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?
I’ve been rereading James Herriot, who was a Yorkshire veterinarian. It’s been a long time since I last read him. His books are filled with love, affection and humor for the animals and people he spent his life with, but there’s another thread running vividly through all his books, a thread of place. He loved Yorkshire, the hills, moors and Dales, the little towns, the seasons and remote old stone farms, walls and buildings. Every page communicates his gratitude and contentment with his life and the place he worked. He and his wife raised two children. He worked all hours, and it was hard work. He was qualified before antibiotics and what we think of as modern medicine. He made very little money, but he was rich in love and contentment.
Dr. Herriot knew how to live deeply. One of his greatest joys was to pull over during his rounds and sit in the heather with his dog, drinking in the air, the view and the silence.
As I’ve been reading Herriot, the Fourth of July holiday has come and gone. I’ve never liked it. I hate noise and crowds. Fireworks are terrifying for many animals, both domestic and wild. They’re also dangerous and a fire risk. My idea of a really good Fourth is a nice, drenching three-day rain during which I stay peacefully at home.
This year, in addition to the usual associations, we have a pandemic. Each of the holidays this summer seem to be dividing the country more and more painfully, and all the hype and noise around escalating infection rates, distortions, denials, lies, economic concerns and travel concerns made me feel particularly anxious and miserable this year.
My Be Still Now practice has developed nicely. I’ve done it every morning for more than a month and it’s become a useful and enjoyable habit. It occurred to me, as I was sitting over the holiday weekend, that during this time I have an experience of depth. As I breathe and watch my thoughts move across my consciousness like clouds across the sky, I sink down to another kind of being, below the sound of boats, campers and ATVs passing the house, below my agonized empathy for animals, below my fear of fire, and below my general anxiety about the pandemic.
In the space of sitting, I move beyond and beneath clock, calendar, distraction, and compulsion. There is only the peace of breath, sun and rain, birdsong, wind, growing things, and the cycles and seasons of this place and my life. I feel peaceful and content. There’s nowhere I need to go and nothing I need to do. It’s all right here, right now.
We all have access to this deep life, but it seems the modern world conspires to keep us away from it. We are assaulted by so much noise, so much seductive glitter and shine, so much chaos and so many voices. Clocks, calendars and screens rule our lives, as do the numbers in our bank accounts and on our bills and credit cards. We are completely caught up in short-term, surface activity.
To live deep is to remember geologic time and rediscover patience and perspective. To live deep is to climb into the mossy throat of an old well, filled with sweet water that knows ferns and frogs and underground springs. Living deeply takes us to the roots of things, the quiet musk of earth, mycelium, mineral and microorganism. We enter the endurance of bones and seeds, the long memory of stone.
Most of all, living deeply takes me below my thoughts and into my feelings. In that deep space I find all the women and children I have been and all the wounds I’ve neglected. Without thoughts attached to them, my feelings are intense, yet simple. I discover an affection and empathy for my fears, old and new. I gain intuitive understanding and insight into my behavior and choices.
I meet myself in the depths, my most primal, innocent, wise self. I put my arms around myself, kiss my own shoulders. Gratitude wells in me, along with comfort and love. Creativity and inspiration blossom. I rest.
This deep time anchors my day. I usually sit for less than an hour. Even 20 minutes of retreat below the surface agitations of life provide me with balance and peace. Living deeply prevents me from speeding and helps me control my compulsions. It helps me stay conscious as I make choices about how much media I allow into my life, how much distraction, and how much noise. It opens me to the simple joys of working in the garden, sitting in the sun, watching the trees move in the wind, listening to the birds, and playing with our two kittens.
James Herriot had fears, inadequacies and troubles, just as we all do. He knew a thing I’m only just learning, though, and that is the skill of downing tools and simply being, welcoming the joy of uncomplicated presence and feeling gratitude for the experience of life in all its magic and mystery.
The meaning and experience of life is not on a screen, on a calendar or clock, or in dollars and cents. Those are but glimmers on the water, the topmost leaves on a tree, a passing cloud, ephemeral and only meaningful because we make them so.
The real stuff of life is slow, deep, quiet and timeless. We carry it always within us, but no amount of doing or having can unlock it. The key is being, just that.
This morning we took our two old cars into our mechanic. They both need some routine maintenance, and this seems like a good time to take care of it. I saw a poster on a telephone pole in town offering a reward for information about a lost cat, and I felt sad for the family, searching and grieving for their missing pet.
I imagined, for a minute, posters on every fence, pole and bulletin board in the world, each one imploring for the return of our lost lives, not only those who have lost their lives due to this pandemic, but the “normal” lives we’ve all lost. Is anyone, anywhere, untouched by the coronavirus?
