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Friday, February 14, 2014

Life's Lessons: Outsourcing Happiness

Roll the dice and move ahead, then celebrate your gains. Much more preferable than going backward. Where you land is where you land, but then remember, you can move again… You’re not stuck on one square.

Our attempts through life to maintain the pinnacle of experience are met with regular disappointment, which, curiously if tendered effectively can still turn into increased experience. This is the good news inside of the bad news. Not just a silver lining, but silver throughout. And yes, easy to talk about. Much harder in practice. Saying easy. Doing, not so much.

Balancing the two must be some sort of epidemic, with the ubiquitous life coaches all about us — probably three for every taxi driver. Until the training wheels come off, though, you don’t find out whether the balance is there or not. And sadly, life coaches don’t fit on the seat or handle bars. We’re seven billion souls on seven billion solo rides, taking time out along the way to share our spun stories over beverages and crackers. I’ve just distilled our existence down to an in-between meal snack. Help me Obi-wan, you’re my only hope solo.

Isn’t everything we do an effort to make ourselves or others happy? That’s why we get up every morning, right? Otherwise, what’s the point? You get up because you have to be productive, and you have to be productive so that you can earn a living, and you have to earn a living so you can pay for the necessities of life, and having the necessities of life allows you to do more of the things you want to do, and doing the things you want to do is what makes you happy, right?

What is this renegade phenomenon we’re talking about? What is it we’re truly trying to attain? Can we do more than damage control as we traverse the chasms of our lifelong expedition, meandering in and out of self-absorbed relevance on our way to some perceived pie-in-the-sky utopian dream sequence that didn’t make it off the cutting room floor? I sure hope so, otherwise it’s going to be a very short and uneventful blog post.

One peculiarity of life (there are 839) is the thin separation between agony and ecstasy. Many people find they’re at either one extreme or the other. When the pendulum swings, it often swings all the way across. Not being in ecstasy — with the knowledge it’s attainable — can be rather disconcerting, polarizing us into absolutes of attitude.

Losing something great can make one totally despondent. If you almost reached your dream and then fell short, it can prove devastating. It’s the silver medal syndrome. Second place is a reminder that you came oh-so-close to winning, but still let it slip away. Do we have to finish in first all the time, though, in order to be happy about ourselves? Some Olympians are ecstatic to win gold, but are then in despair with anything less. (You mean being one of the top three in the world isn’t good enough for you?) Still others are grateful with a silver or bronze, and it’s they who know who/what they’re really competing against.

Think of when people express the most joy. It seems to quite often be when they’ve experienced relief — when some kind of struggle has subsided. They tend to be happiest in the moments when the pendulum is just swinging back from the other side, when they have something freshly negative in their psyche with which to appreciate the positive more. We use anchors in everything we do, and happiness is no exception to everything. Missed ecstasy makes all else look worse by comparison. Relief from agony makes all else look better by comparison. For one, health is best appreciated directly after being unhealthy. Yin and yang operating in harmonic symbiosis. We seek the yang and flee the yin, even though they work together. Aye, therein lies the rub:

“Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it’s conflict that changes the person.”
—Robert McKee

People try to make their lives easy. But maybe it’s better when we’re challenged. Challenges don’t have to be bad things. Maybe we shouldn’t be trying to make it easier. Maybe life is supposed to be hard, and if we’re fighting against that forward-thinking instinct, we’re making it worse. Imagine a story without conflict. Imagine a game without effort. Imagine a one-piece puzzle — it’s easy if you try. We wake from our slumber when we push ourselves or have been pushed to places we wouldn’t normally dare go.

Viktor Frankl argued that man’s greatest pursuit isn’t for pleasure, but for meaning. And that pain could be a path to experiencing a meaning beyond the false gratification of personal comfort. That’s a rather profound concept in 27 words or less. Frankl has concisely captured the essence of this topic. And we soldier on…

We are satisfying ourselves with our comfort zones instead of with what would make us more fulfilled, more emotionally developed, more experienced, wiser, more character-built, and consequently with a greater amount of satisfaction. People will go so far as to stay in awful, destructive situations because it’s familiar to them and they have a sense of being in at least some control, whereas going out in uncharted waters means to give up a lot of that control. A known pain can be more appealing than any uncharted waters.

