Sooner or later we all stumble over questions of happiness. What exactly is it? What makes us happy? Why is it so elusive? Usually, when things are going well, we tend to take it for granted; when things are not going so well, we begin our research and analysis, and design our own happiness projects.
As many people, I didn’t have much time to think about happiness, despite being acutely aware of its “fickleness” until a few months ago a very dear and important friend asked me “Are you happy?” in a way that made me want to rethink my somewhat pathetic answer: “Sometimes,” or even worse, “when I’m not reminded of the things that make me unhappy.” I instantly knew that I never really thought about it, and that I needed to come up with a better answer.
Without fully realizing it, this question resonated and lingered in the back of my mind as I went about my daily busy-ness, but every time I stepped into a book store (and I was lucky to be in several amazing ones over the last few months, in Victoria’s Russell Books, in Portland’s Powell’s Bookstore, Montreal’s Paragraphe) I was subconsciously drawn to happiness research. Once I started reading up on it, a mini-library appeared on my book shelf – some recommended to me by friends, some by amazon, some cross-listed in other books. As every research-obsessed grad student, writer, and nerd knows, this tends to happen when you have something stuck in your mind, consciously or not. It goes hand in hand with the inability to stop highlighting what-ever interesting passage I come across, even if it happens to be in Vanity Fair magazine.
Here is what I found (in no particular order) and what ended up on my book shelf:
- Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love (2006)
- Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project (2009)
- The Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness (1998)
- Malcolm Gladwell, Blink (2005)
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990)
- David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish (2006)
And here are some of the insights I picked up (not just over the last few months):
1. Happiness is not something bestowed on us (Csikszentmihalyi, p.2), but can be achieved by training the mind (Dalai Lama, p.3), something that has to be cultivated (consciously and actively), and there are many helpful guides and inspirations that help us develop that skill . Moreover, happiness and unhappiness are not mutually exclusive and can, and often do, exist simultaneously (Rubin, p.65).
Peace of mind or a calm state of mind is rooted in affection and compassion. (Dalai Lama, p.15)
2. Happiness does indeed come from within, pardon the cliché. It’s a state of mind that can be actively chosen because, and this is the new part, we can and have to learn to choose our thoughts (Gilbert, p.178). A wise friend told me recently over dinner, when we talked about dissertation topics and my interest in identity studies: “You are not your thoughts and feelings!” I almost dropped my fork. Why didn’t anyone tell me this before? In fact, why did I spend so many years identifying with the Cartesian maxim: cogito ergo sum?
“Nothing,” wrote Tolstoy, “can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.” (Rubin, p.266)
3. Everything becomes easier and bearable when we create a safe critical distance (detachment) in our perspective, especially towards ourselves, our work, our feelings and thoughts. In a TED Talks lecture, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about creating a distance between ourselves (our sense of identity) and our work. The Romantic Project of tying the artist to his or her art as the sole creative genius (as opposed to the classical belief in inspiration) was one of the most unhealthy psychological burdens western culture has bestowed on us. By identifying too much with our work/art/interactions with others, our sense of self is easily compromised, shattered, shaken. We begin to feel as if we lose ourselves and no longer know or understand ourselves, or what we want. Moreover, we allow outside influences to affect or shake our sense of self, which leads to issues of self-esteem, feelings of insecurity, trust issues. Critical distance (a conscious stepping outside ourselves, if you will) allows us to recognize our own core self, the stable, calm, wise presence that has its core set of values and beliefs, the self that has existed within us all along and is there to guide us when no one and nothing else can (Gilbert, p.329). Critical distance allows us to disarm any conflict situation by recognizing the ironies, paradoxes, misunderstandings, and often even the humour in our interactions with others. At the end of his philosophical novel, Steppenwolf (1927), Hermann Hesse comes to a similar conclusion: laughter is the key. In order to laugh at ourselves or at the situation we are in, we have to distance ourselves from it or our feelings and thoughts. It also goes both ways: once we distance ourselves, we can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of things.
