Rethinking Happy

When I started exploring happiness last week I had no idea how uncomfortable and interesting it was going to be. I told my partner I wish I had never opened this can of worms. He shook his head and said I couldn’t unsee it now. He was right, so here we are, with Halloween, the election, daylight savings and a dark, uncertain winter ahead, and I’m thinking about happy. You gotta appreciate my timing!

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After my last post, I became conscious of some of my attitudes about happiness. One is that I view it through the lens of scarcity, a common pattern of mine. I act as though happiness is finite; if I take some, someone else goes short. Furthermore, and I wince as I write this, I don’t think I deserve to be happy.

I’ve written about deserving and not deserving before. The concept of being undeserving has been with me since childhood, and it’s powerfully shaped my attitudes about money, love, and other pleasant things such as happiness. I’m not pleased to find myself wrestling with it again.

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These underground thoughts, that happiness is finite and I don’t deserve it, are at least two reasons why I don’t seek it or think about it much. In fact, it’s hard for me to see its relevance at all, and I’m irritated when asked to define my life in terms of happiness. I’m useful. I’m creative. I’m productive. I’m kind. Isn’t that enough? What does happy have to do with anything? Life is not a fairy tale or a romance. Happily ever after is a fantasy.

As I delve more deeply into Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., I’m fascinated to learn that the science of positive psychology reveals that our level of happiness, as well as depression, anger, etc., has a significant genetic component. That doesn’t mean our genetics lock us into our emotional experience, but heredity does steer us to some degree.

I also learn that data indicates positive emotions can have important functions in our lives, just as negative ones do. Anger, we know, is a signal that our boundaries have been violated, an important piece of information for survival. Happiness and other positive emotions broaden intellectual, physical, and social resources. We are better creators, better at connection, more productive, more tolerant, more playful, and more open to new ideas when we’re in a state of peace and contentment.

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Happiness, then, is power, but not power-over, as my mental model of a finite quantity suggests. Happiness is the power-with kind of power, a win-win for self and others, because it increases growth and positive development, not only for ourselves but for those around us.

So, if I’m useful now, could I be more useful? More creative? More productive? More kind? Can we actually learn to increase our happiness? Is choosing happiness a credit in the world balance rather than a debit?

Am I willing to change my frame of happiness from self-indulgence to altruism?

Why does that question make me squirm?

See? Uncomfortable!

My daily crime.

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Finding Happy

I read a quote from Instagram last weekend from wetheurban: Stop looking for happiness in the same place you lost it.

Ever since I read it, I’ve been turning it over in my mind.

To be happy is to feel or show pleasure or contentment, according to Oxford Online Dictionary.

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This simple little sentence from Instagram has been like a clown car for me. Layer after layer of questions, feelings, and thoughts keep emerging as I play with it.

If we think of happiness as extrinsic, or outside ourselves, it becomes a feeling we can find or lose. If we’re lucky, it brushes by us. If we’re unlucky, it eludes us. If we’ve met the right person, found the right job, are making the right amount of money, look the right way, or have the right things, we’ll be happy. Forever.

In this view happiness is conditional, and we all have different conditions that must be met before we can feel it. Happiness is outside our power rather than within it. Once we have it, we expect to keep it as long as nothing changes, so we fear and resist change.

Another view is that happiness is intrinsic, or within us. It’s something we choose. Luck and circumstances have nothing to do with it, and nobody has the power to bring it in or take it out of our lives. Happiness is unconditional and change doesn’t take it away.

An easy way to tell which way we view happiness is to jot down a list of what makes us feel peaceful and contented. If our list is all about things or people we want, can get, can find or can lose, we view happiness as something outside ourselves.

If our list contains activities, practices and at least some pleasant relationships and connections, we are actively creating our own happiness.

The single biggest mistake I’ve made in life is believing another person can make me happy, or someone else’s happiness is my responsibility.

No, they can’t, and no, it’s not.

Our happiness is our own responsibility.

One of life’s certainties is change. Everything changes, along with our degree of pleasure and contentment in any given activity, relationship, or object. If we have no resilience, our happiness is fragile.

