Tag Archives: romance

The Problem with Solutions

I recently read an article from The Minimalists about problems and solutions. The first time I skimmed through it, I thought, “Huh?” and saved it for more concentrated exploration later. It was one of those pieces of inside-out thinking that stuck in my head, like a small rock in one’s shoe, and I puzzled over it for a few days, until I went back and read it with more attention.

I laughed when I reread, because it’s a short and simple piece, but it suggests an unaccustomed way of thinking about problems, especially to someone as goal-oriented and problem-solving as I am.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

The idea is that solutions, the magic bullets everyone wants, take our attention away from problems and often compound them. The solution becomes more of a problem than the problem was in the first place.

This phenomenon is familiar enough to us that we made a saying about the cure being worse than the disease. I just never thought past the context of cures and disease before now.

When it comes to solving problems, especially in a consumer culture, toxic mimics are ubiquitous. We’re also in a hurry. We don’t like discomfort. We want a quick, palatable fix, and we want it now. This means we throw solutions at problems without taking the time to understand their full extent and complexity. We feel entitled to instant gratification, and that’s what advertisers promise us.

In the last few cold, dark days of 2020, as most of us look ahead and hope for better things in 2021, it’s a good time to pause and spend time with our problems.

Seriously! They’re with us anyway. We might as well give them some real attention. If we’ve tried and tried to solve a particular problem and gotten nowhere, or made it worse, maybe it’s time to go deeper into it, putting possible solutions aside for a while and just being with the problem. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about loving and living with the questions before living into the answers.

Photo by Agence Producteurs Locaux Damien Kühn on Unsplash

In a lovely demonstration of synchronicity, as I work on this post I’m also reading Holistic Management by Allan Savory. It’s essentially a book about restoring the environment, based on a lifetime of study, experience and success in reversing desertification and building healthy land, but it’s also a framework for decision-making and management of any context, from a household to a community to a business organization.

Defining and understanding as much of the problem as possible is key to managing anything holistically. The metaphor Savory uses is taking aspirin to relieve a headache brought on by someone hitting us in the head with a hammer. Taking an aspirin is quick and cheap, but the real problem is not the headache, it’s the fact that someone is hitting us in the head with a hammer! Taking aspirin does not address the real problem.

This is a simple metaphor, but it’s surprising how often we respond in just this way to the symptoms of problems rather than excavating the root causes and addressing those, which often involves time, patience, learning new information and creating entirely different ways of responding and utilizing resources.

Perhaps this year we could make a different kind of New Year’s Resolution list.

  • If we have financial problems, instead of trying to figure out how to make more money, we could investigate our relationship with money.
  • If we have weight problems, instead of trying a diet, we could explore our relationship with food.
  • If we don’t get enough exercise, instead of buying an expensive piece of home equipment (which I hear make great laundry racks and/or clothing storage), we could take a look at our ability to keep our word to ourselves and our willingness (or not) to self-care.
  • If we feel disorganized and overwhelmed with our stuff, instead of buying storage space, organizing systems, or looking for a bigger house, we could simplify our lives and shed some stuff.
  • If we’re lonely and searching for romance, instead of spending time and money on dating platforms, we could strengthen our relationship with ourselves, learn how to meet our own needs, and take a look at our expectations of relationships.

I’ve always thought of problem-solving as a strength, with the emphasis on solving problems. I’m only now realizing the power of simply experiencing problems, patiently and fully, even affectionately, before racing to a solution and applying it as quickly as possible. Could there be more power in the problem than in the solution, at least in the beginning of problem-solving? That possibility makes me smile.

Playing with problems. My daily crime.

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

Recognizing Happy

So, here’s a question. What does a happy person look like? Out in the world, how do we pick out the happy ones from the sad ones? Do we look happy to other people?

This morning my partner and I sat in the sun at the breakfast table after we finished eating. We eat in front of a big window with a southern exposure. Outside the window is our bird feeder station. I had a mug of hot tea between my palms. Our big brown tabby, Oz, was stretched out on the table in the sun within touching distance, should we care to pay homage to his gleaming coat and superior self. After a luxurious stretch, during which he lengthened by six inches, his paw was in close proximity to my water. It was a coincidence, entirely innocent. Ozzy would never dream of knocking over a drink. He was merely sunbathing.

I was warm and had a stomach full of good food. I felt peaceful and content. Happy. I sat with my eyes closed and my hand on my water glass, soaking up the sun and the silent, relaxed presence of my two companions.

Izzy & Ozzy; Fall, 2020

In those moments I was consciously happy. I was not laughing, talking, taking a selfie, dressed up, made up, or sitting in an elegant, expensive home. One of the panes of glass in that window is broken from snow sliding off the roof. The table we eat at used to be a workshop table and is stained, scarred, and pitted.

One of my best friends, who is also a reader of this blog, remarked a couple of days ago that happy doesn’t look the same on everyone.

How true.

I’ve written about pseudo self before, our propensity to build a careful façade to display to the world. Everything about advertising and many aspects of social media set us up to believe toxic mimics for happiness are the real thing.

Even I, who don’t watch TV and am not on social media, couldn’t have defined happiness before I started reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., and writing this series. I knew what happiness was supposed to look like, though. It’s bright and colorful. Attractive, animated, healthy-looking, well-groomed people smile and laugh. Every relationship is obviously loving, tender, exciting. Animals and children are adorable. Food, diamonds, cars, and clothing are gorgeous and enticing.

Except the “happiness” displayed on our screens is like the romance displayed on our screens. It’s not real. It’s a seductive, carefully created fantasy, unattainable and unrealistic. It’s for-profit entertainment and manipulation. It’s a laugh track.

The ingredients of happiness are not on a screen. Or in a mirror. Or in a closet, basement, attic, garage, store, or storage unit.

We experience different intensities of feelings, and we differ in our ability and willingness to express those feelings. Someone who feels ecstatic happiness may indeed demonstrate ecstasy, but not necessarily. Some feel deeply and intensely, but do not communicate their experience to onlookers. A person who communicates rapture may not be any happier than one who expresses harmony and relaxation.

On the other hand, and social media teaches us this, some people work very hard on a happy façade but are in truth deeply unhappy.

My own experience of happiness is frequently subtle. Peace and contentment are dove grey, not neon orange.

Are we losing our ability to see and value the subtleties in life, the understated, the quiet, the neutral colors, the silence and spaces between action, stimulation, events and possessions?

Have we forgotten happiness can be found in a few humble, unextraordinary, unrecorded minutes in the sun at a scarred table with loved ones after breakfast?

If we asked the people in our lives about their perception of happiness—their own and ours—what would they say? Is there a gap between our own experience of happiness and the way others perceive us? If so, why? Is the confusion in our expression or their perception? When we long for those we love to be happy, what do we mean?

Happiness is not one size fits all. It doesn’t look the same, sound the same or feel the same for everyone. Before we decide we ourselves or others are unhappy, it’s useful to remember that. Perhaps we’re happier than we realize, even though our lives don’t look like a movie or a popular and carefully created Facebook or Instagram account.

Yellow Boots

Here in Maine we occasionally have long days of rain mixed with snow, especially this time of year. The sky is dark and sodden, pressing all the light out of the day. It’s foggy, icy, cold and wet. I have a pair of rubber-ducky yellow boots I wear on such days. They’re ridiculously bright and cheerful. I wore them into work recently, and one of my coworkers remarked on them. I told him I love them because they make me smile.

He said they made him smile, too. And he did.

My yellow boots give me happiness, and I even get to share it.

My daily crime.

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!

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Andreas Fidler on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash