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Some thoughts on happiness

I am a happy person. By some accident of genetics or privileged brain chemistry, my default state is incredibly happy, and it always has been. Seriously, if you could bottle up the way I feel as my normal background state and distribute it among the world, there'd never be war or strife again.

That doesn't mean I'm euphoric 100% of the time, of course. But just as things like depression can be a matter of brain chemistry, so, I think, can general background happiness.

And yet...and yet...

Whenever I see, or hear, conversations about happiness, it seems that many people are taught to profoundly fear and distrust the state of being happy. Contemporary American society teaches us a lot of incredibly destructive myths about happiness, some of which I see over and over again. For example:

Myth #1: If you are happy, you don't accomplish anything.

I am happy...and I have just released my first book. I own two businesses. I am getting set to start a tour across Canada and the US with my coauthor, Eve Rickert, where we will be lecturing and giving workshops on relationships, polyamory, and ethics. I have traveled Eastern and Western Europe. My life is rich and filled with accomplishment. In fact, I have the kind of life some folks pay money to see on the Internet.

Myth #2: Generally happy people don't experience the full range of human emotions.

I hear this one all the time. "I don't want to be happy because it would dull me to pain and suffering, and I couldn't experience the full range of life." "If I were happy all the time, I would be blind to the sadness in the world." "I wouldn't want to be happy, because if I were happy, I couldn't experience pain and suffering."

Emotions are complex, and it is possible to feel more than one at the same time. I am a happy person, but that doesn't mean there are never times when I feel sad, fearful, angry, or other things. It just means those emotions don't stick. (One of my girlfriends says things like anger, frustration, and sadness bounce off me; when I feel them, they are transitory, and don't weigh me down.) My baseline of happiness makes me emotionally resilient.

Myth #3: Happiness and euphoria are the same thing.

There are pills that make people feel euphoric, or intoxicated, but being euphoric isn't the same thing as being happy. Happiness is more a generalized feeling of positive, pleasant satisfaction than it is a rush or a thrill; it's the feeling of being able to live one's life on one's terms and feel that you're flourishing, that every day brings new awe and wonder, that the universe you live in is an amazing place to be and the more you experience of it the more amazing it becomes.

Yet all the time, I hear folks say things like "If I were happy, I'd never get things done." "If I were happy, I would just want to sit on the couch all day." (No, dude, that's not happiness, it's a heroin fix you're thinking of.)

Myth #4: Happiness is the enemy of productivity.

This isn't really quite the same thing as myth #1--it's possible to be productive without accomplishment. (Doing the dishes is productive, but doesn't directly lead to finishing a book.) But they are related, in that it's hard to be accomplished without being productive.

For me, creating things, writing, co-creating with partners, making things that didn't exist until I worked my will on the world and caused them to exist--these are expressions of my happiness. The more I do them, the happier I am...and the happier I am, the more I do them. In fact, depression and unhappiness are much more corrosive to productivity than happiness is...ask anyone who suffers from depression how difficult it is to do anything when you're in its grip!

Myth #5: Happiness is meaningless to a person who is always happy. We can't appreciate happiness without sadness, life without death, joy without sorrow, light without darkness, Albert Einstein without Deepak Chopra, Mozart without Justin Bieber, word processors without cuneiform, blah blah blah.

I realize this notion that you can't enjoy X without its dark and sinister anti-X evil twin is deeply embedded in Western cultural consciousness, but it still makes me scratch my head every single time I hear it. Folks actually appear to believe this is true, and I just don't get it. I appreciate the fact that I can see, yet I've never been blind.

In fact, happiness is exactly what lets me appreciate the awe-inspiring beauty and wonder of the natural universe. You don't have to be sad in order to enjoy and appreciate happiness; being happy is, of and by itself, a happy experience! That's kind of what it says on the tin.

I know this sounds like a radical notion, but I would like to propose that happiness is not something to fear, it's something to embrace, for the simple reason that it makes our lives better. We have inherited our distrust of happiness from our Puritan forefathers, I suspect, but you know what? Fuck them. They said we should sacrifice our happiness in our worldly lives so that we would be happy in the afterlife, with nary a thought to the contradiction inherent in the notion of pursuing happiness by denying happiness.

