not dependent on external conditions. This is the reason why monks prioritize internal happiness in lieu of material possessions; they pursue contentment rather than precarious gratification from the outside world.

The thing you mentioned earlier about the contrast between pleasure and happiness is true. Happiness is often measured on a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 being the happiest, but that level is temporal and unsustainable. After experiencing a high point of happiness, people may feel a sense of loss and suffer emotionally.

Monks, on the other hand, typically strive for contentment, which indicates continuing emotional wellness at a certain level, for example, 8 out of 10, avoiding emotional instability. This helps them to sustain happiness even in difficult situations like dealing with tight deadlines or difficult people. In the long run, true happiness comes from fixing our emotional state at a certain level and maintaining it, irrespective of external conditions.

That’s so insightful. I’ve always been amazed by the simplicity of their lives, yet their quality of life surpasses even that of the wealthy.

More than ever, wellbeing at work needs to be emphasized. So how can organizations and leaders be conscious of their employees’ wellbeing at work? And what can employees do to prevent stress from their work? What factors from both ends can contribute to improving wellbeing at work?

I like this quote which says, “Happiness at work is serious business.” We need to become more serious about the happiness of our employees as studies consistently show that happy employees outperform unhappy ones by 20-40% in terms of productivity, output, sales, and almost every other metric. While some companies focus on small improvements to their organizational structures, investing in corporate wellbeing would yield a much greater impact. However, every organization is different and some may not value their employees as much as they should, especially if they can easily replace them. In a perfect world, everyone would be focused on making employees happy and engaged in their work. To achieve this, we need to determine what makes a person happy in their job and how to increase engagement with their work.

There is a significant difference between engaged and unengaged employees. Engaged employees who see their work as their mission deliver better results than those who are simply there to pay rent. For instance, in Japan, people working in positions such as trash collectors, cleaners, and police officers may have what we consider to be the worst jobs in the West, but they are highly engaged in their work.

On the other hand, the Western way of working might not be as effective in delivering results from such positions. Moreover, employers and employees alike need to prioritize the wellbeing of employees in order to ensure they stay longer. Hiring and training new employees can be more expensive than retaining happy employees, so companies should focus more on maintaining them and keeping them happy, rather than hiring new ones.

What is your one piece of advice for readers seeking happiness, or contentment?

I believe that everything we do in life is aimed at improving our overall wellbeing and achieving happiness. Instead of seeking ways to reach happiness, such as buying material possessions, dieting, practicing yoga, or socializing, I recommend delving into the understanding of what brings about happiness to you. By comprehending the process, one can focus on the end goal and experience true contentment, which is the quickest and most reliable path to achieving happiness.

Well, it was lovely talking to you, Roman. We really appreciate the time you took to share your insights with AlignThoughts. Take care!