Peace on Earth? by Tim Lomas
As the holiday season approaches, many people enter — willingly or not — into a reflective mood. Alongside the parties and presents, as the year draws to a close, a quiet space is opened outside of hectic daily routines, inviting meaningful contemplation about one’s life. However, these meditations may have been particularly troubled over recent years. We stand amidst the rubble and chaos of an unsettling new age, beset by myriad existential challenges that barely need enumerating here.
In this context, the peace and tranquillity promised by religious traditions can feel alluring. Their teachings are many and varied, but at the core, there tends to be a common redemptive message: the potential for psychological renewal. However challenging our circumstances, and whatever our flaws as human beings, finding a measure of psychological wellbeing is within our imperfect grasp. Despite the world’s perils and pitfalls, we have the power to find calmness and tranquillity amidst the chaos.
True, there may be a general drift toward secularism. However, even the most ardent atheists may find themselves drawn to aspects of religious tradition this time of year. Besides, even if some shorn religiosity, the reflective techniques of such traditions have arguably never been more popular. Over recent decades, millions of people all over the globe have embraced practices like mindfulness and yoga. Reasons for their adoption may vary, but an intrinsic part of their appeal — and their marketing — is being a gateway into the peaceful experiential states many people yearn for.
Indeed, such conditions may be more universally coveted than is often appreciated. Such are the findings of a range of novel questions introduced into the Gallup World Poll in 2020 as part of a new Global Wellbeing Initiative. Its premise is that conventional measures of wellbeing tend to reflect the priorities of the Western cultures in which most such research takes place. This tendency often leads to a focus on high-arousal positive emotions, like pleasure and enjoyment. As a result, other aspects of wellbeing have often been overlooked, including low-arousal positive emotions — such as calmness and tranquillity — which are more often associated with Eastern cultures.
However, such emotions are not only valued in the East: People worldwide appear to yearn for them. One new World Poll question invited a choice between two desirable emotional states, asking if people preferred “a calm life or an exciting life.” Strikingly, in each of the 116 countries polled (with the exceptions of Vietnam and Georgia), a majority of people preferred a calm life.
Of course, this polling took place under the shadow of the pandemic, which undoubtedly influenced people’s thinking. Of late, the world has arguably felt increasingly freighted with risk and danger. Given that backdrop, the prospect of “excitement” may have seemed relatively daunting since it is not unambiguously positive, but rather can embed subtle hints of fear and danger. Adventure may be exciting, but inherent in its thrill is a certain frisson, the possibility of peril. Given the turbulence of the world, the safety and security of calmness are very appealing.
The uniqueness of this context does not undermine the findings, however. Quite the opposite: they reinforce their importance. That is, peace and calm matter to people, but especially when the world is in trouble. Here’s the kicker, though — the greater the trouble, the more people may struggle to find the very calmness they seek and need. Furthermore, those most in need may have the most difficulty finding it. There has been much reckoning lately over privilege and disadvantage across all domains of life. It may not be a shock to realize these are also relevant to peace and calm.
People’s material circumstances — such as the wealth and stability of their country — significantly impact these outcomes. Consider the differences, for example, between the affluent, stable Netherlands and poorer, crisis-afflicted Lebanon. In the former, 66.7% preferred a calm life, compared to 72.7% in the latter. But the results become especially poignant when examining whether people can find the calmness they seek. People were also asked if they experienced calmness “during a lot of the day yesterday” and whether they felt “at peace” with their life. While 83.9% of Dutch respondents experienced calmness, this fell dramatically to 56.2% for the Lebanese. Even more starkly, while 97.4% of people in the Netherlands felt at peace with their life, the figure was only 46.9% in Lebanon. Even within specific contexts, peace and calmness are influenced by factors such as socioeconomic differences. When stratifying responses by income, for instance, 58.6% of the richest Lebanese felt at peace with their life, whereas this sank to 37.8% among the poorest.
Clearly, peace and calmness are hugely influenced by people’s material circumstances. However, these states are not only about these conditions: Even among the poorest Lebanese, well over one-third felt at peace. In that respect, personal qualities and remedies are undoubtably valuable — including the religiously informed practices mentioned above, like meditation and prayer. Such traditions partly owe their power and appeal to bringing these gifts into people’s lives.
Crucially, peace and calm are also reflections of our situation. Or, to go further, they are our situation, at least potentially and in part. The terms are ambiguous, with an inherent dual meaning: They are inner states of mind and outer states of circumstances. Indeed, it is not obvious which meaning people are thinking of when answering the World Poll questions. Possibly both are at play in an intertwined fashion. Experiencing calmness or being at peace may be both an inner state and a commentary on one’s life. So, if we want peace and calm, we need to not only focus on cultivating inner tranquillity but also the social conditions that facilitate this state, since — as these findings show — such conditions strongly shape our state of mind.
Notably, this is also the message of the great religions. Many promise peace on earth. But this does not only mean the inner tranquillity of faith, the pacific quiet of prayer. Inherent in the teachings of most great luminaries — from Moses to Jesus, the Buddha to Mohammad — was a deep attention to improving people’s social reality and establishing the kind of just societal conditions that would allow this personal inner calm. So, as we turn inward in quiet reflection over the coming weeks, let us also recognize that inner and outer peace go hand in hand.
Tim Lomas is a Psychology Research Scientist in the Department of Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and part of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. Dr. Lomas’s research mainly focuses on cross-cultural perspectives on well-being, and especially on concepts and practices deemed ‘non-Western.’ Such research includes assisting with the Global Flourishing Study, developing a lexicography and conceptual map of ‘untranslatable’ words relating to well-being, and working with Gallup to create and analyze new well-being-related items for their world poll. Tim has published over 80 papers and 11 books relating to wellbeing, involving topics/approaches including linguistics, semiotics, art, emotional dialectics, balance/harmony, systems theory, social theory, politics, gender, and Buddhism. His latest book, entitled Happiness, will be published in 2022 by MIT Press as part of their Essential Knowledge series.