It’s slowly dawning on me that normal is gone.
Normal was different for each of us, but it certainly included jobs, schedules and income. It included being able to get our teeth cleaned, our hair cut, and routine healthcare appointments. Normal was an evening out at a bar, restaurant or the movies. Normal was travel plans and vacations, day care and school years, community and family celebrations and events. Normal was our sense of predictability and security.
Change is always with us, and it’s continued to flow through our lives during the last three or four months, but I’m no longer feeling as though we’ve simply paused for a while before returning to what was.
In mid-March, one day I was at work as usual looking at the headlines during a break and worrying about coronavirus, and just a few days later we were shut down. We knew something catastrophic was happening, and we knew it was one of the biggest events we’d ever experienced, but we couldn’t have anticipated all that’s happened since then. We didn’t know, in those last days, they were the last days of that normal. There wasn’t time to say goodbye, or have a sense of closure, or wish people well.
I’m not even trying to anticipate what might happen in the next few months, but I’m quite sure “normal” will be absent.
During the shutdown at the rehab center pool where I work (worked?), the powers-that-be decided to renovate. The money had been earmarked before the pandemic, and as we were having to close anyway, I suppose they thought it was a good time to do it.
I understand the logic, but a three-week renovation project is now in its twelfth week or so, and there’s a long way to go. Supply chains are disrupted. Shipping and delivery are slowed. Everything is in chaos, including the contracting company.
We’re longing to go back to work and resume some sort of normalcy, but the facility is not ready, and we don’t know when it will be ready. When it is ready, will anyone come to use the pool? With so many out of work and losing their insurance, will we have patients? Will we be able to open to the public? Will we be able to open the locker rooms, which are presently gutted and nothing but construction zones? Will any of us be able to work normal hours, and if not, how will we manage economically?
Will we follow the rest of the country, and open only to close again as the virus surges?
And those are only the coronavirus questions. What about the November election and rising political and social tensions and violence? What about accelerating climate change? What about the collapsing economy, education system, post office, and healthcare system?
What about our failing democracy?
Now and then I wonder if I’m sitting in a movie theater watching a big screen apocalypse thriller, maybe starring Will Smith or Matt Damon. A terrible natural event, an evil AI, or a malignant genius wipes out most of the human race, but approximately two hours of thrilling heroism, special effects and against-all-odds story line save the day.
That’s how we think the story should go. Tight plotting, a clear goal and lots of stunts. An unambiguous beginning and end. Roll credits, bring up the lights, everyone comes back to the real, normal world and gropes for their belongings, feeling satisfied.
It plays better than it lives, doesn’t it?
I’m not in despair. The old “normal” was good for a few people, but for most of us it was inadequate education, inaccessible and overpriced healthcare, and increasing pressure and manipulation by the Overlords of consumerism. For many, business as usual meant institutionalized racism, sexism, and ageism. Business as usual was destroying the planet. Many of us had no part in the “thriving” economy and very little hope of financial security. Those are not the things I grieve for.
I miss working. Yes, I get unemployment, but frankly, I’d rather work. I miss my sense of contribution to my community. I miss teaching. I miss swimming. I miss earning a paycheck and feeling financially independent. I miss my team and our work, play and training together.
Most of all, I miss the feeling of day-to-day security. I never worried about food shortages, or how many people were in the store, or how close I was standing to someone else. I thought frequently about family and loved ones who are far away, but I didn’t wonder every day about how they’re doing, if they’re taking care, if they’re well. I could count on my weekly schedule at work. I could look forward to eating out now and then, getting a massage, or catching a movie.
The good old days. About twelve weeks ago.
We’re not going to go back. We can only go forward. The world has changed. We’ve all changed. Perhaps some of the current chaos will create a better “normal,” more just, more equitable, kinder. Perhaps we’re remembering we’re social creatures who do best in small, cooperative communities. Perhaps we’re remembering what’s really important in life and thus reducing the stranglehold of consumerism. Perhaps we’re rediscovering our humanity.
Now, wouldn’t that be something?
I wish I’d had time to understand what was happening and say goodbye to it all, but that’s life, isn’t it? I’m only just now really getting my head around the fact that we’ve left the old world and ways behind. Even if the coronavirus is somehow magically eradicated, I don’t think we can resume the old “normal.” Too much has changed, and too many feelings have been felt. Too many eyes have been opened, too much has been said, and we’ve all seen others and been seen more nakedly than ever before. Mask on, mask off.
