Scott Adams, that rascally comic strip writer of Dilbert once put words into Dogberts mouth that said “You’re allowed to pursue happiness. You’re not actually allowed to be happy.”
I’ve never been a happy person, that I can remember. Yet people often tell me how positive and encouraging I seem. I honestly don’t know how they come to that conclusion, because anyone who spends an actual amount of time with me finds me disagreeable.
Recently my government employers have decided that they have over paid me, and are wanting to take back the full amount all at once.
At first my thought was If I take out the right insurance policy, I can make it look like an accident, and then my family would be set, and I wouldn’t have to keep going through all this turmoil in my life.
Not a very happy response. “It’s just money” is a nice little quip when you’re family isn’t about to end up on the street because your pay has been cut off due to a clerical error….(and money that technically I am entitled to, because 90% of the problem was a classification code that was put in wrong).
Even with all of this my phrase was (and has been in dark times) “I don’t know all the details, but I know we will be fine.”
Even with wanting to send the family off to the grandparents and wrapping an extension cord around my neck, I still held on to the concept that I could come out of this okay.
This isn’t a one time thing, however. I have been in so many situations that seemed hopeless that I’ve ended up culturing an almost indifference to the annoying things that happen around me. Mostly I get pissed off at bad drivers because my family is in the vehicle. Driving alone I’m less cranky. But a rude neighbor, a mean spirited troll calling me names, even a gun in my face, usually illicit at best a laugh and at worst a shoulder shrug. The horrible events in my life have never forced me into a bed to sleep all day, or kept me up all night panicking over things I can’t change.
So what, if there is one, is my key to happiness?
I don’t know if I have one. Psychology professor David T. Lykken, author of Happiness: Its Nature and Nurture thinks that trying to be happier is like trying to be taller, and that we have a “happiness set point” genetically, and we can’t move past that. Yet he also believes that we can pursue happiness by thwarting negative emotions and fostering positive emotions, also pushed as Operant Conditioning. This conditioning is something I seem to have internalized at some point, but I don’t know exactly where I got the idea from.
Behavior Habit 1
For me this sometimes takes the form of sarcasm. I’ll say something along the lines of “You know what’s worse than this? The Holocaust.” Or I’ll throw out “At least I don’t have it as bad as Andy Dick. That guy has to spend his whole life being Andy Dick”.
Most of the time it takes the form of a quick list or litany: I have breath in my lungs, a family that loves me, working arms and legs, opportunities that I just have to look for, and bad jokes.
Just doing this shifts my attitude away from bitterness and gives me motivation. If I forget to do it in the morning (it happens) I’m usually a total asshole. Especially since I am NOT a morning person.
Confronting the Downside.
I have a metaphorical giant wolf I call Fenrir living in a cage inside me. I take him out for walks occasionally, tightly leashed, to show him who is in charge.
How this is manifested in the real world is this: Fenrir is all the powerful thoughts and feelings (mostly unconscious) that drive my behavior. I am a very angry person, and it has taken years of visualisation techniques to not have my anger consume me, and instead use my anger for me. “Me”, a man, is so much smaller and weaker than Fenrir, yet I exert control over this beast. I use the anger, rage, and futility that he tries to instil in me and put it into working out or tackling jobs or situations that I hate or are afraid of.
Fenrir whispers from his cage however, and his ideas are poison. Whenever he brings up a negative thought or feeling I confront it with facts, taking the truth out of the context and diminishing the rest.
You tried and failed!
“I did indeed not get the outcome I desired. But what I did was better than doing nothing, and even I can’t see the end of the effects I have in this world. Also, I learned what NOT to do.”
I sometimes take Fenrir out on other people, but I often try to do that in more deserved ways, such as playing cruel tricks on people who have done obvious and intentional wrongs.
This one I am not the best at. One of the writers of my university textbooks was David G. Myers, and in his own book The Pursuit of Happiness, he writes there are “few better antidotes to unhappiness than close friendships with people who care about you.”
This is difficult for me since my need for love is akin to a cactus. I need very little love attention. Too much and I just get uncomfortable and annoyed. However I do understand that oxytocin is released when people hug for more than ten seconds, and while I may not need that daily boost, I understand that my wife and family do. I try to be complimentary (though I usually fail since it just isn’t something I desire for myself. I find it hard to understand the need for it in others). Though I do not understand all the mechanics of the need other people have for relationships, I do still try to foster them. Like that cactus, plants need water. My need for water is less than others, but that does not mean other plants can live with less water.
