Tag Archives: scapegoat

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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Courage

I’ve been thinking for some time about courage.

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Oxford Online Dictionary defines courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one.”

As I explore definitions, articles, memes, and quotes about courage online, much of what I read seems superficial and uninspiring – nothing I want to write about.

As always, I did find gold. An article from Psychology Today lists characteristics of courage. My comments are in parentheses.

  • Feeling fear yet choosing to act.
  • Following your heart.
  • Persevering in the face of adversity.
  • Standing up for what is right. (Understanding that we’ll never all agree on what is right.)
  • Expanding horizons – letting go of the familiar.
  • Facing suffering with dignity and faith.

Forbes published an article entitled “10 Traits of Courageous Leaders” that also caught my eye. As far as I’m concerned, these courageous traits are not specific to leaders. Again, my comments are in parentheses.

  • Confront reality head-on. (Reality has become subjective. ‘Alternative facts’, anyone? I think of this as the willingness to see things clearly and accept the world (and others) as it is.)
  • Seek feedback and listen. (Refusing to answer questions or hear feedback is a red flag. So is the inability to shut up and listen.)
  • Say what needs to be said. (Authenticity)
  • Encourage push-back.
  • Take action on performance issues. (Ooda loop: Observe, orient, decide, act.)
  • Communicate openly and frequently. (Authenticity)
  • Lead change.
  • Make decisions and move forward. (Ooda loop again.)
  • Give credit to others. (Gratitude, appreciation, acknowledgment.)
  • Hold people (and yourself) accountable. (Integrity)

Most will agree that courage is a good thing, an attribute we want to have, an attractive quality we’d like others to see in us. The hardest part of courage, it appears at first look, is simply overcoming our fear and taking action anyway. Then everyone will admire, like, and respect us.

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From the bottom of my scarred heart, I wish that was so. Maybe it is so for others, but my experience with courage is that the people closest to me, whose opinion I’ve most cared about, have called some of the most courageous choices I’ve ever made cowardice, and I’ve paid a steep and ongoing price for those choices, even though from my perspective they were the right things to do.

Perhaps the most powerful way to think about the traits and aspects of courage listed above is to consider whether they are present or not in our own relationships, groups and communities. Most of us will pay lip service to the idea of courage, but when it comes to taking courageous action, we are severely discouraged from doing so, and we often do all we can to prevent others from doing so as well.

Let’s face it. Courage is damned inconvenient and uncomfortable. In fact, for many, it’s a frank threat.

This is a shadowy aspect of courage few talk about directly, with one major exception.

Artists.

For example, John Steinbeck wrote, in East of Eden: “An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie.” To tell the truth, make courageous choices out of that truth, and be invalidated and/or disbelieved by those close to us is a terrible kind of pain. When others call our courage selfishness, cowardice, malevolence, irresponsibility or hysteria, relationships shatter.

Then I found this poem by Mary Oliver, one of my favorite writers:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
Kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

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It’s one thing to be a member of an in-group that provides support as we make choices. It’s a whole other thing to be cast out, scapegoated, or tribally shamed because others do not accept or believe in our fears, dreams, and authenticity, and thus cannot appreciate our courage.

Courage, I find, takes enormous courage.

As I contemplate courage, my relationship to it, and these points, two aspects stand out: The terrible loneliness of courage, and how subjective it is.

Fear is, of course, subjective, too. This came home to me particularly this week as I had a conversation with a young student about concerns and plans for schools reopening. I realized afresh, during our brief interaction, that we all fear things in the coming months. Some are afraid they’ll be forced to take a vaccine for coronavirus in order to attend school, or forced to wear a mask all day. Others fear equally there will be no vaccine, at least not a safe and effective one, and students won’t wear masks.

To be human is to know fear. We all have that in common. I wish we could stay rooted in that commonality and work together, but instead most people take it one step farther and fight about which fear is real and legitimate; not a successful strategy for problem-solving.

There’s an old proverb: “Fear and courage are brothers.” Most of us understand that courage can’t exist without fear. This is an aspect of courage that’s heavily underlined as I research. It doesn’t help us much now, though, when we fear so many different, if not opposite, things.

If fear is subjective, then courage must be, too. Right now we see a mad scramble as different groups work to legitimize their fears and invalidate those of others. Contempt, violence and broken relationships are the result, and we wind up more thoroughly divided than we started.

Courage, then, becomes something we each define for ourselves, rather than a concept we all agree on.

Because our culture has such low emotional intelligence, and fear is such a loaded thing to talk about honestly, the idea of courage becomes equally difficult to address and remains nebulous and elusive, a thing in the shadows.

Who would have thought how complicated courage is?

I have no grand conclusions. What I will say is that thinking about courage has softened some of my certainty that I can recognize and appreciate it in those around me. What do I know of what lies in the hidden places of others? I’m also reminded that, at the end of the day, the best friend and support we have is ourselves. Nobody can walk in our shoes but us, and that means nobody has access to the full truth of our experience, our fear, or the fullness of our courage. Our own love and approval may be all we get, and that needs to be enough.

Practicing courage, in spite of the price. My daily crime.

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Obedience

A reader commented on my last post, asking me what I thought about obedience. What a great question!

