Tag Archives: change

The Ingredients of Happy

This is my third post exploring happiness. The first and second posts are here and here.

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We’ve defined happiness as a feeling of contentment and peace, which inadequately expresses its complexity. Positive psychology scientifically examines the human experience of peace and contentment more deeply, with surprising results.

In his book, Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., carefully differentiates between transient and enduring happiness. Transient happiness is what I call happy. It’s the joy I feel when dancing, swimming, sitting outside in the sun, or looking forward to something pleasurable. Enduring happiness, or our general level of happiness, is our baseline feeling of peace and contentment. Can we increase our enduring level of happiness, and if so, how?

Our genetics play a part in this, as I mentioned before, but circumstances do, too, and we have some power over our circumstances. It turns out there are three decades of research and data on external circumstances and how they affect our experience of happiness.

Now we are in territory that is heavily influenced by social politics and our consumer culture. Everyone knows that more money and things make us happier. Anyone in doubt need only sit in front of a screen and absorb advertising for 30 minutes.

A cross-national survey of tens of thousands of adults does indicate that life satisfaction and overall national purchasing power are closely correlated, but only to a certain numerical point. After that point, the correlation disappears. This means people in a comparatively wealthy country may generally have a higher overall experience of happiness than people in a country who live in life-threatening poverty, but there are many exceptions, and social scientists are not sure why. In addition, as purchasing power has increased in wealthy countries, life satisfaction has not.

It appears that how important money is to us is a more powerful factor in our happiness than the amount of money we actually have. More materialistic people are less happy. In this, of course, we have power. If we rearrange our priorities and reduce the importance of money in our lives, perhaps we can intentionally increase our happiness.

Other factors that have been extensively studied as ingredients for happiness include marriage (or other long-term, committed bonds), education, social networks, health, age, sex, intelligence, and where we live.

As I think about happiness, I reflect on all the reasons I’ve heard people (including me) say they can’t achieve it. It’s interesting how we all make excuses for avoiding happiness. I wonder why that is. What are we up to? Are we afraid to be happy? Is the pain of “losing” happiness so terrible that we reject it entirely?

Data invalidates many of our excuses. External circumstances such as moving to a sunnier climate or getting more education are not correlated with greater happiness. Race and biological sex are also neutral factors in happiness, as is intelligence.

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It does appear that living in a comparatively wealthy country; strong social networks, including a healthy primary relationship, as in marriage; and creating or participating in spiritual/faith practices are positive influences on happiness.

Interestingly, health is an influence much like money, in that how we feel about our health is more important than our objective health as a factor in happiness.

As I write this, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that we are awaiting final results in the 2020 election and facing increasing COVID numbers. These external factors and the stress and anxiety I feel over them certainly seem barriers to anything like happy.

A couple of weeks ago I was part of a conversation in which someone asked me if I’d heard that Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas were “cancelled.” He was angry, bitter, loud, and hostile. I exited the conversation after telling him quietly I hadn’t heard, but I’ve thought about it ever since.

Is happiness cancelled because of our current external circumstances?

Of course not. As many others have pointed out, family, love, tolerance, generosity, and the holiday season are not “cancelled.” Many of us will (or have) changed the way we approach these celebrations and expressions, but change doesn’t have to be an atomic bomb that wipes out every tradition and good feeling, unless we make it so.

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I, and I suspect many others, feel that the fate of the world rests on the outcome of the 2020 United States presidential election. The endless political rhetoric certainly encourages us to believe that. When I really think about it, though, no matter who is in the White House we’ll still be a deeply and hatefully divided nation. We’ll still have a pandemic. We’ll still have climate change, broken healthcare and educational systems, and a faltering economy. We’ll still have to deal with immigration, racial injustice and violence.

The president, whoever he will be, will not have the power to destroy our individual happiness. He may be a fine scapegoat, along with a million other external circumstances, but in the end I believe our happiness is in our own hands and no one else’s.

I find this a particularly unpalatable realization right now. I spend a lot of time being a professional, being an adult, and striving to be positive and supportive with others, but deep inside I struggle with an ungodly mix of rage and despair. I have moments in which it’s all I can do to just walk away from the headlines, the ignorance, the selfishness, and the toxicity of others without screaming and tearing their throats out. I’m constantly fighting down tears. I feel unsafe, hypervigilant, and bone tired.

I know I’m not alone. I have the most superb self-control of anyone I know, so I will not relieve my feelings with public tantrums or assaults, but the feelings are there and these times are bringing them close to the surface for everyone.

To write about happiness or even think about it right now seems idiotic. Upon further reflection, though, I wonder if it isn’t the perfect time, after all. There’s so much going on that we can’t change; perhaps now it’s more important than ever before to pull our gaze away from those things and look at where we do have power. We have the power to intentionally choose happiness, even if only for a second. We have the power to choose between connection and division. We have the power to love, even in the midst of rage.

If I told you I’m happy this week it would be a lie. When the final votes are counted I won’t feel happy, either, no matter who wins. I’m hoping my sleep will be less broken and I can stop trying to crawl out of my skin with anxiety, but happy? No. Relieved would be good. Let’s aim for relieved.

