Thinking about Happiness
I’ve been gathering my thoughts on happiness. I’ve been thinking a happiness project is a lifelong pursuit, an orientation, a process, but it’s never a fully-realized place. It’s not perfection. It’s not a permanent state. I have often had difficulty with the word “happy.” A lot of people do. Few admit to being happy, especially people who live on the East Coast of the US. To me the word happy comes with a feeling of pressure and disappointment--I should be happy, but I’m not. I used to think happiness was complacency. It sounded boring. Or it was a feeling that was fleeting, just as all feelings are. But now, I see happiness in a different way. I see it as a worthy goal to set out for yourself.
As we evolve we learn about ourselves--what our unique and universal needs are, what our individual and situational limitations are, and then we gain acceptance of those needs and limitations. We start to learn how to go about getting those needs met given the limitations we have. Of course this is an ever evolving process, but I started to feel like an adult (at age 30) when I started to think this way. This is partly what the pursuit of happiness is about. But it’s also about something more than basic needs. It’s about growth and evolution, and connection, living out your potential, not only as an individual, but as a family, a community, a society. It’s about aligning your inner life’s purpose with your outer life’s purpose (this idea comes from the book A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, a book I return to over and over.) There is real effort involved in trying to be happy. And then, sometimes all that is needed is surrender. The practice of balance is also integral to the practice of happiness. We never actually achieve perfect balance, as something is always out of balance a little bit. The idea is that we are always trying to be balanced, like a yogi practicing tree pose, making micro adjustments several times a second, trying to keep the pose. Sometimes we lose our balance and fall out of the pose, other times we become as graceful as a tree, and can even close our eyes. We do the same with our lives--sometimes I fall off my path for several years at a time, and rebalancing requires therapy and major life changes, and sometimes the balancing happens within a single day, the adjustments are small enough that no one would notice. What needs to be in balance depends on the individual, of course. But there are some universals for all of us: some combination of the physical, mental/emotional, spiritual. We all need a sense of inner and outer purpose. I realize that I can’t have it all. At once. But I can have it all spread over a lifetime. Once we accept our limitations, we can let go of our expectations, and give our attention to what’s happening right now. We can try to find balance through out a day, or we can try to find balance over a lifetime. The range of balance is up to each individual.
I also have come to believe that happiness is a choice. It has to be something you want first. It doesn’t often feel like a choice, it is so easy to feel like a victim of our situation or ourselves. I make an exception for people who suffer from severe depression, mental illness, physical illness--sometimes our faculties are too damaged or restricted to be able to make choices. However, no matter what difficulty life gives us, we still have a choice in how we react, what story we tell about ourselves and our situation. With practice, I can now start to make choices that will bring happiness (not only for me, but for the people around me). We are used to having certain thoughts or experiences that bring up certain feelings. In fact, there are patterns of synapses that fire in our brain that occur based on certain stimulus. After years of practice, our brains become trained to release certain chemicals that make us feel a certain way. Our brains are malleable, however, and we can change the patterns of how the synapses fire. It takes awareness, and effort. Once we slow down enough to notice the thoughts and reactions that cause unhappiness, we can start to feel empowered to make a change. The most powerful way to make that change, I believe, is to get out of the head. To stop thinking. A cycle of thought can be the most destructive of activities. If I notice myself thinking thoughts that cause unnecessary suffering, I turn my attention to something else, to whatever’s available to me, especially the physical realm. The quality of light in the room, the callous on my foot, my breathing, the sound of trucks driving up the hill. That momentary shift can be revolutionary, even if it only lasts a few seconds. Each time I have that shift in consciousness, my attachment to my thoughts loosens. Every shift brings a little glint of empowerment. Meditation practice has been proven to help us develop awareness, take control over negative thinking, reduce addictive cravings, as well as many other mental and physical health benefits. I believe a mindful arts practice is another way to increase awareness. It is a more active form of consciousness raising. In fact, any activity if it is done mindfully, can increase awareness. I believe mindful art making (in any form), is a particularly uplifting, and beautiful way to increase awareness.
In her book The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin (to whom I’ve sent an email about how she inspired this project) lays out some guidelines to start your own happiness project. I thought I’d try experimenting with her basic method here. First she suggests identifying what interests you and brings you joy and then what causes more difficult feelings, such as anger and remorse. I’ve been collecting lists like this in my journal for a few decades. Resolutions, what I need more of, what I need less of, goals, dreams, etc. Of course they’re always changing and shifting, but the same themes return over and over again.
She came up with many resolutions based on what she believed needed changing in her life, that she put into practice each month over the whole year. Gretchen also came up with a list of lessons she learned while becoming an adult which she calls Secrets of Adulthood. Additionally she made a list of 12 commandments that were to help her keep her resolutions. Now I think my system will be a little different, as I imagine I will add to my resolutions through out the year, as well as secrets my secrets of adulthood. My lists will evolve as I continue to do this daily project of sharing writing and images, while trying to bring more consciousness, productivity and creativity into my life. I have started my lists, but I will share them in a later post.
Here is list of books on the art and science of happiness, published on an a very interesting website Lucas just turned me onto called, Brain Pickings: “a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness.” Click the yellow star.