In Hinduism and Buddhism, there have been the swami and the guru; in Greece, the mentor, and in the West, in physical and literary form, the teacher and sage.
Times and priorities have changed. In today’s fast-paced society, the modern guide for spiritual fulfillment comes in a new form—professional life coach.
After quitting her job at Cathay Pacific Airways Hong Kong, Shveitta Sethi, in her 30s, became someone who helps people pursue happiness in life. This began as a hobby when she was still a flight attendant, but now she has fully devoted herself to the joy-spreading business and is trying her best to make this world a happier place.
With an impressive sign of smile besides her name on her business card, Sethi branded herself a happiness coach, a trademarked niche for a life coach that facilitate the growth and achievement of goals for individuals looking for more happiness and who want someone to listen and help.
Born into a military family in India and who moved to Hong Kong in 1989, Sethi has been living in this city for almost 20 years. She has seen people suffer from great pressure here despite the affluent material life, and developed a strong drive and responsibility to spread happiness and make Hong Kong a happier place. She believes happiness is a skill—the more we practice, the better we are.
With a MBA degree from the University of Hong Kong, she may have a mind of a potential entrepreneur, but more importantly, she has a heart of a philosopher.
“I think I should be awarded a degree in HAPPINESS instead,” she laughed, “as I am doing well in the business of ‘selling’ happiness.”
Moreover, as a keen reader who also enjoys writing self-help columns and blogs, Sethi has becomes more and more recognized for her work as a happiness coach.
She said there are five conditions for a happy life: material, spiritual, intellectual, relationship and health. If people can have achievement in each of these areas, they then can be considered as having a happy life.
However, nowadays, in a metropolis like Hong Kong, more and more people lead stressful lives because they put too much attention on money -- their only source of happiness.
“It is because of the lives we lead. We live in a society where money talks,” Sethi said. “People today are too busy with earning money. They work so many hours a week and have too many things to do, so other important things like relationship, family and health get left out.”
She added, “Rarely do people get time to sit down and really think about what they want out of life and the steps necessary to take them there.”
Consequently, she said people gradually slip into “reactive” lives. “That is, they only take action in response to things that happen to them. They look for a new job when they lose their old one; they begin to take care of their health only after they've been sick.”
According to Social Indicators Research, 37 percent of the people on Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans are less happy than the average American, which signifies that money alone sometimes cannot promise happiness.
“We live in a world of so much information that it is easy to become confused. Life coaching helps the individual clarify their wants, needs and values,” says Chan, president of Hong Kong's Coaching Community, a leading association of coaching professionals.
And this also applies to Hong Kong. According to a random telephone survey by Lingnan University’s Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS) in October 2008, the percentage of unhappy people is actually highest among the highest income group.
Therefore, in Sethi’s eyes, to some extent, the recent financial crisis is good. “Finally you have a chance to stop and think about what is really important in your life and what else I can do in addition to making money.”
And so she hopes that the economic tsunami could provide an opportunity for people to value something else -- like family and health – as a measure of true happiness in life.
As to her methods, she hopes that the lessons learned and the benefits derived from life coaching will sound like homespun advice -- plain common sense of the sort dispensed by mothers and best friends over coffee, rather than academic instructions from books.
“That’s because I have a degree in LIFE, not in psychology,” she laughed. “If these strategies and steps weren't straightforward and easy to grasp, people wouldn't do them.”
Unlike teachers of the past, or today's other mentors, a good life coach does not give out the secrets to happiness, but instead unlocks the potential that resides in anyone to live a fulfilling life by getting them to take charge.
“As a happiness coach, I never give orders or instructions to others what to do,” Sethi said. “I help them see the possibilities and the positives, and we set out steps that they have created in consultation with me.”
“Don’t fix things. Fix yourself,” Shveitta said, using a comparison to illustrate her idea: “If you want your garden to be attractive to butterflies, the best way is not to chase after them with a net, but to grow beautiful flowers inside. Naturally, butterflies will come themselves.”
She added, “The answers to a happy life are inside everyone, and I believe each one of us instinctively knows what we want and need to do to be satisfied in life. It is just a matter of bringing it out.”
Indeed, selling happiness is a growth industry that began nearly a decade ago with a large number of social scientists turning out experts in the joy-spreading business.
Studies into the power of optimistic thinking conducted by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman led to a new branch of social science—positive psychology. Researchers at Harvard, Princeton, Michigan and Kent State are among the leaders in the field.
Christopher Peterson, a clinical psychologist at the University of Michigan, said that there is great interest by the number of books and college courses on this subject and he called it “a hunger to be happy.”
However, at around HK$750 to HK$800 per session for individuals and even more for corporate groups, the “cost of happiness” may be too high for many people.