There is nothing like the fine wine of holding a grudge. It is distilled. Pure. It gives the same destructive pleasure as homemade napalm.
Holding onto that napalm affects your physical as well as mental health, according to research. (Research, I might add, that religious prophets have seemed to know for millennia…but I digress*.)
By embroiling yourself in holding a grudge, or plotting revenge, you carry your anger into every other thing unrelated to the event. How can you enjoy playing with your children if you’re imagining punching someone in the face? This fantasy behavior bleeds into your ego, taking the event as a slight against your personhood leading you to believe that if you do not act then your life lacks purpose which leads you into a depressed and anxious cycle eroding your connection to others.
I find this one to have been the easiest and hardest one to do. Mainly because other people don’t matter to me very much, and by “letting” a moron make me mad, I’m giving them power over me. What does it matter to me if someone I don’t care about hates me? Their opinion of me matters to exactly jack shit. Or dog shit, which I find absolutely disgusting and puts me in a bad mood, but then I just clean it up and move on. Because there will always be dog shit, and you can’t let it rule your life, mandating if you can play in a park or run through a field.
Forgiveness moves you away from playing the role of victim and releases the power and control the offending dog shit has had in your life.
Choose to be Happy
My son has done this:
“Do you want to be happy?” He yells.
“Then be HAPPY!” And then he runs off laughing. He has also been known to say that being happy is walking in nature.
And he’s on to something. Intention to happiness is the active desire to be happy, it’s consciously choosing attitudes and behaviors that lead to happiness over unhappiness. Going for a walk over laying in bed all day is a conscious choice to choose an endorphin reward over getting no reward. Cleaning will get rid of that hated clutter and dirt and give you a sense of accomplishment, even if brief (I have four boys after all). Make the bed first thing in the morning, and do it as an act of kindness to yourself. By making your bed, you have done one thing that you know is fully completed, and it also shows you how to take care of yourself. Challenge the negative thoughts. For example: when someone pisses you off we often start building a case against that person (grudge) or begin to eat sweets to feel better, but that’s very damaging mentally and physically.
Instead, reprogram your beliefs; instead of candy making you “happy”, explain the truth that if it is true, then your happiness will only last as long as the candy does. And then you’ll be back to zero. Going for a walk might take more effort, but it will make you happy for a longer period of time.
In order to get more out of life we need to put more into it. Or as Fight Club put it, “You decide your own level of involvement.”
The most common type of leisure time is watching TV, which produces the lowest levels of happiness.
Active leisure, the type that helps a person to grow, does not come easily. It requires effort and attention before it becomes enjoyable. Once you are absorbed in a task that is important to you a state of “flow” is reached where you face challenges to your abilities.
Money doesn’t make you happy.
This one is the most difficult for me. Money would provide a certain level of freedom that I don’t have, and it is the lack of money that has caused a lot of stress for me over the years. Yet even then I still know that spending money won’t make me happy.
For some people, if they're feeling sad, shopping will make them happier because it restores some control in their lives. It's making the choice to buy or not to buy that helps people feel more in control.
The problem definitely comes when we go into debt buying things. Then the Fight Club line “The things you own, end up owning you”, becomes readily apparent. That couch that you bought might make you feel good for a while, but then the bill comes and you have to work to pay it off. And then it gets something spilled on it. Even things like vacations will have a fleeting effect if they put you into debt.
Instead, focus on experiences that make you happy; volunteering and talking to strangers are two ways that can actually make you feel better even if you don’t think they will.
Largely because they involve some mix in all of the above methods.
I don’t often like interacting with people, but every morning I walk my children to school and talk about trivial things with the other parents, sometimes volunteering to watch their kids if they have to leave for work/other. I get my social fill, people think I’m a nice guy, the day goes by a little more smoothly.
We are the architects of our own happiness. When our lives collapse with sadness or anger, it is because we did not build our hearts with enough patience and joy.
P.S. If you can, please buy a print from Cyril Rolando (AquaSixio). He is a very talented artist and deserves attention. Link in the button under the picture.
*mini rant about psychology. I often encounter psychological research that seems to just want to supplant ideas that have been culminated in religious texts for years. “Confession is good for the soul” is one such example. Clergy and priests offer this for free, and its benefits are just as helpful as any $200/hr therapist