Donald Miller reveals: “Humans are designed to seek comfort and order, and so if they have comfort and order, they tend to plant themselves, even if their comfort isn’t all that comfortable. And even if they secretly want for something better.” Strange characters, we are.

It doesn’t mean to go out of your way the create difficulties for yourself, but to not go out of your way to avoid them. They’ll be in rich supply, so we need not act the accomplice, as if sabotaging ourselves were some sort of defense mechanism to attempt reverse psychology on the fates.

As we know, sadness will inevitably be part of every life. Though how much will we let that define us? It’s hard to remind ourselves that happiness isn’t in ignoring sadness, but in putting the sadness in perspective and prevailing over it. The problems will most surely come, and they’re going to be compounded. We can each only hope that we will be able to confront the sadnesses through the big picture, to not allow the tragic aspect of life to drag us down and to overtake our entire emotional state. We can be in a process of overcoming if we’re striving for it, so goes the axiom. Aye, there be the rub again. Are we the cart or the horse?

Daniel Gilbert eloquently stated in his seminal offering Stumbling on Happiness that our idea of happiness is basically illusory. Our sense of happiness tends to greatly rely on our memories, which are likewise unreliable.

Gilbert says “Our experience of the world — how we see it, remember it, and imagine it — is a mixture of stark reality and comforting illusion. We can’t spare either. If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we’d be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning, but if we were to experience the world exactly as we want it to be, we’d be too deluded to find our slippers. A healthy psychological immune system strikes a balance that allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation but bad enough to do something about it.” All about a fine-tuned perception. Fascinating stuff, this psychological makeup we’re dealing with.

So doesn’t it seem a little silly to be overly concerned about where the calibration might be at in a given juncture? The calibration is not reality, but only our perception of reality. Our attitude won’t change reality, but it will change how we view it.

Incidentally, reading Gilbert’s salient edition brings mass quantities of joyful endorphins just from the insight itself, as he runs the gamut of happy topics.

In yon days, it was Thoreau who opined: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” According to that sobering observation, we commonly tend to pretend we’re happy when in reality we’re not. We portray something other than what’s going on inside. And we don’t know how to change it. That’s enough to make someone want to go live on their own out in the woods. But wait! If you act now, Thoreau will also throw in a “There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself” at no additional cost. Not only do you not have to order the complete set of melancholy emotions, but you can build your set of positive emotions from scratch, with no shipping.

It sounds like happiness is whatever you make of it, and we can decide what we want it to be, without compromise but with determination. That’s a nice revelation, maybe? No?

At certain points, I began to conclude that with all the distresses in life, the only people who were truly happy were the masochists. At least they appreciate when things go wrong. You gotta give ‘em that. But surely everyone has their share of setbacks to take them off their game and keep them from continually basking in the sunlight. How can we cope in the midst of it all?

We are to somehow and in some way embrace both the positive and negative in our lives. Utilize every opportunity in what it provides. Remember that were there no mountains to climb, we’d get awfully tired of walking around on a flat surface all the time. Ups and downs go hand in hand. Funny how that works out. If the Rubik’s cube were already solved, there’d be little point in having it, wouldn’t there?

Our life isn’t meant to be perfect or without defect. Take it as it comes. An ideal can lose sight of the little things that also matter. Yes, sometimes it really is aggrieving. We shouldn’t just weather the storms, though, but face them and deal with them in some sort of constructive manner, however possible. And… that’s where life’s manual leaves off. From there, it just says something about “modify as needed, your mileage may vary.” All right, so it would appear we’re given some freedom here to improvise.

I gleaned some intriguing thoughts from a HuffPost webcast, with the segment poignantly titled “The Negative Path to Happiness”, piquing my interest. Some random thoughts that were bandied about by the participants:

Are all the stresses of trying to be happy making us unhappy?

We overvalue positivity and optimism as the only elements of this thing called happiness. When we spend all our efforts trying fill our minds happy thoughts and positive emotions, it often has a counterproductive effect.

Embrace uncertainty. It’s more fruitful to turn toward some of those things we tend to deny.

To just say you can never think a negative thought, you’re avoiding problem solving. You often have to confront the negativity, and if you’re focusing on the ultimate goal of happiness, sometimes you can’t get there that easily.