I am terrified that I will never really pull my life together. In response, somewhere from within me, rises a now-familiar presence, offering me all the certainties I have always wished another person would say to me when I was troubled. This is what I find myself writing to myself on the page: I’m here. I love you. I don’t care if you need to stay up crying all night long, I will stay with you. (Gilbert, p.54)
I think about the woman I have become lately, about the life that I am now living, and about how much I always wanted to be this person and live this life, liberated from the farce of pretending to be anyone other than myself. I think of everything I endured before getting here and wonder if it was me – I mean, this happy and balanced me, who is now dozing on the deck of this small Indonesian fishing boat – who pulled the other, younger, more confused and more struggling me forward during all those hard years. The younger me was the acorn full of potential, but it was the older me, the already-existent oak, who was saying the whole time: “Yes – grow! Change! Evolve! Come and meet me here, where I already exist in wholeness and maturity! I need you to grow into me!” And maybe it was this present and fully actualized me who was hovering four years ago over that young married sobbing girl on the bathroom floor, and maybe it was this me who whispered lovingly into that desperate girl’s ear, “Go back to bed, Liz…” Knowing already that everything would be OK, that everything would eventually bring us together here. Right here, right to this moment. Where I was always waiting in peace and contentment, always waiting for her to arrive and join me. (Gilbert, p.329)
4. Related to that: meditation and yoga is for many a key to happiness precisely for this reason: by practising transcendence of the mind, the unity of the mind and body, we achieve that necessary distance from ourselves and find peace of mind, and if we are lucky, we tap into pure unconscious creativity and inspiration (what David Lynch calls the “Unified Field,” p.1). I have never managed to meditate, tame, calm, or transcend my racing mind, and my favorite part of (hot) yoga is the lying on the floor before and after the practice, but I do see the value of the practice and especially the need to achieve that state of peace and creative inspiration.
Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper…. Little fish swim on the surface, but the big ones swim down below. If you can expand the container you’re fishing in – your consciousness – you can catch bigger fish. Here’s how it works: Inside every human being is an ocean of pure, vibrant consciousness. When you “transcend” in Transcendental Meditation, you dive down into that ocean of pure consciousness. You splash into it. And it’s bliss. You can vibrate with this bliss. Experiencing pure consciousness enlivens it, expands it. It starts to unfold and grow. (Lynch, p.1, 27)
5. Also related to that: helping others has the same positive effect. By focusing our minds on improving the lives of others (whether by taking care of our families and loved ones, by working for the local or global community, building schools and hospitals in developing countries, or simply helping a friend in need), we transcend ourselves (our egos) and find a sense of fulfilment and peace that we never find by worrying about ourselves.
I remember talking to a friend whose parents had been very involved in the civil rights movement. “They always said,” he told me, “that you have to do that kind of work for yourself. If you do it for other people, you end up wanting them to acknowledge it and to be grateful and to give you credit. If you do it for yourself, you don’t expect other people to react in a particular way.” (Rubin, p.46)
I look at any human being from a more positive angle; I try to look for their positive aspects. This attitude immediately creates a feeling of affinity, a kind of connectedness. (Dalai Lama, p.52)
It is our suffering that is the most basic element that we share with others, the factor that unifies us with all living creatures. (Dalai Lama, p. 177)
Moreover, I have boundary issues with men. Or maybe that’s not fair to say. To have issues with boundaries, one must have boundaries in the first place, right? But I disappear into the person I love. I am the permeable membrane. If I love you, you can have everything. You can have my time, my devotion, my ass, my money, my family, my dog, my dog’s money, my dog’s time – everything. If I love you, I will carry for you all your pain, I will assume for you all your debts (in every definition of the word), I will protect you from your own insecurity, I will project upon you all sorts of good qualities that you have never actually cultivated in yourself and I will buy Christmas presents for your entire family. I will give you the sun and the rain, and if they are not available, I will give you a sun check and a rain check. I will give you all this and more, until I get so exhausted and depleted that the only way I can recover my energy is by becoming infatuated with someone else. (Gilbert, p.65)
6. Another overused, but still useful cliché: we cannot change the others, we can only change ourselves (Rubin, p.40). There is so much value placed on being in control of our lives and destinies that we cannot help but being raised to be control freaks. This obsessive-compulsiveness forces us to treat many people in our lives as functionary enablers or facilitators to the great spectacle that is our existence. We categorize and compartmentalize people, put them into different cupboards and drawers of “usefulness” and design our interactions with them according to our needs to “use” them. If they don’t happen to fit into our spectacle or our categories, we dismiss them altogether or limit them to even more restricted “usage.” Recognizing someone for who they really are (not whom we want them to be), accepting them (non-judgmentally and unconditionally), respecting their differences and still finding a meaningful way to coexist and have a relationship is one of the hardest lessons, and one that never ceases to be a lesson.