I talked about the concept of happiness with my partner during one of our walks. He suggested I look at Martin Seligman’s website and unearthed a book by him (we can always find a pertinent book in this house) titled Authentic Happiness.

The website is dynamic and interesting. Seligman, a Ph.D., is associated with the University of Pennsylvania and has an extensive background in positive psychology, which he continues to research.

The book looks like a typical self-help book and I wasn’t particularly attracted by the cover, but I decided it was worth taking a closer look, as I was writing this post and I’m obnoxiously thorough.

It’s fascinating. I read the first chapter, dug out a bookmark, and added it to my pile of current nonfiction reading.

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Defining and gathering data on what it means to be happy is complicated, much more complicated than I realized when the Instagram quote caught my eye and inspired this post. Now I’m hooked by my curiosity and the realization of how much I don’t know about happiness. In fact, I don’t know enough to say much about it with certainty right here, right now.

The website and book are filled with self-tests on our perception of our emotional experience of happiness that are in themselves fascinating. I took the first one and rated myself as more unhappy than happy, which was disconcerting. I don’t think of myself as being unhappy. Maybe I don’t really know what happiness means. How much happiness qualifies one as a happy person?

I’ve never given my own quantity of peace and contentment much thought at all, although I pay a great deal of attention to the happiness of others.

Typical.

On the other hand, because of my gratitude practice, when I do feel happy I feel it intensely and consciously, and I’m actively grateful for it. For example, just as I finished that last sentence our cat Izzy pelted up the stairs into my workspace, bounced into the room, jumped onto the laptop keyboard (I deleted her contribution to this post—don’t tell her) and started purring as though she hasn’t seen me in days. Her shining calico coat is warm silk. Her squeaks of ecstasy as I hold her and rub her cheeks and chin make me smile. She smells of sleepy feline and salmon cat food. She looks into my face with her wild amber eyes and lays the pink pads of her small white foot against my cheek.

We are happy together. Is happiness increased with sharing? Is it contagious?

When she leaves, distracted by a fly buzzing in my window, I have no sense of loss, only profound gratitude. I have no desire to capture that moment and live in it forever. I don’t want to cage happiness or hold it hostage. I’m not sure one can.

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Other happy things: Laughing with friends, swimming, dancing, music, a good book, writing, clean sheets, walking at night, rain, and so many other things it’s ridiculous to go on.

One last thought about happiness. I have a regrettable propensity to turn it into shame, particularly when my past happiness has had to do with a relationship. As the relationship changes, which they inevitably do, and I feel I’ve “lost” my pleasure and contentment in it, I punish myself for having been such a fool as to have ever felt happy in the first place. I invalidate the real happiness I did feel because it didn’t last or was based on what I think of as my own naivete or immaturity. Not only that, I build a thick shell around myself as protection from ever feeling happy in that context again.

In essence, I destroy the happiness that was mine as well as block possible future happiness because I “lost” it before. I don’t look for happiness where I lost it. I refuse to look for it at all.

I suspect I’m not the only one in the world who does this, and I feel sad for all of us who cut ourselves off in this way from engaging with happiness. Refusing to feel happy is no guarantee we won’t feel pain, it just means our pain is not balanced with moments of peace, contentment, or joy.

I’m going to investigate what Martin Seligman has to teach. I’m intrigued. I’m also interested in how self-indulgent it feels to deliberately learn more about being happy, as though it’s a shameful thing to examine our own relationship to it. What’s up with that? When did it become inappropriate for anyone but a child to be happy?

Exploring happy. My daily crime.

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Doorway to Passion

I’ve been listening to a Sounds True production of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes talk about Seeing in the Dark . I’ve listened to it before, but not for some years, and not since I developed a daily practice of sitting and breathing.

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She suggests that a practice, whether it be meditation, prayer, or whatever else, is not a pathway to calm, but a pathway to passion. This struck me as a radical idea, and it made me reevaluate my Be Still Now practice completely.

