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 heavily influenced by social politics and our consumer culture. Everyone knows 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 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 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, biological 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 we reject the condition 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 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 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 wiping out every tradition and good feeling, unless we make it so.
I, and I suspect many others, feel 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?
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 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 the science of positive psychology reveals 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 data indicates positive emotions can have important functions in our lives, just as negative ones do. Anger, we know, is a signal 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?
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?
For many years, I’ve been a story teller. I’ve told stories in nursing homes, schools, at seasonal events and in women’s circles. I think of stories as medicine, as guidance, as blueprints for living. Old stories from cultures around the world contain information we’ve forgotten or lost about how to live well.
Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash
It’s striking how often I share a familiar and oft-told story with an audience that suddenly turns out to be what I most need. Oral stories, if written on a page, look static and lifeless. They’re not. An oral story lives. It twists and turns and wriggles unexpectedly in the mouth. Every time I tell a story it’s a different telling than I’ve ever done before. Every time I tell a story I’m different than I was the last time I told it. Every audience is different.
I’ve discovered blogging is like that. As I blog, I think of the reader. I blog to make an external connection. As I create posts, though, I also discover deepened connection with myself. My writing reveals my truth to me, and shines a light on the places where I’m not living what I know is my truth.
Last week I posted about quitting. In essence, I gave permission to all of us to change, to grow, to seek happiness in our work and in our lives. Ever since I resigned from my job (last day will be Saturday) and wrote that post, I’ve noticed an internal feeling of rediscovery, freedom and fizzing joy.
I only worked 20 hours a week at that job, but the choice to force myself to do it, even though it didn’t make me happy or meet my needs, cast a shadow of apathy over the rest of my life. It dulled my response to my own distress. It fed all those powerful voices that tell us there’s no help for it. We have bills to pay. We have responsibilities, duties and obligations. The most sinister voice of all says this is the best we can hope for or deserve.
All of a sudden, I’m operating with new clarity, the kind of clarity that the right story at the right time brings. This week I’m acutely aware of what’s working well for me and what’s not. I feel my power to choose afresh. I’m not motivating out of fear. Somehow, fear is taking a vacation. I’m motivating out of curiosity, pleasure and the desire to actually be happy.
For me, this is a crime of immense proportions.
I want to be happy. It occurs to me this isn’t a childish pursuit. It’s the pursuit of real personal power.
I follow a blog by Dr. Sharon Blackie, who is a writer, psychologist and mythologist. I’m reading one of her books, The Long Delirious Burning Blue, which has a passionate delicacy I haven’t experienced in a new read for a long time.
Dr. Blackie recently returned to the place she calls home in Connemara, Ireland, and her last couple of blog posts are about taking a walk with her dogs on the land that she loves.
Photo by Takahiro Sakamoto on Unsplash
That’s all. Taking walks. She posts pictures of the lochs, a stream, the bog and the mountain. There are pictures of her dogs, and I imagined wet, muddy paws and soft black and white coats tangled with leaves and stems. I think these posts are among the most joyful and powerful things I’ve ever read, not because Dr. Blackie is an extraordinary scholar and writer, which she is, but because she writes as a woman who’s come home to the place she belongs after a long time away. Her delight and reverence for the land and the life it supports radiate from every word and picture.
That’s how I feel this week, but my homecoming is internal rather than external.
I’m familiar with some of my terrain. Over the years, I’ve learned some of what I am. Always, though, there have been caverns, edges and deep forest I haven’t explored. Perhaps I knew all of myself before my memory in this lifetime begins, but if so, I’ve forgotten.
Photo by Cameron Kirby on Unsplash
This week I’m a wanderer, an explorer, a solitary traveler in my own psyche. I leave my well-worn internal paths to roam under trees. I follow the sound of water. I read my own spoor and run my hands over moss-covered rocks. I hunt in vernal pools for singing frogs the size of my toes. I wade through bogs of memory, getting my feet muddy and losing my shoes.
I’ve found old, abandoned structures smelling of rot and damp where birds nest and bats cluster. I’ve stumbled upon shallow graves where, once upon a time, I discarded and abandoned parts of myself. I’ve tripped over fallen idols, are now covered in a lacy blanket of ferns, found forgotten altars and pulled mats of dead leaves out of fountains I haven’t seen in years so clear water can flow again.
I’ve found shed skins whispering and rustling with memory, nearly invisible overgrown paths, and ruts and scars from old burns, floods and landslides.
I suddenly remember the happy feeling of waking early in the morning and going straight outside. I release myself from the expectation that I’ll work well in the last third of the day, a thing I’ve never in my life been able to pull off. I listen to music I love. I read what interests and moves me. I write lists and journal entries, blog posts and edits for my book.
Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash
Like Dr. Blackie’s dogs, I follow what catches my attention. I move along scent trails, noting the passage of all my selves, spiraling from what I’ve been to what I’ll become and back again. I dance from thought to thought, from word to word, from dream to dream. I cast myself into a wider pattern of life.
It’s not that I don’t want to do anything. On the contrary, I want to do a hundred things. I want to do much more than I did when I was structuring my time and energy around my job. I can hardly wait to get out of bed and see what the day brings. I want to play outside, take care of tasks inside, read, write, watch the birds at the feeders, stretch, dance, swim, listen to music, make a list and check things off, be present in my relationships, make new friends, pursue intriguing new connections, earn money joyfully, and see how much I can want and how gloriously I can dream.
I’ve written about leaving home before, and in that post I wrote that in some counterintuitive way leaving my old external home in Colorado allowed me to begin to finally come home to myself internally and reclaim my power. I’ll never think of home solely as a one-dimensional place in the world again. Home is not just a house, not just a beloved landscape, but the place where my dearest friend, my most passionate lover and my most loyal companion reside, along with my deepest power. Home is my own wide-flung arms, my own pulse and breath, my own joy. Home is me, myself.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot that the most important things are also the simplest. There’s great power in being happy. If happy is missing, life is muted and apathetic at best. This is when the power of boredom and the power to quit come to our aid. This is when choice becomes something we must fight to reclaim as if our lives depend on it … because they do.