The idea that we should fear happiness is, I would argue one of the most singular causes of the many evils bedeviling humankind. And I can not rightly understand why this fear has such great currency.

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Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
margareta87
Sep. 1st, 2014 10:15 pm (UTC)
I think it is a mistake to take these "myths" on face value.

If I am struggling financially, I might look at the well-off of West Vancouver with derision, listing reasons why I would never want to live like them, why it's not so great to live that way, maybe even why my struggles make me a better person, even make my life better.

That doesn't mean I actually wouldn't want to be them, given a choice. It means I am trying to make myself feel better about what I don't have.

Likewise, if I am someone who doesn't often feel happy, it might be comforting to invent reasons why it's really not so great to be happy after all. Maybe, even, why I am a better person than someone who is happy all the time, or why unhappiness makes my life better, more productive, more meaningful, whatever.

It doesn't mean that, given a choice, I would not actually want to be a happy person.

It just means that I'm unhappy and I am trying to feel less bad about it by making up reasons why happiness isn't so great, anyway.

I think the prominence of the ideas you've described above is really just an indicator of how many people find it difficult to be happy. It's ex post facto reasoning, not ex ante.
wanted_a_pony
Sep. 2nd, 2014 05:39 am (UTC)
Hmm, yes, I think you're onto something here, with I don't want X because I don't have it. I feel there's often a litte more to it tho'--the idea that I don't have X and I'll never have it, even if I try hard to get it. I think it's based on the notion that it hurts more to try to have X but fail (or to have X & lose it) than simply to eschew X from the outset. Does that make sense with what you're thinking?
margareta87
Sep. 2nd, 2014 06:15 am (UTC)
Well yeah, I think there's a certain amount of despair involved. And the fact is that the vast majority of people in the world never will experience it the way Franklin does. So the "despair" is in fact justified--if you weren't born with what he was born with, chances are good you will never have it.

Because of that, this post reads to me a little bit as (unintentionally) "punching down." It's not happy people who say the things he's criticizing. I think if you looked closely, you'd find the "myths" don't come from people who are trying to keep other people from being happy. They come from people who struggle to be happy themselves and are trying to feel a little bit better about it.

So if I'm the guy at Walmart working three jobs to make ends meet, looking at the guy in the mansion and saying, "I bet it's not really so great," this post is like the guy in the mansion saying, "No you're totally wrong, it IS amazing being fabulously rich and living in this mansion, let me tell you all about how great it is and how living in this mansion is really not what you think."


Edited at 2014-09-02 05:33 pm (UTC)
wanted_a_pony
Sep. 2nd, 2014 09:51 pm (UTC)
Yes, exactly! You've summarized it so well (in several ways), & so much more accessibly than I could.
serina_ds
Sep. 1st, 2014 10:22 pm (UTC)
There's also the one I've come across that says that what I feel can't be true happiness because happiness is a transitory emotion. For some reason they really can't seem to understand the circular reasoning in that one...
(Anonymous)
Sep. 1st, 2014 11:10 pm (UTC)
"In fact, depression and unhappiness are much more corrosive to productivity than happiness is"

This is so true, I got nothing done today because I was miserable. Anything more than minor degrees of sadness completely screws my ability to be productive.

Honestly even if all these myths were true I'd still choose happiness over misery. Misery is just inherently awful.
fallingupthesky
Sep. 2nd, 2014 05:33 am (UTC)
The brain chemistry thing aside, I notice that there's a huge gulf in the lives of those who are chronically happy and those who are chronically unhappy.

For those who are chronically happy, want to write a book? Hard work almost certainly will pay off. Want to take a vacation to Alaska? It's a matter of when, not if. Dissatisfied with your lifestyle? Within reason, change it! The lives of such people are rarely perfect, by any means, but their circumstances are such that good times happen very reliably if one makes an effort for them. This sort of situation tends to be very strongly self-perpetuating.