Pursuing strictly happiness is silly. Happiness is one of many emotions, and you’ll be riding the wave of them. You can’t expect yourself to get happy by forcing yourself to be happy when you’re really not.

Obsessive goal-setting causes people to live completely five years ahead of where they are now. Of course, the future never arrives. It’s always the present.

People in pursuit of happiness will always be in pursuit of it. At some point, you have to start pursuing the moment.

If you try to be happy all the time, you’ll make yourself less happy.

Even moments of relative discomfort can be positive moments.

It doesn’t make sense that everything in your life you brought into your life with your thoughts, so you’re not completely responsible for everything you experience. It sets people up to blame themselves for things that are not their fault.

Wow, HuffPost for the win… All that mediates is not psychoganda after all. If one digs enough, there are treasures to be uncovered all around. My faith in humanity restored for the time being.

So maybe we’re not supposed to be happy all the time. It was Veronica in Heathers who furiously scrawled, “If you were happy every day of your life, you wouldn't be a human being. You'd be a game show host.” Maybe accepting that will allow us to return to happiness quicker, but also tolerate the unhappy better. And maybe even occasionally thrive in it to whatever extent possible, as unpleasant as it can be. Ongoing workouts at life’s gym paying dividends.

Footnote: If you have to ask if you’re happy, you might be thinking too hard. If you don’t have to ask, then you probably are. Unlearning is the path to learning. Things Yoda would say for 400…

A word about perception. OK, 489… We want to laud those who claim the glass is half full, while decrying those who say it’s half empty. On a superficial level, they’re fundamentally proper. Truth is, both the optimistic and pessimistic answers are severely flawed and carry a similar degree of inaccuracy. One is not superior to the other. Yet ultimately, what do we find? We still reward the side that’s more enthusiastic about the basic state of the glass. Interesting, is it not? But in the end, neutral optimism or pessimism in analysis won’t alter the reality of the situation.

The realist measures the actual volume and doesn’t concern him/herself with such middling details as what portion of it is full. The size of the glass is likewise ancillary to how much water it contains. 4 ounces of water in a 10 ounce glass is ostensibly the same as 4 ounces of water in a 6 ounce glass, for all strictly utilitarian purposes, as far as the water is concerned. The amount of space in the glass taken up by air isn’t very valuable information to this equation, nor does it have anything to do with the state of the water, which is where the focus should be. An efficient glass of water means nil. Some might say that it could be useful to know how much available space there is left in the glass, but for what? Hypotheticals? That’s not what’s at issue. What we’re determining is how much water the glass currently has in it.

Furthermore, there really isn’t such a morbid notion as “half full” anyway. Half filled, maybe. But that’s something else entirely. Half full would be like saying half of completely. The condition of being full does not come in degrees. It either is or isn’t. Might as well say “fully half.” Mull on that one for a skosh.

Half empty is likewise a non-entity in its own right. Half emptied, perhaps. But again, that’s an altogether different connotation. Half empty is akin to saying half of none. What? Excuse me? Judges? Hmm let’s try that out, shall we? Zero, divided by 2 = huh?

Just claim the glass has water in it and cut your losses. Any more or less than this is speculation. Is there water in the glass? Yes. OK, good. Are we going to psychoanalyze the water too?

What we find as the substance of the half full/empty scenario is all form, modern psychobabble 101 in all its glorious bombast. If this were Mythbusters, they’d say it’s blown up. Moral of the story: Platitudes, while nice, can be pared down to metaphorical hype for the sake of hype. Ask why the hype would be warranted, after stripping away the propagandistic elements about what happiness is or isn’t. Ask what the assumptions you’re making are, for no assumption has merit on its own accord. And in the end, when merchants are parlaying glee, remember they’re attempting to sell something that need not be bottled.

Mr. Roarke would implore the throngs, “Smiles, everyone…” such wisdom amidst the simplicity of an innocent two-word phrase, minus the Corinthian leather, which is also profound in its own way. Meanwhile, Tattoo was feverishly incanting, “Da plane! Da plane!” And people were going through lifetime transitions and entering other dimensions — it was just one big Rastafarian party on the island. No wonder it was always booked and the flight expenses were outlandish. They were selling the fantasy of elusive happiness.

