A Unified Theory of Happiness

An East meets West approach.

Life of Pi: The Gift of a Tiger

How a ferocious tiger increases your chance of survival and happiness.

I have recently seen the movie, Life of Pi. Maybe you have too. Personally, I loved the movie, but even if you don’t or wouldn’t, you probably learn or would learn to appreciate the tiger in the story. In a nutshell, a young man named Pi loses his entire family in a shipwreck that he alone survives on a life boat that is alone with a ferocious tiger on board. As terrified as Pi is of the tiger, he feels for the tiger and takes care of him the best he can, providing fish, soothing him with words, even embracing him tenderly after a horrible storm. If it hadn’t been for the tiger keeping him alert and focused, Pi would have given up and died.

What does this have to do with us? When I look at my own shipwreck of a childhood, I know I stayed afloat because I too had tigers. One of my biggest tigers was my mother. During and after dangerous tirades of my father, my focus was not as much on me as it was on her. I took care of her in many different ways. While this was not just a good thing, this was how I stopped myself from drowning in the ocean of my emotions and needs. My focus on “the other” kept me going. While I had to develop self-care skills later, I am grateful for having had a tiger.

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You might have had a wonderful cruise of a childhood with a few bad, but bearable storms. Good. Very good. Yet, I still hope that you have had a tiger in your life. We all need a focus in our life other than our own feelings and needs. Without focus, we become self-absorbed, passive, and confused. I ended up becoming a happy person, even wrote a book about happiness from the western and eastern perspective (www.A Unified Theory of Happiness.com). This is not because of my hardship. It is because I found focus a midst of my hardship.

While happiness is seen as very different in Western and Eastern thought -one as creating a flow of life, the other as realizing the flow of life -both concur that the focused mind is instrumental. Focusing on someone else gives us a reason to get up, live healthily, and keep ourselves out of trouble and away from high-risk activities. For example, when we have a life partner, we tend to live longer. When we have children, little trouble-makers who wreak havoc, we tend to live longer. Even when we just have a dog, we tend to live longer. This is in part so because focusing on other creatures causes us to produce more oxytocin, a calming hormone in both men and women. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/made-each-other/201005/dog-good

It is so tempting for us to just sit down, switch on the television, and vegetate on our couches. It is easy to drift and wait for someone else to rescue us from our depression. Blaming others or blaming circumstances for our misfortune are wonderful ways of allowing us to be inactive. We resist exertion and the extra work of focusing our mind. Every time we focus our mind, we spend energy. It’s tiring to be alert. However, while focusing our mind costs us dearly, not focusing our mind costs us even more. We are never more tired after having slept too long. Ironically, once we have learned to overcome our resistance and focus our mind with greater ease, we feel energized by what we do and experience. When we focus on a good goal, for example, we become hugely motivated, forgetting all our feelings, losing ourselves in the process. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written extensively about this phenomenon in his book Flow, which is based on many creative research studies.

Sometimes though, the best tiger or focal point is our mind itself which is what meditation is all about. When we focus on mind, a mirror of reality, we may observe our thoughts and feelings, but never get lost in them. Countless studies in neuroscience have found a remarkable impact of meditation on our brain (see also Buddha’s Brain, by Rick Hanson). Meditating just a few minutes every day can cause us to experience more joy, more meaning, and more inner peace. What this means for us Westerners is that we ought to sit still more often, look inward, feel our lungs filling and emptying themselves of air, and notice our abdomen rise and fall. Taking the time to just sit and stare at something or be aware of sitting and staring at something with all the kindness we can muster, is the type of focus that gives so much more energy than it takes.

If there was a gift I could hand out, it would be the gift of a tiger, or actually, a whole bunch of tigers. But we all have to find our own reasons to reach out of ourselves and give kind attention to something or someone that brings out the best in us. Often we only have to open our eyes and see that person or that goal we can care about. I know this is certainly true for the experience of our mind. Mind is Being, apparently always available.

Andrea F. Polard, Psy.D., is the author of A Unified Theory of Happiness.

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