A frequent conversation among my coworkers at our rehab pool facility, as well as our mostly middle-aged and older patrons and patients, has to do with the unexpected places life takes us. How did we get here from there?
Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash
For some this is a bittersweet question, for others an amusing one, and for others a bewildered or even despairing one. Whatever our current reality is, none of us could have foreseen or imagined it when we were young adults.
We can all talk about dreams we’ve had, intentions, hopes, and choices we’ve made in pursuit of the life we imagined we wanted, but life itself is always a wild card. It picks us up by the scruff of our neck, sweeps us away, and casts us onto strange shores.
As I age and practice minimalism, I realize keeping my dreams flexible has never been more important. My dreams, along with everything else, change. What I longed for as a young woman is not what I want now. What I needed in midlife is not what I want as I approach my 60s. Some things I’ve thought of as merely desirable are now essential, and other things I thought I needed no longer seem important.
In some ways I like dancing with change, my own as well as external circumstances. It feels dynamic and healthy. Resilience and adaptation are strong life skills.
In other ways it’s hard, the way my needs and I change. Often, I feel my own natural change and growth are hurtful to others. I try to hold them back. I try to stop myself, make myself quiet and small so no one will be upset, including me!
In the end, though, there’s something in me that’s wild, and sure, and deeply rooted in the rightness of change. It can’t be silenced or stifled, and there’s no peace for me until I begin living true to myself once again, no matter the cost.
The costs are very high. The personal costs of living authentically have been catastrophic for me. Sometimes I feel I’ve paid with everything I ever valued.
And yet the power of living authentically, the peace of it, the satisfaction of shaping a life that really works and makes me happy … How much is too much to sacrifice for that?
For a long time, I’ve thought about balance. Financial balance. Work-life balance, which is a term so nonspecific as to be useless. Balancing time. Balancing socialization and solitude. Balancing sitting and writing with physical activity. The complex balance of give and take in relationships. Balancing needs and power.
Minimalism is about balance. Achieving a simple life demands balance, something hard to find in an overcrowded life. Practicing simplicity and working toward balance take mindfulness, which is a difficult skill to hone in our loud, distracting, manipulative and addictive consumer culture. There’s a lot of social pressure to want more and bigger, to hang on tightly to our things.
But I want less. I want less stuff, less expense, less noise (visual and otherwise), less maintenance, less complication. I want less because I want more. I want more peace, more beauty, more sustainability, more time for loved ones and the activities that are most important to me. Gardening. Animals. Walking. Writing. Playing. Spiritual practice.
I don’t want more than I need. I don’t need more than I can use, enjoy, take care of, or pay for.
I do want to accommodate change, my own, and changing circumstances around me. The simpler and easier my life is, the more space I have to welcome my own aging and wherever my life journey takes me next. I don’t make myself crazy trying to anticipate all the future possibilities, but I want to know I can live well with the resource I have and build reserves for whatever the future brings.
Ironically, it often takes resource to go from more to less. Financial resource. Time and energy resource. It takes sacrifice, in the sense of being willing to give up things valued for the sake of things even more valuable and worthy. In its own way, moving in the direction of living simply is as much work and emotional cost as the endless treadmill of more. It does have an end point, though, whereas more is never satisfied.
Last week I read a post from Joel Tefft titled ‘Abandon, Embrace‘. He suggests daily journaling (which I also highly recommend) using the writing prompts: Today I abandon ___ and today I embrace ___. This is balance in action. What is not helping? What is most important? Abandon something in order to make space for something better.
Deciding what kind of a life we want to live and working to create it is a difficult process of choice. It’s difficult because it can be so hard to tell the truth about our needs and feelings. Sometimes we have to give up on cherished dreams and hopes, come to terms with our current limitations. Our choices can affect others in hurtful ways. Sacrifice is not easy. Managing our feelings is not easy.
Choosing, as I’ve said before, involves consequences we can’t always control.
But to make choices, especially difficult ones, is to be standing in our power, as is creating an authentic life that allows us to grow deep roots and be the best and happiest we can be, for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the world.
In this age of disinformation, misinformation, and connectivity, it’s ironic that some of the most emotionally intelligent among us are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Such people have a twisted mastery of emotional intelligence; enough to successfully manipulate and recruit others behind lies, postmodernism and ideology, but not enough to use constructively.
We are evolved to be emotional creatures, and the combination of our feelings and intellect is powerful, but we must maintain a balance of both. Feelings without the tempering effect of information will often lead us astray. Intellect without feelings abandons traits that make us human, such as intuition and compassion.
Belief is built on trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something, and once we establish a belief, we think of it as part of our identity. However, true identity is not defined by our beliefs, choices, style, or preferences. Those are merely toxic mimics for a healthy identity, which evolves, changes, and expands as we learn and grow.
When influencers encourage us to mistake our beliefs for our identities, they’re wielding a powerful social tool in order to glue together communities they can manipulate. Within such communities, to question or lose confidence in a belief results in severe social sanctions intended to stifle any such challenge. Influencers work hard to control and manage both our emotions and access to information that might threaten the belief they’re selling.
Fear of being outcast effectively disables our willingness to objectively examine the beliefs our community espouses.
If we are low in emotional intelligence, our lives don’t work well. Happiness eludes us. Relationships are problematic and frequently unhealthy. We’re ignorant of our needs and thus neglect them. We become estranged from ourselves (our true identities) and lose our flexibility and resilience. We take everything personally, and fiercely protect our beliefs, no matter how damaging and illogical they are.