There’s a little song Bobby McFerrin wrote, which we may want to sing note for note… To emphasize it even more, he sequestered Robin Williams to do tribal incantations in the video, a smart move in that Henry Kissinger wasn’t available. At any rate, no one else could bust a move like that. Don’t worry…

Renowned human condition author extraordinaire and psycholigical genius Malcolm Gladwell — an apropos name for the subject if there ever were one — describes in his book “Blink” that researchers who study facial expressions have identified over 3000 distinct ones matching certain emotions, and that these expression-emotion pairings are consistent throughout diverse cultures all over the world. Furthermore, our brain knows which ones we’re using at a given time, because the expression itself can also lead to the emotion. So even if you’re not happy, if you smile your brain will receive messages telling it that you are happy. Pavlov would’ve been very proud, not to mention his faithful tail-wagging accomplice. So it turns out to be a self-affirming activity. And this is also why arch villains who wear masks or painted faces with scowls on them have virtually no chance of being rehabilitated. The signals they’re getting are that they are perennially disgruntled, and so that’s how they will react, turning to a lifelong quest of arch villainry and lucrative movie deals.

Not quite sure what Charlie Brown’s brain would have told him, because he kind of had a wavy, half-smile, half something else — more of a non-committal comic emotive state. And it’s no wonder he didn’t learn anything in school, because none of his teachers knew how to talk right. The Wa-Wa dialect to this day still has linguists perplexed.

That trifecta of happy/neutral/sad perspectives is eloquently conveyed in the most emblematic Beverly Hillbillies factor. Kinfolk said, “Jed, move away from there.” But economic status didn’t faze him. He was the middle ground in the equation. In general, Jethro and Elly May were the paragon of ebullience, while father Jed was neither happy nor sad, and Granny was an old curmudgeon who took special pleasure in being upset at anything that moved.

You could take the same situation, and Jethro and Elly May would be utterly tickled pink, Jed would be nonchalant, and Granny would be in a veritable tizzy. The scenery always changed, but the demeanors didn’t. A raccoon walks into the kitchen. Jethro and Elly May want to embrace it and feed it tiny morsels. Jed reckons he wants to think the sit’iation over. Granny, she’s already got a broom in her hand ready to wreak havoc.

If aliens came down from space and invaded Earth, both Jethro and Elly May would be smiling ear to ear, and wanting to ask them there space creatures all about themselves and share a cordial interstellar moment. Jed, meanwhile, would be scratching his head not knowing what to think, and Granny — she would be presently depositing shotgun in their direction. It all depends on the attitude of the individual. Sit’iations are just a backdrop we can use as excuses for the attitude we choose. The sit’itations don’t change so much as our outlook toward them does.

The logical and highly simplistic explanation that most of modern humanity tends to follow off a cliff is that more is better, and according to that we should be accumulating increased amounts in order to derive greater satisfaction. Such is one of the great illusions of life. Although if less is more, and more is less, then less becoming more makes it less again. That didn’t get us anywhere outside of our theoretical castle. More or less. ( says there are 25 people in the U.S. named Les Moore. I thought there would be more Les Moores, but there are fewer Les Moores than I thought) Bottom line: we don’t deal well in quantities, as math is a poor approximation of reality. About all math is good for is keeping score in sporting events. Fractions? Decimals? 2-dimensional objects? Pshaw… don’t exist.

Commercial trade indoctrination insists that you always need an additional comparative amount above whatever you have, and it needs to be newer too. Newer carries the overtone of improved, but is it? Jerry Seinfeld wondered how many times can they make laundry detergent better. Tide has been upgraded about 73 times in our lifetimes, and each time we’ve been enraptured in the most recent development. Wow, we thought it was good before, but now it’s really, really good. Now they have flavor crystals! Sure, it’s absurd, but as a group we’re like gullible’s travels. We never figure out that the latest diet, exercise machine, money-making opportunity, calamity, etc., is just a rehash, and there will be many more clones to follow.

Gilbert said about materialism: “Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will only strive for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being.” The group machine driving the individuals. Hey, who’s in charge here?

