The Secret to Happiness

by Jeremy McCarthy

On Friday mornings, I set my alarm for 5:30 a.m., quietly get dressed and stumble groggily into the back of a taxi that takes me to the bottom of Nam Long Shan (also known as “Brick Hill”) in Hong Kong. There, I find a group of similarly bleary-eyed people from all walks of life (including a dog) huddled together in the darkness and waiting for our weekly morning ritual to begin.

The ritual, organized by a group called “Re- Tribe” in Hong Kong, consists of a short but steep hike through the darkness up to the top of Nam Long Shan until we arrive at a large circular helicopter landing pad at the top. We spread out (social distancing applies) on the helipad and, as the sun rises, we warm up with some gentle movement practices led by Dima, the organizer of the “tribe.” At this point, everyone in the group is very much awake, our bodies lubricated by the brisk walk and the movement, and our spirits buoyed by the feeling of community and the glory of the sun rising over spectacular views of Aberdeen and Deep Water Bay. Dima then invites everyone to take a seat around the helipad looking out over the South China Sea, and his colleague Thomas begins to lead us in active guided meditation.

Thomas is a breathwork facilitator and usually leads us in an exercise known as the Wim Hof method, consisting of two to three rounds of 30 deep breaths followed by longer and longer breath holds. Upon completing the breathwork, the entire group is heavily oxygenated and in a state of bliss. Some people continue meditating quietly, some get up and start dancing, some start winding their way down the trail back to whatever reality awaits them.

I will often sit for a while after the breathing session, soaking in the view and enjoying the feeling of being very grounded in my mind and body. On a recent Friday, Dima’s dog Milo came and sat next to me, enjoying, as I was, the beautiful surroundings, the sense of community and the wonder of being in the present moment. It occurred to me in that moment that for Milo, this was his normal state. Milo doesn’t have to be guided through a series of bizarre rituals to find pleasure in the present moment. He seems to appreciate everything.

And why shouldn’t he be happy? In the tribe, he is surrounded by people who love him. If he needs food or water, it is provided to him. If he wants to play, people will play with him. If he wants affection, people are always ready and willing to rub his belly or scratch him behind the ears. Milo has a great life.

In the animal kingdom, it may be that dogs are at the top of the pyramid when it comes to happiness and quality of life. So what is the secret to dogs’ superior position on the happiness hierarchy? I suspect it has to do with their survival strategy: Dogs have evolved to be lovable.

Some animals evolved to be fierce, with fangs, claws, strength or power and they succeed by dominating their prey and fighting their competition. Some animals evolved to be tough, with shells, armor or thick skin. They survive by being able to fend off or withstand attacks from the ferocious. And some animals evolved to hide, with camouflage, or to escape with speed or slipperiness. They succeed by using their talents to avoid confrontation.

But if your survival strategy is ferociousness, you spend your life fighting. If your strategy is toughness, you spend your life taking abuse from behind your armored shell. If your strategy is evasiveness, you spend your life running away.

Dogs have evolved to be lovable. And if you are lovable, you spend your life being loved.

I learned an important lesson from Milo that day (but only because the movement, breathing and meditation had opened my mind enough to receive it). Love is not only an effective survival strategy but may also be the best secret to living a life of happiness and meaning.

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