Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Happiness is.....being a modern day Samurai.

In the Times supplement last Saturday there was an article called ‘The nine secrets of contentment’. The article was essentially about those aspects of living that makes us truly happy. I have been struck at the similarities between ‘The nine secrets of contentment’ and the ‘Seven virtues of Bushido’– a Samurai moral code. I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that the Samurai must have been a happy contented bunch of guys! Let me explain….

The nine secrets of contentment that psychologists have recently identified are: having a social life, altruism, having a belief system, having a goal or ambition, moderate wealth, listening to music, planning a holiday, being totally absorbed in a hobby and sex. The seven virtues of bushido are: rectitude, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honour and loyalty. Associated virtues are filial piety and wisdom. Let’s dig a bit deeper to see how they match up…

A definition of happiness: a state of well-being and contentment and a pleasurable or satisfying experience.

There are many other personal definitions of happiness that have been quoted by various people but what they all have in common is the need for personal action to bring about happiness and the requirement to act in a virtuous way. According to Aristotle happiness is, "the virtuous activity of the soul in accordance with reason": In other words happiness is the practice of virtue.

This brings us back to the Samurai who very much led their lives according to the seven virtues listed above. So, looking at the nine modern secrets of contentment let’s see which virtues are required to bring them about:

1. Social life. To have a social life we need friends. According to research, the more close friends we have, the more stable our happiness. Ten close friends are an optimal number. The definition of a friend is: A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts and is regarded with affection and loyalty. To keep good friends one has to be a good friend. This requires you to show them respect, loyalty and honesty – all Samurai virtues.

2. Altruism. This is about doing good deeds and having unselfish concern for the welfare of others. Research shows that we receive a deeper and longer lasting feeling of happiness when we do good deeds for others compared with getting a quick blast of pleasure e.g. taking part in a fun activity. Altruism requires benevolence (charitable kindness), respect (consideration for others), possibly courage (e.g. work of the voluntary lifeboat men and women) and honour (carrying out the commitments you’ve made to help someone)

3. Belief system. Research has shown that having an internal belief system had a positive impact on happiness. This didn’t have to be a religious belief system necessarily. A strong belief in your work, a hobby, a cause, family and home or a creative outlet had a similar impact on happiness to a religious belief system. It’s about believing in something bigger than yourself. Depending on what your belief is then any or all of the bushido virtues may be required to follow it.

4. Goals and ambitions: research suggests that having specific goals can contribute to happiness and if those goals are altruistic they also contribute to good health in old age. Apparently, what is most important is the journey you go on to reach the goal rather than the end point of achieving it. On the journey you may make new friendships, learn new skills and overcome fears and barriers. These achievements may be more rewarding than achieving the goal itself. Working towards goals in a purposeful and rewarding way which requires the application of many virtues e.g. rectitude (honesty, integrity and morality), courage (to move out our comfort zone), loyalty and respect (to people that help us on the journey), honesty and wisdom.

5. Moderate wealth. Apparently the optimum salary most likely to contribute to a person’s happiness is £45,000 ($75,000). Beyond this emotional happiness does not improve. What’s the point in pursuing ever more money and material wealth if it doesn’t make you happy? It’s just time wasted that could be spent pursuing activities that do lead to happiness, perhaps more altruistic ones? Many a rich person has discovered that the path to happiness is through philanthropy (and therefore benevolence) rather than selfish greed. Frugality and self-sacrifice were the order of the day for Samurai.

6. Listening to music. It is thought that music taps into parts of the brain that produce feelings of euphoria. Even sad music can be cathartic. In fact, people are generally happier when their lives include a degree of culture such as music, works of art or performance, aesthetics etc. These things add to the quality of life experiences. The Samurai knew this only too well and pursued excellence in many arts such as flower arranging, calligraphy, Noh theatre and the tea ceremony. Art provided peace and respite from war.

7. Planning a holiday. The important thing about this is the planning rather than the taking of the holiday that makes us happy. Apparently we are happiest in the 8 weeks before the holiday starts. Clearly our anticipation of having a good time is better than the reality! What is important about this is that planning a holiday represents respite from work – it is part of achieving a good work/life balance. I’m pretty sure that Samurai didn’t plan holidays or think about work/life balance but they did need to achieve a life/death balance – balance the perils of war with activities of peace and calm, hence their dedication to art and recreation.