We’re seeing people masked on the streets, in the stores and in workplaces. At the same time, I’m noticing how effectively coronavirus has stripped away the pseudo self of so many people.
Masks on. Masks off.
Pseudo self is a survival mask, often developed in childhood from the feeling that who we really are is unlovable. Some people create a false persona for power and control. Think of the wolf pretending to be Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.
We all have a pseudo self to some degree. Most of us can deal with difficult family members, coworkers and others with a modicum of manners, tolerance and kindness most of the time. We can cooperate and collaborate when required. We can be professional. Hopefully, we also know how to be real with those we trust and love; how to be angry, how to be sad, how to let off steam.
The difficulty with pseudo self occurs when we lose touch with who we really are and our mask becomes permanent rather than something we choose to take off and put on. Creating a pseudo self and retreating behind it permanently means we’re never properly seen, never properly known, never properly connected.
Masks on. Masks off.
Coronavirus is stripping away pseudo selves and revealing the truth of who we are, how we operate, what our hidden agendas and priorities are, our paranoia, our fear, our anxiety and compulsivity, our rage, our unfinished business and our relationships with money and authority. We are distracted and distressed, and our nice, shiny, well-behaved and civilized pseudo selves are slipping, even as we don masks.
This reveal is fascinating, and it’s everywhere, in our homes and workplaces, in our communities and on social media and TV. Especially on TV. Blame games. Competition rather than cooperation. Gaslighting. Ignorance on display. Lies. Distortions. Conspiracy theories. Disinformation. Paranoia. Ill-concealed fear.
You just can’t fix stupid, and stupid is what I’m seeing behind quite a few pseudo selves.
Masks on. Masks off.
Our leaders seem to feel we’ve reached a Y in the road. Are we more interested in political power and the economy, or are we more interested in saving lives? Some turn one way. Some turn another way. Right now, that stark (and false) choice is not hidden behind distractions and polished bombast. It’s right out there in front of us in every update and news conference.
Are we a global people who cooperate to save lives, or are we separate, competitive political entities who try to outbid one another for inadequate resources? Are we human beings concerned with dignity, quality of life and compassion, or are we robotic consumers addicted to a bloated, unsustainable capitalistic system? Do we care more about the lives of those around us or our own entitlements?
Do we share power, or do we grab all we can get during this crisis?
Masks on. Masks off.
I wonder if we’ll ever fully be able to grasp the ways in which this pandemic will reshuffle our personal decks. What are we learning about our families, friends, neighbors, coworkers and leaders? What are we learning about ourselves, the ways we deal with stress and anxiety, our resilience and adaptability, our priorities and concerns? What are we learning about what really matters to us and to those around us?
How will enforced working from home and non-traditional education change the way businesses and education work when the pandemic is over? How much bigger will we individually become as so many of us learn we are not our work? Coronavirus is giving us a crash course in being rather than doing or having. How many will graduate from this experience with a stronger, more peaceful sense of self? How many will fail to graduate?
Unexpected, stressful times like these bring out the real in us. We can’t prepare for such times or see them coming. We can’t pretend our way through them. Our choices and beliefs are visible to others. We are revealed. We are seen. And so are they.
Masks on. Masks off.
The masks we wear for protection against the coronavirus conceal much of the lovely expression of the face. As I interact with masked people, I feel bereft and disconnected, unable to fully communicate and connect. I miss seeing the faces of my friends, colleagues and the strangers around me. Something about masks feels dehumanizing and isolating.
Still, I think this is another gift of coronavirus, this stripping away of all the nice-nice pretty-pretty pretense. I’ve always loved real, my own and the real of others. I suppose pseudo self has a useful place in a social context, but only a limited useful place. The ability to be authentic, to my mind, is far more useful and productive. Coronavirus is a great leveler. It doesn’t care about our clothes, our hair, our makeup, our bank account, our title or position, or our presentation in general. It doesn’t care about our politics or whether or not we believe it’s real. It doesn’t give a damn about the economy. All we are is a potential place in which to thrive and multiply. Our pseudo selves cannot shield us, hide us or help us survive this virus.
This pandemic is a fact. It’s real. It’s happening. Masks on or masks off, our authentic selves are showing. I see you, and you can see me.
Nice to know you. Be well. Stay safe. Raincheck on a hug or handshake.
My emotions are running free and fierce these days. There’s the tumult and chaos outside the small bubble of my life and my attic aerie, and at the same time there are singing threads of gold weaving through the much darker pattern of fear, uncertainty and loss. My gaze shifts from gold to darkness when I raise my eyes from my own step-by-step choices and routine.
