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 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 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.
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?
It’s no secret that many small businesses are feeling devastating impacts from coronavirus. There’s a general push to support local small businesses, which are the lifeblood of neighborhoods and communities. In rural areas, many of us are also doing our best to support local farmers.
Before the pandemic, my partner and I had a weekly breakfast date at a local diner. We enjoyed the food. We enjoyed the people, both employees and other patrons, and we often met friends there for a leisurely, friendly, old-fashioned diner breakfast. The diner is a small, family-run place, and was an important part of my community and routine.
As the pandemic swept over the country, the diner closed, and we stopped eating out altogether. We did get take-out from them a few times, but we found that the food alone did not satisfy our desire for connection and community, and it seemed a chore to make the rather lengthy round trip when we could more easily, cheaply and safely cook for ourselves at home.
As the summer wanes, conspiracy theories abound, and the election approaches, fear, frustration, hostility and division are everywhere. I heard that the diner has reopened, but I’m not comfortable eating in a restaurant right now, although I do frequently support a local sandwich shop that provides take-out, has CDC recommendations posted, and is staffed by employees with masks.
Yesterday I heard that the diner is heavily advertising the owners’ political allegiance and the employees are not wearing masks.
I felt upset by this and chewed on it yesterday and last night. My initial reaction was loss and sadness, followed quickly by the feeling that I’m being intolerant and unsupportive of my community. I took a walk at dawn this morning, listening to a couple of owls carrying on a lengthy conversation at the same time the birds were waking, and it occurred to me that community support is a two-way street.
I’ve written about reciprocity before on this blog. At the time of that writing it was a fairly new concept to me. This was no surprise, as I realized most of my relationships, past and present, were remarkable for the absence of reciprocity. It was a relief to be given language and concept for my recurring feeling of giving every bit I had to give to a relationship and getting nothing in return.
Now I recognize the lack of reciprocity in interpersonal relationships much more quickly and take steps to limit or exit from those connections.
This idea of community support, however, is a new angle on reciprocity, and it took me a while to see it.
Small businesses are valuable and it’s hard work to make a success out of them, mostly because giants like Amazon and Wal-Mart undercut them so easily. One of the things I love about living in rural communities is getting to know the artisans, farmers, and others engaged in unique and high-quality arts, crafts and food production. I’ve never owned a small business, but it seems to me if I did I’d work hard to provide my customers with the best product and experience possible. In return, I’d be grateful for those who patronized me and told others about me, as I’d want to attract all the customers I possibly could.
This is reciprocity.
As a customer, it doesn’t occur to me to wonder about the political views or underwear color of a small business owner. My interest is in the business’s product or service, not the owner’s personal choices.
I have no need or desire to control whether or not people wear masks or social distance, unless I’m at work and it’s my responsibility to do so. If I’m uncomfortable with lack of masking and social distancing out in the world, I leave rather than making a scene. I also feel no need to lead in any situation with my politics or ideology. Neither are the most important things about me.
I still patronize most of the places I visited and bought from before the coronavirus, although I go a little further out of my way now, even if it does take extra time or an extra dollar or two, to support small businesses. I have encountered some hostility and glares in various local businesses that I assume are about me masking, but nobody has said anything to me about it, and (being an adult) I know how to ignore dirty looks.
However, the diner is a different proposition. Plastering a small business with political signs and posters feels to me like a Keep Out, as their presidential pick is not mine. It feels hostile and hurtful. As I said, we aren’t in a hurry to eat in anywhere just now, but it was my intention to return to the diner and resume our weekly habit one day.
Except now I don’t feel welcome.
I also don’t feel safe. I can only assume people who refuse to mask in their business feel no need to take other precautions, and I don’t want eat food prepared and served by those who don’t follow CDC guidelines, both at work and in their private lives.
I’m sad about this. It’s hard to feel like a part of a community and then suddenly feel I don’t belong, after all. My affection for the diner, the people there, and the food is real, and I wish them all well. I thought we were friendly acquaintances and it never occurred to me that differing political views would disconnect us.
But I wasn’t responsible for the disconnection. I’ve missed the diner all these long weeks, and looked forward to the day we could resume going. I want to support this particular small business, and I feel unable to. I won’t go out into the community and bad mouth them, but I won’t be giving them my business, either, or recommending them to others.
Maybe they don’t want support from people with my politics and coronavirus concerns. Maybe their choice is to support the false equivalency of the two. Maybe we as a culture are deciding that divisiveness and politics are more important than good will and community, but that’s not and never will be my choice.
During these times and all times, we need to support one another. The best support is mutual, reciprocal. Communities need small businesses, and small local businesses need communities. I want to be a part of that, but I need some support as a customer in order to show up and buy.
My conclusion about all this is that breakfast at the diner is yet another sad loss. I’m not going to compound that by distorting my efforts to stay as healthy and safe as possible into intolerance and lack of support. Neither are true of me. Both might be true of others, but I can’t do anything about that.
Supporting businesses that support me. My daily crime.
(This is the fourth post in a series on reciprocity. See also Parts 1, 2, and 3.)
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, that 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.