For those who are chronically unhappy... they're too busy juggling the latest three disasters while preparing for the next one. Lifestyle? What's that? You live how you're forced to, there really isn't anything else. Regardless how it originally came about, this sort of situations is also very strongly self-perpetuating. And what passes for "happiness" is usually a fleeting relief from the rare moments where everything goes right for once - which might as well be a heroin fix.
wanted_a_pony
Sep. 2nd, 2014 09:43 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this! AFAIK I grew up depressed (in the quiet, don't-draw-attention, other-people-are-worse-off way that girls & smart youngsters often do) & now, at 54, I'm barely beginning to understand how those who aren't depressed think. Growing up depressed in a dysfunctional environment taught me amazingly useless coping skills, despair that anything would ever change, & hopelessness about controlling or shaping my life. There's also good evidence that my brain probably developed differently & continues to work differently than those who are cheerful, hopeful &/or highly self-efficacious.

What you say about being 'busy juggling the latest three disasters while preparing for the next one' is so, so true. Although objectively I have an easy, privileged life, I constantly feel beset by vague danger & on the brink of losing everything. When I'm in this headspace it doesn't take an unfortunate event to feel like I'm beset by disaster--hell, it doesn't even take an event. :-P

So, yeah, self-perpetuating. For generations actually. Thanks for your lucid explanation of something that's very difficult to discern when you're in the midst of it.
ashbet
Sep. 7th, 2014 04:30 am (UTC)
^^^Agreed.

(I wrote a *cough* lengthy comment, below.)

TL;DR version: I spent the first thirty-some years of my life as a happy person, despite living through some rough circumstances... and then chronic illness, disability, financial stress, and my daughter developing the same health issues at a much-earlier age, along with a ton of other stuff that all dumped on me within a 3-year period, has fundamentally changed my outlook, my anxiety levels, my ability to maintain optimism when facing obstacles, etc.)

It's *definitely* changed me neurologically, with concrete results. I had to have a bunch of neuropsych testing done when I started to experience cognitive-deficit issues (they think it's because I've been in so much pain from trigeminal neuralgia for *so many years*, plus the other physical issues that come with my genetic disorder.) I've basically developed a severe case of ADHD in my mid-thirties, despite being a high-functioning professional who was on-task, focused, and detail-oriented before I became ill.

My focus, executive function, impulse control, and *ability to complete a sentence* went out the window. I'm currently taking meds to help, but I have to keep them at a low dosage, or else they cause BP issues. I can come across fairly cogently online (depends on how I'm doing that day), but in person, the difference is noticeable.

(It's caused an unexpected amount of strain in my relationships with my family and friends. They have a hard time understanding that my forgetfulness, trailing off mid-thought, veering off on conversational tangents, and interrupting frequently, are a *neurological* issue, not a *volitional* issue.)

I've also developed an anxiety disorder, out of the blue -- apparently, if you put someone through nonstop crushing strain, pain, and uncertainty for a long enough time, disempower them from making important life decisions, make them fear for their child's life, the roof over their heads, and struggle to get basic needs met... they can develop hypervigilance and anxiety and catastrophic thinking, even as an adult who already had their neural pathways pretty much set in "cheerful optimist" mode.

*HOPING* that things are finally looking up, but I'm still struggling to get my medications paid-for, I have no certainty that my daughter's current cardiac improvement is going to be long-term (the underlying issue hasn't gone away, although she has repaired some of the damage from last year's slide into cardiomyopathy -- but since the tachycardia is still there, and the heart muscle is weakened due to our genetic disorder, it could come back at any time. She has to be intensively monitored by a cardiologist for the foreseeable future, probably for life, and will need to stay on heart meds indefinitely), I don't know if she'll be able to go back to college, or if she'll EVER be able to hold a job (she got sick much earlier than I did, and the course that the disease has taken in her has been brutal.)

It's pretty hellish to go from an "everything will work out in the end, if I work hard and do the right thing" attitude, to a "the sky is always falling and there's nowhere to run" mindset... but the sky has BEEN falling nonstop for about three-and-a-half years now, and that's apparently enough time, when combined with increasing pain and health/cognitive issues, to rewire my head fairly thoroughly.

It's hard to see from the inside (and I sympathize about the dysfunctional environment and resulting sense of danger and helplessness), but it's very much true -- most people who are "naturally happy" are not living the kind of lives that constantly have them juggling chainsaws and wondering where the next disaster is going to hit.

At a certain point, depression/despair/anxiety is a RATIONAL response to a horrible situation. It's hard to stay positive if, in the long term, your efforts come to nothing, and you get undermined every time you try to move forward.