A possible intriguing follow-up to this concept later on is the process for training oneself to appreciate to a greater extent what is already there, while still balancing that with proper ambition to stretch farther in more substantive ways. If we could develop true discipline, I believe we each have the capacity within us to derive even higher satisfaction than we are experiencing without the need to accumulate or attach it to possessions. 
Somewhere along the way when man started to become overly civilized, he began being programmed that money and personal property played a big role in one’s quality of life, and thus the greater quantity, the better. There being nothing inherently wrong with the accumulation of wealth, such pursuits tend to dominate our time and energies, always looking for the sale, always looking for the good deal, always trying to pad one’s portfolio, a never-ending ponderous scrutiny of the monthly budget, penny-pinching like your life depended on it. As if the money ruled you. The paragon of wealth? Value, sure. Ultimate value, nah. Take regular breaks from your life to detach yourself from your money by not lending ultimate credence to it. Make your money take out a loan on you for a change.

Miller added: “There is an intrinsic feeling in nearly every person that your life could be perfect if you only had such-and-such a car or such-and-such a spouse or such-and-such a job. We believe we will be made whole by our accomplishments, our possessions, or our social status.”

And even when we have resigned ourselves that material things don’t bring us satisfaction, we still seem to look for temporary substitutes in place of the real thing. We seek escapes. And then we find that many of those escapes don’t have an escape themselves. In attempting to discover transitory refuge, we have created for ourselves a well-fortified cage at the human zoo.

Consider for a moment: What monetary amount would it require to have you agree to part with one of your limbs? Or lose your sight? Or give up your cherished relationships? Or lose fond memories? Or take a year off your lifespan? Or sacrifice the experience of music? Or on and on? What value can be placed on such things? Is it more than a million? More than a billion? Trillion? A little absurd to consider, isn’t it? So if you already have things that surpass the value of mere wealth, why aren’t you appreciating those things as much as you think you would appreciate this untold wealth?

Ah, but you want to have your cake and eat it too. The amount we want is always just “a little bit more” than what we have. It’s a bottomless well that never gets filled. We’re in constant search for that value-driven Holy Grail, all the while ignoring the worth of what’s in front of us.

You can chase the far horizon
Tryin’ to be someone you're not
Or spend your whole life searching, yeah
For what you've already got
It’s funny how the road can lead
Back to all the ones you need
(“You Never Know Who Your Friends Are” —Hooters)

We have to unlearn the mistaken notions we’ve been conditioned to, which is that joy is somehow attached to continually upping the ante. Perhaps instead we could be "lowering the anti-" to produce an even better effect. Somewhere the notion of diminishing returns didn't get factored in by a populace in too much of an energized rush to notice. Conversely, he that first loses his life shall find it... anyone?

The poets had it right. While we’re busy pursuing our ever-elusive happy trails, it would be more direct to simply pursue love, which is what happiness relies on anyway. Avoid the middle man. Love of yourself. Love of those you’re close to. Love of your Creator. Love of life. There, was that so hard??

Being alive and having connections with others is what we have to be most grateful for and happy about, while everything else is gravy. Sure, the gravy can be nice too, but it’s curious how much attention we want to give the gravy, while it’s only what accentuates. As if we took life and love as givens.

Likewise, it’s not so much what we have in comparison to what other people do or don’t have. Picture if you were the only person on Earth. How then would you gauge your state of happiness? Does someone else’s misfortune raise your fortune at all? We’re to be as happy as we are for having basic life and knowing others, irrespective of what our contemporaries are experiencing. Their sadness should not be artificially raising our happiness quotient, nor should their increased happiness lower our happiness. Without catching ourselves, we think in a quantitative currency mindset, forgetting that the things most important are not zero-sum.

Bards, sages and the wise echo the same sentiment: A conquering enterprise is what we’re involved in. Happiness, then, is the very process of overcoming sorrow, but not avoiding it. Accomplishing all of this menagerie together. From dimness to light… without detours. 

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just did my name on that bomb of a great discovery of a website and find that I am a unique! No others out there (same for my husband and his birth name which he is taxed under!) We are an odd and unusual couple of abnormals bumbling our way in love in the world.

I greatly enjoyed your reminding reflections. Happiness is much over rated. BEING is a much better place to see happiness from :)


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