We stop growing and learning. We murder our curiosity and become afraid to ask questions or seek new information.
Worst of all, we are blind to the emotional manipulations of others. An appeal to our desire to heal the planet, be kind and compassionate, be tolerant and generous, pushes us into enabling the agendas of others before we’ve thoroughly researched and explored those agendas. We react to the views and criticisms of others reflexively, fearful of appearing in a bad light.
We cannot identify our power and thus fail to protect it, making it easy for others to take it away.
Many well-meaning people are duped by predators who play on their fears and/or desire to make a positive contribution to the culture and conversation. If we identify as a good person, a peaceful person, we’re deeply distressed by the accusation that we’re hateful, and will accept any kind of ideological nonsense in order to maintain our social identity. We, in turn, pass on the pressure to others. If we must believe the moon is made of green cheese in order to be accepted, others must also believe it for us to accept them.
Our lack of emotional intelligence makes our current chaos of dis- and misinformation predictable. People interested in power and control have no problem lying, and our low emotional skills make us quite vulnerable to those lies, especially when they’re presented with high emotion.
We don’t have mastery of our emotions and thus become victims.
I’m reading a book titled Controlling People, by Patricia Evans. It’s an interesting look at why some people are so controlling of others. Here’s a quote I resonated with:
“What blinds people the most to controlling behavior is the belief that the person who consistently defines them truly loves them.”
We are so often manipulated by others because we believe they have something we need. Love. Wealth. A raise or promotion. Validation. Belonging. Something.
As long as we believe anyone has something we need, we’re open to manipulation. We’ve entered the ancient archetype of prostitution. We’ll make choices based on pleasing that person in order to earn what we need.
The minute we enter into that dynamic, we’ve become disempowered, and I assure you that pleasing people never works. It always ends badly. Show me someone, no matter how beloved, who demands you please them in order to be rewarded, and I’ll show you a power predator incapable of love or being pleased.
Such people do not share power. Ever.
When you are no longer useful, you will be discarded.
Emotional intelligence empowers us to find an effective balance between feelings and information. It allows us to discard our pseudo selves and support a dynamic identity. It helps us discern the difference between someone seeking to control and disempower us with emotional appeals and someone committed to power-with and win-win, where disagreement and curiosity are not punished and we’re encouraged to think for ourselves.
Any management plan must build in the possibility of failure and reversals at every step. Allan Savory emphasizes this throughout his book, Holistic Management. No matter how carefully we define our whole and holistic context, we will always miss something and/or be ignorant of something. The only certainty in life is that it will be uncertain, at least at times. Holistic management planning is not about perfection, and it’s not a destination. It’s a dynamic practice that remains both focused and resilient.
For me, that includes planning for fatigue and discouragement, and this week in particular I’ve been reminded of that.
We’ve experienced a series of financial hits over the last six months. At the same time, I’ve been fortunate enough to pick up extra hours at work, which gives me a little more income. However, working more hours means I have less time to write and be present in my personal and private life. The pandemic ebbs, at least for the moment, but still threatens and limits us. The nation’s political stress seems to go on and on, in the headlines, on social media, and in the community.
Much of the work I do for my holistic management planning is invisible to anyone but me. The SEO and support work behind the scenes for this blog, continuing to publish weekly posts, working on my books, and continuing my search for the right editor, agent, and/or publisher are actions I take doggedly; they rarely result in any discernible (to me) effect, except an occasional rejection – and that’s when I have any response at all!
None of this produces any income … yet.
I frequently wonder what it’s all for, why the writing matters so much to me, and if this is the way I’ll spend the rest of my life.
I heard this week that an author and teacher I’ve followed for years has lymphoma. She’s been an inspiration to me, and when I heard the news I wanted to sit down and cry. My reaction made me realize how important a person we’ve never met can be, especially those we view as successes in the ways we want to succeed.
The news also reminded me that life is always changing. No matter how stuck we feel and invisible change can be, it’s there, moving us forward inch by inch.
Forward to where? I ask myself, disheartened.
Who knows? Just forward.
I won’t always feel the way I do today. Fatigue and discouragement ebb and flow, along with everything else. I’ve lived long enough to be sure of that. Savory’s approach to management planning makes sense to me for many reasons, but planning for failure is one of the biggest.
C.S. Lewis said, “Failures, repeated failures are fingerposts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”
The fact is, life is full of failure, and the gift of failure is learning. We make a choice and take an action. Things happen in response to our action. We say, well, that happened, and decide whether we like or dislike the consequences. Some choices that seemed like a great idea at the time wind up in the What Was I Thinking File of Shame. We make adjustments, make different choices, try to figure out a new approach.
When I’m feeling less blah I might even reframe rejections and this feeling of trying to lift a mountain I have no hope of moving as successes.
Not today, though. Today I’m just tired and discouraged. I’m not living a holistically managed life. The only progress I seem to be making is backward. Financially, I can’t seem to move out of reaction to proaction.
During times like these, what I hang onto is the fact that giving up is the final failure. If I stop working toward what I want, I’ll never get there. Trying to achieve goals and dreams is always going to feel like this at times. Delays and reversals are part of the process and need to be figured into our plans.
All those rejections? Part of the plan.
All those financial setbacks? Part of the plan.
This week’s post? Part of the plan.
All these sticky, messy feelings? Part of the plan.
This is my third post exploring happiness. The first and second posts are here and here.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?