But what if the truth is that happy is right here, sitting on my shoulder, or waiting patiently in the corner, and all I have to do is give it my attention and open my arms to it? What if I could feel happiness today? What if the most useful thing I could do for myself, for my loved ones, for the world, is choose happiness, no matter how fleeting?

Well, shit!

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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In Search of Normal

This morning we took our two old cars into our mechanic. They both need some routine maintenance, and this seems like a good time to take care of it. I saw a poster on a telephone pole in town offering a reward for information about a lost cat, and I felt sad for the family, searching and grieving for their missing pet.

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I imagined, for a minute, posters on every fence, pole and bulletin board in the world, each one imploring for the return of our lost lives, not only those who have lost their lives due to this pandemic, but the “normal” lives we’ve all lost. Is anyone, anywhere, untouched by the coronavirus?

It’s slowly dawning on me that normal is gone.

Normal was different for each of us, but it certainly included jobs, schedules and income. It included being able to get our teeth cleaned, our hair cut, and routine healthcare appointments. Normal was an evening out at a bar, restaurant or the movies. Normal was travel plans and vacations, day care and school years, community and family celebrations and events. Normal was our sense of predictability and security.

Change is always with us, and it’s continued to flow through our lives during the last three or four months, but I’m no longer feeling as though we’ve simply paused for a while before returning to what was.

In mid-March, one day I was at work as usual looking at the headlines during a break and worrying about coronavirus, and just a few days later we were shut down. We knew something catastrophic was happening, and we knew it was one of the biggest events we’d ever experienced, but we couldn’t have anticipated all that’s happened since then. We didn’t know, in those last days, that they were the last days of that normal. There wasn’t time to say goodbye, or have a sense of closure, or wish people well.

I’m not even trying to anticipate what might happen in the next few months, but I’m quite sure “normal” will be absent.

During the shutdown at the rehab center pool where I work (worked?), the powers-that-be decided to renovate. The money had been earmarked before the pandemic, and as we were having to close anyway, I suppose they thought it was a good time to do it.

I understand the logic, but a three-week renovation project is now in its twelfth week or so, and there’s a long way to go. Supply chains are disrupted. Shipping and delivery are slowed. Everything is in chaos, including the contracting company.

We’re longing to go back to work and resume some sort of normalcy, but the facility is not ready, and we don’t know when it will be ready. When it is ready, will anyone come to use the pool? With so many out of work and losing their insurance, will we have patients? Will we be able to open to the public? Will we be able to open the locker rooms, which are presently gutted and nothing but construction zones? Will any of us be able to work normal hours, and if not, how will we manage economically?

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Will we follow the rest of the country, and open only to close again as the virus surges?

And those are only the coronavirus questions. What about the November election and rising political and social tensions and violence? What about accelerating climate change? What about the collapsing economy, education system, post office, and healthcare system?

What about our failing democracy?

Now and then I wonder if I’m sitting in a movie theater watching a big screen apocalypse thriller, maybe starring Will Smith or Matt Damon. A terrible natural event, an evil AI, or a malignant genius wipes out most of the human race, but approximately two hours of thrilling heroism, special effects and against-all-odds story line save the day.

That’s how we think the story should go. Tight plotting, a clear goal and lots of stunts. An unambiguous beginning and end. Roll credits, bring up the lights, everyone comes back to the real, normal world and gropes for their belongings, feeling satisfied.

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It plays better than it lives, doesn’t it?

I’m not in despair. The old “normal” was good for a few people, but for most of us it was inadequate education, inaccessible and overpriced healthcare, and increasing pressure and manipulation by the Overlords of consumerism. For many, business as usual meant institutionalized racism, sexism, and ageism. Business as usual was destroying the planet. Many of us had no part in the “thriving” economy and very little hope of financial security. Those are not the things I grieve for.

I miss working. Yes, I get unemployment, but frankly, I’d rather work. I miss my sense of contribution to my community. I miss teaching. I miss swimming. I miss earning a paycheck and feeling financially independent. I miss my team and our work, play and training together.

Most of all, I miss the feeling of day-to-day security. I never worried about food shortages, or how many people were in the store, or how close I was standing to someone else. I thought frequently about family and loved ones who are far away, but I didn’t wonder every day about how they’re doing, if they’re taking care, if they’re well. I could count on my weekly schedule at work. I could look forward to eating out now and then, getting a massage, or catching a movie.

The good old days. About twelve weeks ago.

We’re not going to go back. We can only go forward. The world has changed. We’ve all changed. Perhaps some of the current chaos will create a better “normal,” more just, more equitable, kinder. Perhaps we’re remembering we’re social creatures who do best in small, cooperative communities. Perhaps we’re remembering what’s really important in life and thus reducing the stranglehold of consumerism. Perhaps we’re rediscovering our humanity.

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Now, wouldn’t that be something?

I wish I’d had time to understand what was happening and say goodbye to it all, but that’s life, isn’t it? I’m only just now really getting my head around the fact that we’ve left the old world and ways behind. Even if the coronavirus is somehow magically eradicated, I don’t think we can resume the old “normal.” Too much has changed, and too many feelings have been felt. Too many eyes have been opened, too much has been said, and we’ve all seen others and been seen more nakedly than ever before. Mask on, mask off.

In search of a new normal. My daily crime.

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