Sunday, February 24, 2008

Cultivating Happiness: Attention

(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.

That's easy.

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:

Against Happiness
by Eric G. Wilson

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.

Georaphy of Bliss
by Eric Weiner

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


Culmom37 said...

There are many times when I am in the middle of something and have to tell my kids, "I'll be there in a minute". Ugh, I feel horrible! With that said, there are also times when I should be doing something (laundry, perhaps)but don't because I want to give my kids the attention they want/need/deserve.

Happiness is such an interesting concept. People always seem to associate money with happiness, however, I can tell you that I have heard MANY people say they know someone who is "well off" and they are absolutely the most miserable person they know! Hmmm, makes you wonder?!

After reading this message, I can truly understand the meaning and value of attention in happiness. Makes sense. Now, I won't feel so bad when the kids want attention and I tell my hubby that those dishes, laundry, vacuuming, etc is going to have to wait so that my children can truly be happy!!!! I know, a little far-fetched, but there is truth to it.

Now, I am off to give my kids the attention the not only need, but DESERVE!

Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...

Good for you. Give your kids your attention.

As for being rich and famous, the world's jammed with people who are incredibly rich and plenty famous but not happy.

Brittney Spears. Owen Wilson. Lindsay Lohan come immediately to mind.

poncia5 said...

As I read the blog, like I always do... my husband is playing go-fish with our daughter and our youngest son. Our oldelst son is here with me learning about the "blog", maybe too young, I dont know, but he is interested in what Mr. Gurney has to say ( i sort of pick and choose what exactly is being said). We just had family dinner and it is truly wonderful to enjoy your kids and people. I'm no hero mind you, this is not always the norm ( though we try) but it sure does make us happy.

poncia5 said...

Oh, and one more thing. I can't help but wonder if your ,"staged", pictures are a message Mr. Gurney? They all seem to be with a beautiful green background, or a bike and even a recycle bin, just a coincidence?

SDE said...

During the day, we seem to get caught up in what needs to be done and where we have to go. Life can get crazy.

My daughter is a night owl, like me. So after her brother is asleep, she and I cuddle and talk. It's a time where she feels safe and encouraged to speak what is on her mind. It's also a time where she has my full attention.

When our kids have our full attention, it shows. They feel loved and accepted. The feel open to talk. They feel safe.

I cherish these times that I get to spend with my children. It's a time where not only do I get to learn about my children, they get to learn things about me.

Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...

Poncia5, your children are incredibly fortunate to have the sort of family life you describe. I hope you have many more. About the blog, it is intended for adult ears, parents and fellow teachers, not students.

You're paying attention to the backgrounds of the photos! Yes, give a little thought to where I prop up a book. That "Against Happiness" book will find its way to Friends of the Library, a donation. Unless someone from Dunham would like me to pass it along to them.

sde, thanks for your post, too. Truly those snuggles can be the very best time to connect. Thanks for the chat today; I am sure it will help.

MommieRose said...

I really love the things that you have to say. Sometimes It takes me a while to sit down and read the blogs. I find that when I get a spare gap of time I am "back reading" many of the blogs. I get addicted and want to soak them all up :o)

I really enjoyed this one. We all get so caught up in life and schedules that we forget to really enjoy whats going on right in front of us. I like your view on hapiness. We all try to be that person on the comercial you were mentioned, that is always so happy that we forget that thats not real life. Real life is ugly and painful sometimes but that's what makes the wonderful that much more beautiful.

I saw a quote at the bottom of an email about a month ago, Im not sure who said it. I loved it and would like to frame it and put it right in the entry way of my house so that it can be a constant reminder. Sometimes all it takes is a little reminder to snap me out of that "rush rush get it done " mode that I find so easy to fall into. Anyways here it is:

"Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning how to dance in the rain."

Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...

What a lovely saying. I'll share it on a posting.