I don’t like commercial television and rarely watch it, but I caught a muted ad one morning this week from the corner of my eye that intrigued me. I saw Passiton.org on the screen and looked it up.
I encourage you to go explore this site for yourself. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful videos, billboards, articles, and stories about real people. It’s positive, optimistic, and heartfelt. One of the videos, titled Caring and set to lyrics by Bryan Adams, particularly touched me.
For some time, as I go about my life, I’ve thought about the practice of love. It’s a hard subject to write about because I don’t have good language, but it’s the idea that loving and caring for the people I come into contact with is a kind of substitute for loving my, well, loved ones.
I told you the language was inadequate!
Sometimes our loved ones are dead or otherwise unavailable for a healthy relationship, or unable to accept or reciprocate our love for them. I’ve suffered decades of emotional pain over my inability to successfully communicate my love to some of the people in my life. I realize now love is a two-way street. Some of us, and I count myself among them, have a hard time accepting or receiving love, no matter how well it’s communicated.
Let’s just say the basic communication and reciprocity of love isn’t always there. We call this unrequited love, or “skinny” love. When I search the Internet, however, romantic unrequited love is the only topic I can find useful information on, and that’s not what I’m thinking about.
I have many times wondered, bitterly, what the point is of having such a loving heart, if the people I care about most are unable to receive my love.
Since I began my current job working in a rehab pool facility three years ago, I’ve been vividly aware that making positive contributions to others is in some ways a substitute for my inability to share love with the people to whom I cannot make this contribution, for whatever reason.
Sometimes I imagine a cosmic balance of giving love to others. If we’re unable to reach our closest connections with our love, we can give it to someone who is able to benefit from it. We may be no more than an acquaintance or professional in their lives, but love is love, and most of us recognize it when it’s extended, though we may not be skilled at accepting it with grace.
Perhaps, at the same time, my loved ones are receiving love they can accept and recognize from someone. Someone who substitutes for me.
When I say love, I’m not thinking about a single idea. I think of love as a container for many things: tolerance, respect, compassion, kindness, patience, presence, service.
This is not a new idea. Stephen Stills famously sang about it in “Love the One You’re With,” and Bryan Adams sings about it in video above, which opened me up to the feeling of unrequited love, the grief and anguish of it, and this substitution method of easing its pain.
I won’t amputate my ability and willingness to love, even if it’s unwanted or unwelcome in the places I most want to practice it. What I can do is step sideways, turn aside, and share it with those I come in contact with, those who can benefit from it, those who will receive it. In this way, my love becomes an offering to my loved ones, my community, myself, and the world. Everything I do, I do for you, for them, for myself. For all of us.
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
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
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
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?
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!
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.
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.
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?