Sitting in silence with nowhere to go, nothing to do, focusing only on my breathing, has been of inestimable value to me in ways I feel deeply but cannot easily put into words. I can talk about the effects in words: less speeding, diminished anxiety, a deeper connection with my intuition and creativity. But the pleasure of the actual practice during those few minutes a day is an experience I can’t share.

I would never have associated it with passion, however. Serenity, yes. I’ve pursued serenity and peace all my life, and that was my destination in creating a Be Still Now practice.

Pinkola Estes suggests I’ve not walked far enough along the path the practice opens up; that beyond the peaceful place where I stop and have my being in those minutes lies something more, some primal power I’ve been trying to control, hide, and even amputate for most of my life.

Passion.

What does passion mean? Passion is a strong or compelling feeling. It comes from a Greek root meaning ‘to suffer’.

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Passion expresses the full power of feeling. It’s a tidal wave, a hurricane, a tornado. It’s the grief we cannot bear, the rage we dare not fully express, the physical desire that overcomes our civilized facades and renders us as natural as wild animals.

Passion is agony and ecstasy. It’s a quality that attracts and repels. We admire passion in music, on film, and in other artistic expression, but it’s more easily appreciated when we keep it at an arm’s length. Living with our own passionate nature, or that of someone close to us, is an uncomfortably intense experience for most people.

My experience of my own passion is that it makes others uncomfortable at best. At worst, it’s a fearful threat, and when I’ve allowed it to bloom it’s been beaten down without mercy. Passion, for all its beauty, is also suffering, and none of us want to get too close to that. It might be catching.

The problem is that if we are passionate, to deny deep suffering is to deny all deep feeling, to live in a kind of numb, unchanging twilight. We show a bland, inoffensive face to the world, asking for nothing, needing nothing.

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Creating nothing.

We know much more in this culture about numbing our feelings than we do feeling them. When I view any personal practice from this angle, I can see that being present without distraction is a natural first step to presence with our feelings. If we deliberately put aside all our coping mechanisms for pain, all that’s left is to feel it.

I don’t want to feel it. I want to feel peaceful. But my Be Still Now time doesn’t actually take the pain away. It takes my thoughts about the pain away. It allows me space to express and experience pain directly, without a lot of noise around it, but I have to actively consent to enter that space.

Passion is, of course, much more than pain. It’s also incomplete without pain. For me, pain is the top layer of passion, and if I don’t allow it, I can’t get to any other deep feeling.

Which means I can’t write from the fullness of my being.

Which diminishes the core of my life.

But, hey, nobody’s offended or uncomfortable. Nobody’s threatened, so it’s all good, right?

If I use my daily Be Still Now practice to connect wordlessly to passion, what would happen?

Just before I started writing this post, I read this:

Spring Azures

In spring the blue azures bow down
at the edges of shallow puddles
to drink the black rain water.
Then they rise and float away into the fields.

Sometimes the great bones of my life feel so heavy,
And all the tricks my body knows—
the opposable thumbs, the kneecaps,
and the mind clicking and clicking—

don’t seem enough to carry me through this world
and I think: how I would like

To have wings—
blue ones—
ribbons of flame.

How I would like to open them, and rise
from the black rain water.

And then I think of Blake, in the dirt and sweat of London – a boy
staring through the window, when God came
fluttering up.

Of course, he screamed,
seeing the bobbin of God’s blue body
leaning on the sill,
and the thousand-faceted eyes.

Well, who knows.
Who knows what hung, fluttering, at the window
between him and the darkness.

Anyway, Blake the hosier’s son stood up
and turned away from the sooty sill and the dark city—
turned away forever
from the factories, the personal strivings,

to a life of the imagination.

–Mary Oliver

I wonder if it’s possible for me to endure a fully passionate life now. I am attracted, and I am afraid. If my daily practice might be a doorway to reclaiming and inhabiting my own passion, I’m not sure I dare open it. There are reasons I’ve worked so hard all my life to bury passion.

And yet … to dance. To live in music. To be joyfully in the body. To howl and snarl and know the innocence of joy. To weep without shame. To love without fear again. To turn it all into words that awaken passion in others. Can I ever be truly peaceful without those? Is a life without passion peaceful, or merely numb?

My daily crime.

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