Tag Archives: division

The Ingredients of Happy

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

Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

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.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Karina Vorozheeva on Unsplash

Going On From Here

I haven’t enjoyed this week much. It reminds me of the week after 09/11, when I thought I would drown in the hate and despair around me.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

I’m not on Facebook, but my partner is and I hear more than I want to about what’s going on there. I’m developing a pathological hatred of the news in any form, even as I obsessively read the Internet. I think about friends, family, acquaintances and a world full of frightening strangers with the power, strength and willingness to hurt others, including me.

I work at home as a medical transcriptionist, a fact I don’t talk about much because I respect the privacy laws in this country around medical information. My book of business is presently in Illinois, but I’ve also worked extensively in New York, Ohio and Alabama. I spend twenty-four hours a week typing dictated stories about strangers, a significant number of them experiencing physical and emotional pain and suffering from the current situation.

Here in central rural Maine, Native Americans in our community are victims of increasing hate crimes. Their people have been in this place for thousands of years.

Photo by Sue Tucker on Unsplash

It seems to me in the last week we’ve put on the table an infinite number of ways in which to divide ourselves from one another; an infinite number of ways to express hate, intolerance and blame; an infinite number of labels to weigh ourselves and others down with. None of it feels useful

I want to find ways to support what I believe in and reach out to other people. I want to do something, no matter how small, to make a difference in this, but I’m noticing something interesting about that. As soon as I communicate about some kind of action I’ve taken, someone cuts me down. I’ve been told wearing a safety pin is patronizing and indicates privilege; I’m not welcome in America; I’m going to burn in hell; and I’ve joined a hate organization (that would be MoveOn.org).

Maybe no one out there needs support, or wants to make a contribution to unity and respect, but I don’t really believe that. At any rate, I need support and I do want to make a contribution, so here are some thoughts about what would help me.

Here’s a graphic to contemplate as we go on:

Enough with the labels. We have to stop this. One thousand labels can’t define the complex creature a human being is. I maintain that what’s happening now is NOT about race, gender, religion, politics, immigration or socioeconomics. What’s happening now is about power—how we define it and understand it, how we use it and what we’ll do to gain it or overthrow it. I think the most important question to ask ourselves is if we support power-over others or power-with others. That’s really the bottom line. It’s at the heart of all the disagreements. The rest is just inflammatory and dangerous distraction.

Enough with the apocalyptic stories and predictions. The fact is nobody knows what’s going to happen now. We’re in uncharted territory politically, economically, socially and environmentally. Many people think that’s a good thing. Sure, it’s scary. The unknown always is. On the other hand, politics as usual wasn’t working very well for most of us in this country and change is an inevitable part of life. Blessing or disaster, the point is none of us know the future and we’ll all have to deal with whatever happens as best we can. Terrifying ourselves and one another with dire predictions, threats and stories won’t help anyone. Fear is terribly contagious and terribly ineffective in decision making, but it’s a useful tool for manipulation.

The best defense against fear and misinformation is to do our own research. All the people in the headlines right now are real people. They have lives, histories, Wiki pages, on-line organizations, quotes and podcasts. We can read about them. We can look at quality news organizations in other countries and what they’re reporting for a contrast to domestic news. Discerning between fact and opinion is important. We need to take responsibility for our opinions and beliefs.

It’s time to stop worrying about everyone else and clean up our own acts. Are our words and actions congruent? What do we believe, and why? What are our priorities? What kind of outcomes do we want for ourselves and our communities, however we define community?

We can’t change other people; attempts at doing so merely divide us more deeply. We must accept that not everyone agrees with us and stop wasting time in destructive argument. We don’t have to shoot one another in the head and throw scorn at those who disagree with us.  We can use our energy to work for what we believe in and allow others to do the same.

Photo by tom coe on Unsplash

We don’t have to accept an invitation to fight. We can find communities in which respectful conversation and debate take place if we want to discuss an issue. Many of us don’t feel safe verbalizing, revealing or defending our views, but everyone can vote with their presence. If we’re uncomfortable or scared in a conversation, we can leave it. We can’t stop hatred, but we don’t have to be a part of it.

We can learn to express our thoughts, feelings and opinions in a way that allows others respect and dignity. We can learn to listen. We may disagree with people, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing important to say.

We need to root out sweeping generalizations. All white people are not living a life of economic privilege! All patriots are not Christians! All Muslims are not terrorists! All blacks are not criminals! All Latinos are not undocumented immigrants! All men are not rapists! All gay people are not child molesters! All Christians are not militants! First graders think in these black and white ways, not adults. We shackle each other with these assumptions.

There’s a lot of talk about privilege right now. It’s a slippery term, and I think the perception of privilege is really in the eye of the beholder. Here’s a very interesting self-test you can take. Some of the questions will help you appreciate the difficulties many people face. In case any one wonders, my score was a 44–NOT privileged, according to this tool. Certainly very privileged in comparison to some people.

Going on from here. My daily crime.

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Jennifer Rose
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