8. Being totally absorbed in a hobby. Psychologists describe the happiness derived from being totally absorbed in a hobby as a ‘flow state’. Martial artists recognise it as ‘mushin’. In this state you don’t notice time passing and the ego falls away, freeing you of all thoughts of daily problems and preoccupations. The Samurai would have achieved a state of mushin both in battle and in recreation as they pursued their artistic endeavours.

9. Sex. Sex enters strongly and positively in happiness equations. Sex within a loving relationship is most strongly equated with happiness and wellbeing so the virtue of loyalty (as in faithfulness and fidelity) is highly important in sexual relationships.

To be a Samurai was to be virtuous. A Samurai had the discipline to meditate, practice the arts, and live a life of humility and service to fit the demands of a daimyo’s life. To be calm in the heat of battle and to achieve excellence in the arts were the requirements of the day. All this was at the heart of Zen.

If, as Aristotle suggested, happiness is the practice of virtue, then the Samurai must have been happy with their lives. Certainly carrying the burdens of guilt, deceit or total selfishness on our consciences will not lead to happiness.

Perhaps living the life of a modern Samurai or ‘warrior’ is a good thing – a path to happiness.

Are you happy? Are you virtuous?
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Charles James said...

Hi, Sue:

Did you know that Bushido and these seven virtues were not actually coined until written in the book bushido late 1800's or was it early 1900's?


I believe, yet would have to go back and check, that these and the code didn't really exist during the time of the Samurai ...

Am I being to pickyunnnn?

rahrahkarate said...

I really love this analogy! Great post.

SueC said...

Hi Charles, yes I did know that and the behaviour of Samurai changed a lot through the various eras of feudal Japan. It probably wasn't until the Muromachi period during 14th-16th centuries that Samurai became more professional and 'virtuous' in their behaviour. Various books on how to behave were written at the time to guide samurai but it's true that the 'seven virtues' weren't written down until 19th century - but that doesn't mean it wasn't based on the actual way samurai had been behaving for the previous few hundred years. I suppose you could consider it a retrospective summary of previous samurai behaviour! Here's a link to a paper about the life of samurai in medieval Japan: http://www.colorado.edu/cas/tea/curriculum/imaging-japanese-history/medieval/pdfs/handout-M2.pdf

Rahrah, hi, I'm glad you liked it. Thanks for visiting my blog.

Charles James said...

Sue, absolutely awesome response ... Kudos once again ;-)

Journeyman said...

The Bushido code is interesting. We have romanticized it somewhat but most of the core concepts can apply to modern life. It's a matter of perspective. Being absolutely loyal to one's master, regardless of their moral character can be negative, but being absolutely loyal to an ideal or an admired teacher can be positive.

I don't know how virtuous I am, but I'm working on it. The biggest challenge with chasing happiness is maintaining balance in our lives. This is what I struggle with. With so few hours in a day, it's tough not to let something fall off the table.

I can't help but think we're all trying to be modern day Samurai on our journey through the arts.

SueC said...

Journeyman, the work/life balance is a big struggle for many people. I think being dedicated to martial arts is a good route to happiness. Let's face it, it ticks at least half of the boxes: social life, belief system, altruism (if you're volunteering your time to help out with things in your club with no expectation of reward), goals and ambitions, and being totally absorbed in a hobby. What could be better?

Charles James said...

Sue ... "totally absorbed in a hobby"

Hobby, Hobby! MA ain't no stinkin hobby!

Now everyone, roll on the floor with laughter ... my intent at jocularity ...

SueC said...

Charles, sorry! There wasn't a category for 'way of life' and for many, martial arts IS just a hobby! For you, me and many others it's more than that but, hey, the psychologists clearly haven't caught up with that idea yet :-)

And before you mention it, no, I wasn't going to suggest that being willing to lay down your life for your daimyo was an absorbing hobby for the samurai! (my attempt at jocularity):-)

Anonymous said...

