Tag Archives: complexity

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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Patterns and Labels

We humans make and seek patterns in everything we do. Sometimes we’re conscious of these patterns, and often we’re not. Discerning patterns is an evolutionary advantage that’s helped us survive, as the complex web of life is filled with them. A rudimentary example is patterns of color on dangerous reptiles, plants, fish and insects that warn of toxicity.

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We organize and sort patterns into objective taxonomies and hierarchies as we learn and strive to make sense of our world, and we label them.

I’ve been thinking about labels for years, and I’ve written about them previously. Our tendency to create labels and slap them on others has become more vicious and hysterical than ever before, and I’m concerned about this entirely divisive trend.

Language is an agreed-upon set of symbols. Nouns describe specific objects or ideas. Nouns are, by their nature, exclusive. That’s why they exist. A pencil is not a door. A tree is not a river. Labels are nouns, too, but they can be sloppy and imprecise, and they’re weighted with a lot of subjectivity and emotion. If we talk about a pencil in mixed company, we’re not likely to cause a scene. If we talk about being a Republican, or a feminist, or an anti-vaxxer, we’re asking for trouble.

Many people create and use labels as social weapons in order to convey hatred and contempt rather than specific objective meaning.

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The complex system we call life on earth is infinitely complicated, and we, as parts of that system, are also complicated.

Subjective labels are superficial, a mere glimmer on the surface of a deep well. They’re all about one-stop shopping and contain the emotional maturity of name calling. They often originate with individuals or groups who seek power over others. Anyone, regardless of education, experience, or expertise, can label anyone else, and frequently do, ruining credibility, reputations, and careers. Labels are limiting and confining. They concentrate a personal attack on one perceived aspect of a human being and ignore all the rest.

Patterns are deeply embedded, often invisible at first glance, but powerful and complicated. The ability to discern and learn about patterns requires critical thinking and a careful process of objective inquiry. We need precise language to describe the many dimensions of patterns. Discerning patterns is not a personal attack, but an observation of behavior and other characteristics (our own as well as that of others) that helps us survive.

Understanding and recognizing patterns gives us the power to manage them usefully and effectively.

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Many of us are aware of uncomfortable patterns in our lives. Some are caught in a loop of choices that result in health consequences such as obesity, pain, and addiction. Others are unable to find the right job, the right place to live, or the right partner. Many of us spend a significant amount of time making the same choices, over and over, and getting the same unsatisfactory results, because we don’t know what else to do.

As we are social beings, our relationships are important, and destructive patterns involving our connections with others can be devastating. Fortunately, there are smart, observant, thoughtful people in the world who recognize behavioral patterns, create tools and use their experience and education to support and teach others how to discern and effectively manage problematic patterns.

One such person is Bill Eddy, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Family Law Specialist who has more than 32 years of experience providing therapy, mediation, and representation for clients in family court. Eddy co-founded the High Conflict Institute and has become an international resource for managing high-conflict behaviors. He’s written several books, all of which I highly recommend. In fact, his book, BIFF, is an essential handbook for life as a member of the human race.

What I like best about Eddy is that he’s not a labeler. He uses precise scientific language to describe some personality types as context and background, but the thrust of his work is not in diagnosing or labeling, and he actively encourages students and readers to refrain from doing so. His goal is to help us recognize problematic patterns of behavior and teach us how to handle them effectively, kindly, and compassionately while maintaining our own dignity and healthy boundaries.

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Power-with and win-win, in other words.

Nowhere in his work have I seen Eddy suggest we self-apply his methods, but I have my own less-than-useful patterns and character traits, and his strategies help me manage those as well as the behavior of people around me.

In Eddy’s language, high-conflict behavior patterns include consistent:

  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Unmanaged emotions
  • Extreme behavior
  • Preoccupation with blaming others

–(BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns by Bill Eddy, LCSW, ESQ.)

The beauty of Eddy’s tools is simplicity. Anyone who’s ever been hooked into an angry, defensive, escalating, and totally useless high-conflict interaction (and who hasn’t?) knows how exhausting, disheartening, and disempowering such interactions can be. Eddy’s approach is entirely different and much simpler, but it requires us to give up several juicy things.

In order to manage this behavior pattern effectively, we have to give up on winning and being right. We have to give up on taking things personally; trying to change, “help,” or control someone else; the satisfaction of personal attacks; and trying to please. We must learn to manage our own emotions, because two people, neither of whom can deal effectively with their feelings, will get nowhere. We must decide if we want to contribute to conflict or resolve it.

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In short, if we want to reclaim our personal power and manage difficult behavior patterns more effectively, we have to start with ourselves and our own behavior, feelings, and impulses.

Responsibility strikes again.

If we are stuck in a destructive relationship at work, at home, or in the community with a high-conflict personality and we feel helpless and hopeless, the first step in finding a better way is an honest assessment of what we want. If we want to continue to be a victim; if we want revenge or to freely express our frustration, rage, or contempt (as in throwing around labels); if we want to be validated or approved of; if we want to force others to see it our way, apologize, or be just, Bill Eddy has nothing to offer us.

If we’re stuck and committed to finding a better way, accepting that the person we’re dealing with has an observable, consistent pattern of high-conflict behavior and may not be interested in the same outcomes we are, and accepting responsibility for our own behavior, Eddy can show us the way back to our power and sanity.