I have a strange thought that coronavirus has brought with it many gifts.
I came across this article about nurturing creativity in our children, and enjoyed the metaphor of meeting the flame of creativity with a bucket of cold water or a breath of wind. Although the author here is talking specifically about children, it seems to me we’re witnessing a flowering of creativity from people of all ages on every side.
I’ve long insisted creativity belongs to everyone. Since the dawn of our species, we’ve been artists, makers, dancers, drummers and innovators of symbols in order to create language. One of the most destructive aspects of a rampant capitalistic culture is that we are discouraged from innovating for ourselves and encouraged to go out and buy something someone else (someone qualified to do so) has designed and produced. The cultural belief is if we can’t sell what we make for money, our creativity and innovation are worthless. Refer again to the article about writing’s “dirty secret” in one of my recent posts.
Most of us can’t possibly compete with the unlimited fame and resources of the rich and influential to advertise and promote our product, and we don’t try, under normal circumstances. We know who’s in charge. We know who has the powerful connections and the money. It’s not us.
Our present circumstances are not normal. I am delighted and awed to see, every day, hundreds (at least) of people are rediscovering or perhaps discovering for the first time their flexibility, their resilience, their creativity and their innovation.
It’s notable for every article I find online about making DIY facemasks there’s an article saying they’re not good enough, they won’t work, and citing all the reasons why it’s either a bad idea or a pointless one. I have yet to see the “it’s not patriotic” spin, but doubtless it will come. Cold water on creativity, indeed.
I rejoice to see people are making facemasks anyway! Facemasks in layers. Facemasks with makeshift filters. Facemasks that can be washed and reused. Not facemasks as a magic bullet, but to help remind us not to touch our faces and to protect others from our droplets, since it appears many of us may be asymptomatic and infected.
After all, a non-commercial facemask isn’t going to make anything worse, and it might provide some protection for us and those around us, so why not? We do not currently have the personal protective equipment we need in this country to battle this pandemic. That’s a fact. Ask any doctor, technician or nurse in a hospital. At the hospital I work in we are strictly rationing masks and we haven’t admitted a single COVID-19 patient. Yet.
I observe with interest many of the innovators out there are not leaders (I use that term advisedly). They’re regular people, out of work, frightened, wondering what will happen next, trying to care for and protect their families and communities. They don’t have connections. They’re not rich or famous (or infamous). Just people. Marvelous, adaptable, curious, creative people are making masks, hand sanitizer, face shields, ventilators, etc., etc. Virtual concerts. Virtual birthday parties and get togethers. Hand written letters of appreciation and signs held up outside windows for quarantined loved ones. Birthday parades of neighborhood cars.
I had a boss once who was competent, intelligent, experienced and organized. I appreciated her in many ways. Then, one day, something tragic and sudden happened at work, and she did not know what to do. She was unable to take a leadership role. She fell apart right in front of me. There was nothing in our standard operating procedures, nothing in our binders and protocols, addressing the situation. She was undone because there were no guidelines and she was strictly a by-the-book person. She was not flexible or creative.
It so happened that the event that occurred was something I had a lot of experience with; a colleague and I took charge of the crisis so other lives would not be lost. It was a hideous few hours, but we contained the situation and dealt with it. It left us all deeply scarred.
I was reprimanded later for taking control, for not “staying in my place” as a subordinate, for daring to direct those ostensibly in charge during the crisis!
This reminded me of the value and power in being able to adjust, adapt, think on one’s feet, and throw away (at least temporarily) the rule book.
Sometimes our leaders are unable to lead. Sometimes the rule books give us no useful guidance.
Sometimes we just have to proceed with our own experience and good sense and do the best we can, knowing others might actively discourage us from doing so!
But Frodo Baggins (unexpected hero and leader) does live, and he’s just a regular person like you and me. Sometimes we get no permission, no validation and no support for our innovation and creativity, because many people are better at throwing buckets of cold water around than they are at gently fanning the flame of an idea or plan.
Those who can only operate inside the box are naturally threatened and outraged by those of us who like to color outside the lines, but the ability and willingness to color outside the lines is what is going to get us through these times, as it got us through the World Wars, 911 and other terrible events. We are faced now with uncertainty, shortages, financial collapse and a crisis threatening such monoliths as public education and public health, not to mention our taken-for-granted personal freedoms.
Yet this tiny crowned virus is reminding us what it means to be human and encouraging us to reclaim powerful parts of our humanity. We are makers, creators. We were that a long, long time before we were consumers. We may be in the middle of personal and institutional financial collapse, but we can still make and create, and we are. We are. We are beautiful.