'Modern day Samurai' is a contradiction in terms since the samurai class was officially abolished during the Meiji Era and a quite preposterous notion when you think about it. Compare it to someone telling you they're 'a modern day knight' and you'll see how ridiculous it is. You've got to love those internet warriors/martial artists and their delusions of grandeur, being civilians who'll never see a battlefield up close. At least not a live one. You really think war is glamorous or very conductive to happiness? People really do see what they want to see, don't they?

You should write for those women's 'wellness' magazines, I think you'd be great at it. For the love of Jove I don't see what an ancient martial code from a culture halfway across the globe has to do with modern civilian life in the western hemisphere. What's next: a comparison with the European code of chivalry? At least that'd be closer to home. You're remarkable gullible when it comes to idealised myths regarding historical phenomena: do you really think Bushido was anything more than window-dressing/propaganda for ruthless rulers and paid killers? There are more (and far more reliable) sources than the internet or popularized books written centuries after the height of samurai power. By way of introduction you might want to read this: http://www.friesian.com/divebomb.htm. From the essay:

"What bushidô was originally all about is now open to debate. G. Cameron Hurst III argued in "Death, honor, and loyalty: the bushido ideal" [Philosophy East and West, Volume XL, No. 4, October 1990, pp.511-527] that 20th century notions about bushidô mostly have nothing to do with the samurai but are based on an 1899 book by Nitobe Inazô (1862-1933), Bushidô: The Soul of Japan. Nitobe was Western educated, knew relatively little about Japanese history, and even thought that he had coined the word bushidô himself. His ability to faithfully represent Japanese history, culture, and values is thus sorely in question."

Anonymous said...

@Journeyman: your way of reasoning is completely contrary to the way samurai were supposed to behave. The two core concepts of Bushido were unquestionable, unthinking loyalty to one's master and killing/dying as the supreme virtue and honour. Do you really think you'd want to incorperate this fascism/militarism in your life, if it were even possible? It's funny how people with little knowledge about history or ethics mish and mash concepts and pick whatever they like while thinking they live 'the martial way', whatever that may be for a non-soldier. Courage, loyalty, benevolence and likewise virtues weren't invented by the samurai so there is really no need to dress it up in a historically inaccurate fashion as presented in this blog.

SueC said...

Anon. Has anyone told you that you take things a little bit too literally? No one is suggesting that a modern day samurai is someone who literally wants to impersonate a samurai warrior and go into battle, sword, armour and all! It's more a figure of speech. There is nothing wrong with identifying the positive values of an old culture and seeing how they might apply to your own life. Everyone knows that there was also much brutality in feudal Japan and no one wants to emulate that - the bad can be left in the past, the good can be applied to today - that's progress in humanity.

I'm not personally into women's magazines but no doubt in some of them there are some well written articles written by some excellent writers. However, I can't help feeling your comment was intended to be a personal put down and that is not appreciated on this blog.

I maintain an open comments policy on this blog because I want to hear the views of everybody and not be selective or delete negative comments. However, I do request that negative commenter's have the courage and courtesy to identify themselves so please leave your name next time.

Ninja Weapons said...

I really like this post.

SueC said...

Thanks Ninja ;-)

SenseiMattKlein said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SenseiMattKlein said...

Anonymous, whoever you are.

Some of your comments are way off base, particularly this one. “You should write for those women's 'wellness' magazines, I think you'd be great at it. For the love of Jove I don't see what an ancient martial code from a culture halfway across the globe has to do with modern civilian life in the western hemisphere”.

First of all, Sue has earned the respect of many of us in the martial arts blog community by her interesting, insightful, and honest writing. She backs it up by putting her name behind her thoughts. Do you? If you want your thoughts to be taken seriously, I'd encourage you to do the same.

Second, this ancient martial code has everything to do with today's reality. Did you not witness the way the Japanese handled their recent tragedy? With dignity and restraint. How many other nations would have fallen apart at the seams, with rioting, looting, etc.? The reason: their martial code passed from generation to generation. It matters today more than ever.

For myself, this post made me think about how my life could be more complete. As martial artists, we should strive always to be better people. Well done Sue.

SueC said...

Thank you so much for your support Matt, it's very appreciated :-)


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