(This is the first of a six plus part series on cultivating happiness.)
Part One: Attention
I know. Yesterday’s post was somewhat depressing. In case you missed it, it discussed a (now) four year old report about how the Pentagon is—I mean has been—taking global warming seriously.
Global warming worries me. So do many other things. I regularly cherish more than a baker’s dozen: the health care crisis, the many ecological crises in addition to global warming, domestic spying, California's soon-to-be-defunded public K-12 schools, random shootings in schools, electronic voting machine fraud, road rage, corporate-financed campaigns, dependence on foreign oil, the household debt/mortgage crises, out-of-control federal spending on the military, illegal torture, the national debt, foreign ownership of what we think of as American companies, and—an issue I have touched on before—mean and meaningless television and movie entertainment.
Add to these more personal worries: retirement savings, my kids' futures, my as-yet-unborn grandkids' futures, health issues, not to mention smaller irritations and worries.
You might wonder how I can drag myself out of bed to face the day.
I put my alarm clock on my dresser so I have to jump out of bed to silence it. Then I head directly for the meditation room where I wrap myself in a blanket my wife knitted me years ago and I spend about an hour quieting my mind and cultivating my aspiration to bring a bit of happiness into the lives of the kindergarteners who I care for each school day.
Happiness as a Value
Happiness is one of my values. It’s right up there with safety and helpfulness and kindness.
My worries are the reason I value—and nurture—happiness. Without real happiness I would be tempted to numb myself using one of the common, but futile distractions: alcohol (fine Sonoma County wines, mind you), spectator sports (the Sonoma County Crushers, remember them?), prescription antidepressants (once many year ago, briefly, to get through an especially difficult period), television (in hotels, not at home), and gambling. Except for the last one, I’ve dabbled in—and abandoned—all of them. Gambling I've never tried. It has always struck me as a tax on people who aren't good at math.
Real happiness cannot arise from numbness. Numbness comes from numbness and feels lonely. Happiness is alive, and is shared. (Did you know that studies have shown that people very rarely laugh when alone?)
So what is real happiness, anyway? And how can do I cultivate it? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I have studied happiness and I would like to share some of what I have learned, both from my own experience and from several books and articles I’ve read recently.
A week ago or so I was at Copperfield’s Books and I saw this book on display at the cash register:
I picked up this book because I believe that it’s good to inform yourself of opposing views. I thought I'd find a lot to disagree with here. To disagree without being disagreeable is what Americans must relearn if we are to keep our democracy, so I practice that.
Wilson makes a lot of points. I agreed with him more than I expected. He states that happiness isn’t found in a cheery smily face. Happiness isn't giddy excitement either, like the sort of ersatz happiness you see on television commercials for kids or on Disneyland’s Main Street. Happiness, says Wilson, has nothing to do with pretending that everything is hunky-dory when deep down inside there’s a voice quietly insisting, “Everything ain’t hunky dory.”
Life’s difficulties cannot be walled off. Even in gated communities people get old, get sick, and die. Difficulties are built in, a part of the deal. We must face them. And, when we face our difficulties a lot of good can result.
In his book Wilson defends melancholia as the source for many of humankind’s greatest achievements. He explores this theme by discussing the lives of cultural giants of the Western civilization: Melville, Coleridge, Keats, Beethoven, Blake, John Lennon, and others. The point he drives home is that each was touched with melancholia.
Less ambitious people like me might settle for plain old-fashioned happiness. Many scientists have noted that lowered expectations are conducive to happiness.
So, a first step to finding happiness is to accept the fact that life is going to contain difficulties. When—not if—difficulties arise, we can see them as opportunities to create something wonderful, to grow in empathy and compassion, to be more useful to others, or, as Ann Landers would say, to make lemonade out of your lemons.
A good example of this is my recent experience with cancer. So many of you expressed your concern for my well being and shared your own stories of this disease, I ended up feeling more connected to all of you, and happier. I'm not sayin' throw out your sunscreen and get some skin cancer to find out how nice everyone is. I'm just sayin' that not-fun things like cancer can have silver linings.
A second step is to understand that while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
In the Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner travels the whole world in his quest to discover the secrets to happiness. He meets with experts from science and religion to learn what they might teach him about happiness.
It’s a fun book. It made me laugh loud enough to repeatedly wake my wife in the wee hours.
Weiner makes many points about happiness. Before signing off for today, I’d like to leave you with one of them:
Are You Paying Attention?
To quote Weiner:
"Attention" is an underrated word. It doesn’t get the...well, the attention it deserves. We pay homage to love and happiness and, God knows, productivity, but rarely do we have anything good to say about attention. We’re too busy, I suspect. Yet our lives are empty and meaningless without attention.
My two-year-old daughter fusses at my feet as I type these words. What does she want? My love? Yes, in a way, but what she really wants is my attention. Pure, undiluted attention. Children are expert at recognizing counterfeit attention. Perhaps love and attention are really the same thing. One can’t exist without the other. The British scholar Avner Offer calls attention ‘the universal currency of well-being.’ Attentive people, in other words, are happy people.” -- pg. 54 Geography of Bliss
Want to give your kid or your students something they really need? It's simple. Give them your attention. Put down whatever you're doing and pay attention to them.
It's the best pay you can give.
Next in this series: Not Thinking