Dealing effectively with high-conflict behavior patterns does not mean we have to be disrespectful, intolerant, or uncaring. It doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our own integrity or boundaries. It doesn’t mean we have to stop loving people. Best of all, recognizing problematic behavior doesn’t mean we give up on the whole person. Many valuable employees and community members exhibit high-conflict behavior patterns.

In fact, Eddy’s tools apply to any human interaction, as they involve brief, informative, firm and friendly scripts appropriate and effective in all contexts, whether consistently high-conflict, potentially high-conflict, or entirely friendly.

Labels create and escalate conflict rather than resolving it. Recognizing patterns and learning how to work with them can help us resolve conflict.

What would you like to do?

My daily crime.

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Meditations From the Garden

I tried hard this week to come up with a way to write about racism and hate in general, but I just couldn’t get a creative, thoughtful grasp on it. No wonder. Hatred is not creative, unless in a negative sense. How many ways can I hurt or murder someone because of my judgement about their worth? Not the kind of creativity I’m interested in.

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I’ve been sitting out on the front porch in the sun, relishing the breeze, watching the thumb-sized bumblebees plunder the lupine and the hummingbirds zoom around the feeder after a couple of hours of mulching, weeding, watering, trimming and planting. I haven’t been reading or writing, just drinking a large glass of mint and lemon iced tea and feeling happy, absorbing the peace and beauty of this day, enjoying the wind chimes and the sun on my skin.

Alongside the driveway we have a lupine bed. It wasn’t planned. It started, years ago, with one plant that now has become countless plants. There’s also echinacea, several kinds of wildflowers, and this year we put in pink poppies, two cleomes, lilies, sunflowers, and a starflower.

As it wasn’t a formally planned bed, the first clump of lupine went into a hole in the ground and grasses and other native growth mingle with the flowers. I’m building a border out of dead wood from our downed trees. The flowers have self-seeded and the bed sprawls, in no particular shape, most of it with undefined boundaries.

Yesterday, my partner and I were looking closely at the lupine, which is in full bloom.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I have learned, since I came to Maine, about holistic gardening and land management, and I’ve understood that effective gardening is not creating a concentration camp for plants. Nature is an effective gardener, and a bed like ours, organic, dynamic and without any kind of fertilizer, pesticide or other chemicals, demonstrates the diversity necessary for the health of the whole system.

As we looked closely, we found a cluster of juvenile Japanese beetles on a low, sheltered leaf, and another cluster of tiny ticks. Obviously, the bed is a good nursery. A variety of bees were present. We saw a lacewing, an excellent predator, and aphids. Yellow jackets zoomed around, along with dragonflies (another welcome predator). Immature grasshoppers were plentiful, and spiders. Several kinds of butterflies floated above the flowers.

We didn’t see slugs, ants, praying mantises, caterpillars, earwigs or ladybugs, but they’re probably all present, along with mice, shrews and perhaps a mole.

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The lupine and some of the grasses are now quite tall and thick. Other, later-blooming plants like echinacea are coming along, but not as high yet. As the lupine fade and lose height, the echinacea will come into its own. The bed is filled with wild low-growing plants, too, like clover, basil, grasses, dandelions, chamomile and violets. With any luck, there’s a grass snake or two under all that growth, and maybe a toad or a lizard in the cool, damp shade.

Milkweed grows there. When it blooms it will feed the endangered Monarch butterflies.

We don’t water the lupine bed, aside from giving the new seedlings a little drink when it hasn’t rained in a few days. We don’t cultivate, weed, or really mess with it in any way. The logs I’m using for a border are to help my partner when he’s mowing and keep the self-sowing lupine in check. Now and then we use our sharp little hand scythe to keep the tall grasses from overshadowing the seedlings.

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

Mostly, though, we just enjoy it. It’s perfect. It doesn’t need much help from us. I’m very aware that the life we are able to see, both plant and animal, is dwarfed by the life in the soil, which is full of bacteria and other microorganisms, including viruses. The bed is at the foot of a tall maple stub that was more than 200 years old when it fell a couple of years ago. I would not, for any amount of money, rototill or otherwise disturb the soil, the roots of the dead tree or the layers and layers of leaves and other vegetable matter.

I will never rototill again. The best way to build soil is to build soil with layers of organic matter, all kinds of organic matter from all kinds of animals and plants. Rototilling disrupts microorganisms, mycelium and roots binding the soil together.

Diversity is balance. Diversity invites symbiosis, “a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups.” (Oxford online Dictionary) A diverse garden is a healthy garden in which predator and prey are balanced. Diversity includes a variety of colors and textures, growing patterns and flowering times, nutritional needs and abilities. Diversity means that what we deliberately plant is just as important as native plants, otherwise known as weeds. Diversity supports the food web and the web of life.

What a concept, right? What lovely, elegant wisdom. I could never, in a million years, come up with such a complex, thriving garden as one lupine plant has created over several years at the base of a dead maple tree.

A healthy garden is filled with life and death; natural cycles and seasons; growth, blossom and decay that seeds and feeds the next cycle.

What a garden is not filled with is hatred, politics or pretence. There are no riots. There is no outrage. If one population gets out of control, either the host plant dies or the predators increase until balance is once again achieved. This life-death cycle is not personal. Viruses, insects, trees and dandelions don’t hate. They’re too busy living and reproducing or, in the case of viruses, replicating and looking for hosts.

A garden is honest, true to itself.

Dirt under my fingernails. Mosquito and black fly bites. Grubby knees. Wonder. Peace. Gratitude. Reverence for diversity. My daily crimes.

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