Sunday, January 10, 2016

Fulfillment through Emptiness

Lately, there has been a lot discussion on the subject of happiness.

For me, it started with someone in my book club choosing The Happiness Project.  I've heard people on NPR talk about exercises to re-train your brain to think happy thoughts.  I saw an article on FB about it, and there is that persistent app market-targeting me that holds out the key to my happiness--brain-training exercises, I assume, and a free vacation or an end to the refugee crisis.

I have a life-long habit of imagining that things are going to be better than they are.  Accordingly, I was intrigued to read a book called The Happiness Project.

Rule #1 of happiness:  Do not set yourself up for disappointment.  Really try to disabuse yourself of high expectations.

I started to read the The Happiness Project.  What I quickly discovered was a variation of Eat, Pray, Love, which was a popular book that I disliked intensely--although I will say that I enjoyed Javier Bardem in the movie enough to see it twice.

In both books, the narrator basically explains that her life is the very fulfillment of the America-Dream. She has it all: a successful & handsome husband who loves her; a fabulous home in an expensive city;  a career, the respect of her colleagues; and a lot of devoted friends.

And STILL she thinks she should be happier.

I couldn't go on reading.

First of all, I do not identify with the narrator, and I don't like her because she's' self-absorbed and isn't funny, unlike the author of Eat, Pray Love, which was just barely readable.  Sorry.

Rule of happiness #2:  It is okay to identify with a more successful person. In fact, it's a good idea, even if delusional.  Different from envy or aspiration, identification with a higher station in life will make you think you've got it all even when you don't; whereas, envy just makes you miserable and aspiration postpones happiness until you've actually achieved something, which may or may not ever happen.  So, live in the moment, and choose to IDENTIFY with those who have the life you wish you had.

I feel qualified to write on the subject of unhappiness, because I have experienced unhappiness.  I've also experienced happiness.  I think this makes me an expert.

Someone on the radio said that people who are unhappy but who nonetheless pick up their mantle and power through the day are, in his opinion, "heroes."

I was in a place where I concluded happiness was simply beyond my grasp.  However, I would power through, because others were counting on me.  I accepted unhappiness as my lot in life and was prepared to just get on with it.

With that unhappiness, I saw the value of my life as having more to do with responsibility for others than with  the quality of my mood.  During that period, I came to feel more attuned to the suffering of others in the world, and more personally motivated to try to do something about it.  

It's true, misery loves company, but not because it makes us happy.  It makes us feel less alone, and being of service to others gives meaning and purpose to a life that might otherwise feel empty

2015 was a sad year in many ways.  I think it's important that we remember exactly what was sad about it.   A lot of innocent people were shot in small and large catastrophes that were alarming for a number of reasons.  Climate change is indisputably happening, creating devastation; refugee children are washing up on foreign shores; hate is running amok...

Yet I find myself oddly besieged (by the media in all its permutations) by the message that I should be happier.  I could take my happiness into my own hands, make a project of it, or make a New Year's Resolution to train my brain with an app to think positively.

But why should I be happy?  And why should I take up the quest to optimize my individual happiness score?

I had given up on ever being happy again...But damn it, wouldn't you know, I'm not capable of being unhappy for the rest of my life.  It was undone by my own innate buoyancy, which could be viewed as either a strength or a lack of conviction.

Within weeks of having redefined myself as a person of compassion and purpose, I lost my way.

First, the sense of suffering became less acute.  Then, one morning, it was gone.  Through small things--my son's hilarious one-liners, my dog's utter devotion...mirth and joy came creeping in, soon to be followed by pleasure and fond memories.   Occasionally, I would sense the full weight of that terrible gravity, but I knew it couldn't hold.

When I think about who I was when I was unhappy, I feel grateful.  Not only did I manage to get through a hard time,  I also worried about others who were going through hard times, and did what I could to help. I connected more with others who were suffering, more than I am able to do now.

There are still two posts that I intended to write from that time.  Happy me, I have yet to write them. I keep promising myself that I will, but frankly, I worry that the depth and clarity of that voice may be gone, for now.

Honestly, I think I was a better person when I was less happy.  Now, I can only try to remember what it was like to care that deeply about strangers, and to have my life mean so little, except in relation to its purpose.

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