We hugged – for at least six seconds, which I happened to know from my research, is the minimum time necessary to promote the flow of oxytocin and serotonin, mood-boosting chemicals that promote bonding. The moment of tension passed (Rubin, p.45).
7. There are no short cuts. Not in life, not in relationships, not in our work. We have to go through all the steps of the process, because it really is about the process, not the end goal. When our lives, relationships, or work become unbearable at times, our first defensive reaction is to quit, find a way out, find an escape, a substitute, a distraction. This is only natural, but as a result, we develop a repetitive pattern, and feel stuck in the same predicament. But surprisingly, or counter-intuitively, there is great value in hard work for its own sake. Whether it is at times when our work feels like Sisyphos’ impossible task of hauling a big rock up a mountain, or when we’re challenged by a long physical or symbolic marathon (like grad school), when we just can’t seem to be able to make something work or get a break, or constantly feel frustrated, we simply want to quit. Sometimes we can’t even do that (for various reasons) and feel stuck. But once we focus on the task at hand (rather than our own frustration with it – again with critical distance), eventually we enter what feels like the “zone” (I can only imagine what surfers must feel like being inside a wave and riding it after all the hard labour it took to get there), or what is also called a state of “flow.” We somehow find a sense of calm, satisfaction, and fulfilment in the hard work itself, even if the result is not apparent / meaningful / satisfactory. It’s not so much that hard work pays off (sometimes it just doesn’t) – another belief we are raised with in western culture that fosters all the bad habits of functionalist existence – it’s that hard work in itself has value, even multiple values, some of which are not instantly apparent, and only become apparent or generated in the process of the work itself. As a wonderful friend said to me over dinner once, when I was complaining about my comps: “We are fortunate that there are some things in life that push us where we normally wouldn’t go, or push ourselves, and where others can’t go. When we’re pushed to the limits of our abilities, we discover infinite possibilities.” And just like that I was handed empowerment (literally on a silver platter) and could toss away my worn-out victim-hood. There is value in not giving up on something or someone, in finding the strength to keep going and hauling and running and working every day anew, and that value is connected to our core sense of self (beyond our egos).
Pierre Reverdy: “There is no love; there are only proofs of love.” Whatever love I might feel in my heart, others will see only my actions. (Rubin, p.55)
8. Intuition vs. Rationalization – i.e. do we trust our gut feeling or think and over-think things and make the good old pros and cons list? Here is a useful rule of thumb I learned when it comes to blinking and knowing, and deciding which “me” to listen to. In matters where we have a lot of experience, listen to your intuition or gut feeling, because experience means just that: training that intuition to know better! In matters where we don’t have a lot of expertise or experience, make the list, think it over, rationalize! The trick, then, is to distinguish what we call enough experience, and Malcolm Gladwell gives some good examples of it in his book.
9. There is a difference between happiness and pleasure. As it turns out, and perhaps paradoxically, happiness is something you do and create on your own (or from within), while pleasure is what you do and share with others.
When people try to achieve happiness on their own, without the support of a faith, they usually seek to maximize pleasures that are either biologically programmed in their genes or are out as attractive by the society in which they live. Wealth, power, and sex become the chief goals that give direction to their strivings. But the quality of life cannot be improved this way. Only direct control of experience, the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do, can overcome the obstacles to fulfillment. (Csikszentmihalyi, p.8)
It is for this reason that pleasure is so evanescent, and that the self does not grow as a consequence of pleasurable experiences. Complexity requires investing psychic energy in goals that are new, that are relatively challenging. (Csikszentmihalyi, p.46-47)
10. Happiness is about growth. Spiritual, emotional, intellectual growth. I find I’m happiest when I’m listening to good music (inspirational, soothing, exciting, imaginative), while reading a good book (all of the above, plus informative or enlightening), and taking notes for ideas for future articles, publications, conference papers, blog posts (creative and productive), while sitting next to someone who shares my passion for creative productivity (companionship and joy of sharing), either at a cafe, or even better, on trains, planes, buses, and even airport lobbies (bonus of movement towards a geographical destination added to the high of multi-tasking). What-ever it is that gives us the feeling of growth (productivity, analysis, epiphanies) should be cultivated, bottled-up, and stored in cool temperatures, because happiness is not something awarded or granted to us temporarily, but something we have to make, or distil, ourselves, and learn to keep fresh even past the expiration date. And to remind us how, there will always be more books, and images, and blogs and projects.
William Butler Yates: “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.” (Rubin, p.66)