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According to Online Oxford Dictionary, obedience is “compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority.”

Before we continue, let me make clear that this is not a religious discussion. I know obedience is an important idea in a religious context, and I respect that many people of faith have specific expectations about obedience as it pertains to their belief system, whatever that may be. I’m not a religious scholar, nor do I follow any formal religious framework, so I don’t feel capable of exploring that aspect of obedience.

However, the concept of obedience is everywhere because we are social creatures and naturally form ourselves into groups. Where there are groups there are power dynamics, and, for me, obedience is about power.

Power, by the way, is not love. It’s important to be clear about that.

Obedience is a timely topic, because the coronavirus crisis has changed and limited our lives in many ways, whether we agree with the necessity for masks, social distancing, lockdowns and quarantines or not.

The choice to be obedient hinges on our willingness to recognize authority. Authority is “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” I freely admit to being wary of authority, because it’s often about power-over, and that kind of dynamic takes away or limits choice.

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How do we determine the legitimacy of authority, and how do we agree on whose authority we will follow?

These are vital questions, because if we don’t trust or respect the authority giving orders and making decisions, we are less likely to be obedient.

People claim authority for all sorts of reasons, including their biological sex, the color of their skin, their age, their social position, their wealth, their education and experience, their size and strength, their religious beliefs, and their personal sense of entitlement. Some pathetically impotent people believe their willingness to intimidate or hurt another gives them authority.

Psychologically speaking, some people are better wired for obedience than others, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Nor do I view the willingness to be disobedient as necessarily negative or positive. It seems to me we need the ability to practice both in order to reclaim a vital, resilient culture.

Obedience, like faith, tolerance, respect and so many other intangible ideas, needs limits and boundaries, which means we must stay in our own personal power when we deal with authority. Mindless, blind obedience (or disobedience) is a slippery slope. An authority that cannot tolerate questions, controls information and accepts no limits is a problem.

Some people feel most comfortable with someone else in power, making decisions, mandating behavior, and keeping everything cut and dried. They keep the trains running on time and don’t worry about what’s loaded in them or where the trains are going. They do well in schools, big businesses and the military, any context with clear operating procedures and chains of command. They look to their peers and popular culture, like memes, movies and social media, to shape their opinions, tastes and in-groups. They are content to be led and influenced and often welcome authority with open arms. As long as the authority they bow to is competent and benign, all goes well.

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However, authority is power, and power attracts corruption and the corruptible. Cluster B personalities are everywhere, in family systems, in religious organizations, in businesses and schools, in the military and in politics. They think they’re more important than anyone else. They think they can do whatever they want whenever they want because they’re special. They operate strictly out of self-interest and are without empathy or interest in anyone else’s well-being. They reject expert advice and collaboration, data, and education. They always have to win and be right, and must maintain their sense of superiority and control.

Such people are catastrophic authorities and don’t deserve to be in power or command obedience, but in order to discern between benign and malign authority, we must be willing to see clearly; educate ourselves about social power dynamics; research, explore and think for ourselves; and have the courage to rebel and resist. We must learn to manage our power of consent, which includes being able to freely and firmly say no or yes, and be willing to shoulder full responsibility for our actions. If we don’t do these things, we can’t recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing, and we’ll be deselected.

Obedience is a dance with choice and consequences. I am frequently disobedient in one way or another, and I accept responsibility for the consequences of my choices. Make no mistake, consequences for social disobedience can be extremely harsh. Tribal shaming, scapegoating, silencing and chronic long-term shaming and blaming are devastating to deal with and leave permanent scars.

Institutional disobedience can be punished by things like jail time, fines, getting fired or getting kicked out of businesses and venues.

Refusing to follow CDC and expert medical guidelines right now puts everyone at higher risk for illness and death, and will further destabilize the economy, the food supply, the medical system, our country, and our world.

Many methods of enforcing obedience are possible only in a power-over dynamic. The person claiming authority is in a position to withhold benefits like money, position, power or even love. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world are masters at this kind of exploitation, and it works well as long as the victim believes the authority has something they need and will make a deal.

Again, this harks back to personal power. If we are healthy enough to be self-sufficient, independent and confident of our abilities, if we love and respect ourselves and refuse to negotiate our integrity, we’re less dependent on the power of others. If we recognize malign, incompetent authorities for what they are, we’re less likely to become their victims.

I frequently choose to obey or comply with authority. It just depends on the context and the nature of the authority handing out the orders.

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When I do a Google search on obedience, I find memes that imply obedience equals safety. I don’t believe that for a single second. Obedience, in my life, has never meant safety. Self-reliance has been far safer. Equating safety with obedience is an authoritarian tactic that keeps people in line. I wear a mask in public right now, per CDC guidelines, because I believe it to be a sensible choice for myself and others. It may help me avoid COVID-19, and it may help prevent me passing it to others. It does not guarantee anyone’s safety. It’s no one’s responsibility but my own to keep myself safe.

In the end, my greatest obedience is to myself and my own integrity. I trust my common sense, empathy, and wisdom. I don’t put myself in a position of dependence on others. I’m rigorous in evaluating sources of news, information and guidance, and I’m happy to submit to such authorities, not because they demand or expect it, but because I choose to.

Choosing obedience. Or not. My daily crime.

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