I still do my best to be optimistic, and I am *hoping* that we're finally on an upswing after a long and miserable downswing... but I can't help keeping one eye out for another razor-sharp pendulum to come swooping in out of the darkness -- because, at this point, it's REASONABLE to believe that one is out there.

-- A <3
ashbet
Sep. 7th, 2014 03:48 am (UTC)
*nods* Agreed, as someone who has seen this particular divide from both sides of the fence.

BY NATURE, I am a fairly happy person, I like to be laid-back and relaxed and cheerful, I'm easily pleased/amused (or "maintain my sense of childlike wonder," whichever you prefer), and I'm generally bubbly and full of ideas, and have spent the majority of my life believing that if I worked hard enough, I could accomplish just about anything.

And events bore me out in that -- I went from being a desperately-poor teenage mom to making a good salary as an executive legal secretary for law firm senior partners, and my career was still on the ascent trajectory. I managed to do this without a college degree, by working my way up from a fairly low-paid research assistant position, in part because I had a really stellar work ethic and I impressed the right people when I was taking my turns as a "floater," subbing for secretaries who were out.

I take DAMN good transcription -- and, unlike the typing pool, I had a good comprehension of the issues in each case, and was able to either figure out indistinct words from context, or put in a "___" to let the attorney know that a word was missing, rather than filling in whatever sounded like the word phonetically, whether or not it made sense.

At a certain point, one attorney's secretary left, and there was a vacancy (meant to be temporary) that I was filling in, and it turned out that he and I worked very well together, and continued to do so for the next 5 years. I left for a higher-paying job in the end (due to NY/DC firm politics, I effectively had a salary cap, despite my attorney's willingness to pay more to keep me), and a higher-paying job after that one. I was a success story.

(I also ran my own business making theatrical/club wigs and ponyfalls and doing hair extensions, which I *loved*, and I raised my daughter, mostly on my own, and I dated some awesome people and discovered polyamory and traveled and went dancing and life was AMAZING.)

Sure, it had its hard parts (a nightmare boss, my relationship with my now-former husband not working out the way I'd hoped), but I was overall positive that things would work out for the best in the end, as long as I put in my best efforts.

(FWIW, I am aware that this sounds ASTONISHINGLY privileged, and I can assure you that I'm aware that my skin color, upbringing, and schooling meant that I had a leg-up over many people in a similar position. I'm breezing through the difficult parts because I'm trying to summarize the highlights.)

And then I got sick.

After a couple of years of struggling for a diagnosis while working, and dealing with an increasing number of seemingly-unrelated but persistent and distressing health issues, I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic connective-tissue disorder.

Suddenly, a huge number of my medical issues fell into place -- the reason that I had so many different symptoms was that EDS affects *all* connective tissue in the body, including organs . . . so, I not only had joint hypermobility (I'd always thought that "being flexible" was a good thing!) and cumulative, worsening injuries associated with that, I also had cardiac, neurological, autoimmune, and gastrological problems that were only getting worse. I had also picked up Epstein-Barr at some point, and it hit my defective immune system like a freight train -- so, I developed fibromyalgia and severe fatigue as well.

Let me tell you, there's nothing to improve your mood like hearing "Oh, you're stuck with this for life, and you think it's terrible now? Wait ten years -- it'll just keep getting worse."

(cont'd)
ashbet
Sep. 7th, 2014 04:06 am (UTC)
I dealt with some pretty serious depression around the time of my diagnosis, and when I became too ill to continue working (my hands made it too painful to use a keyboard, I had to shutter my hair business, and for a while, I had difficulty holding a pencil/pen/brush/stylus, so my art -- I'd had a self-defined identity as an artist since I was a little girl -- was also being taken away from me. I did eventually teach myself how to create digital art, and found some work-arounds that let me grip the stylus more easily, but in recent years, I've had to quit again. Decided to teach myself photography this time, which is going reasonably well.)

But, even then -- I made the best of it. When I finally got Social Security disability after fighting tooth-and-nail for 2.5 years (they DO NOT GET connective-tissue disorders, because they tend to be rare, and they don't fit into their little tick-boxes. Had the same experience when my daughter applied), I received a substantial back-pay award, and my monthly SSDI income, while still quite a bit less than my work paychecks, is at the high end of benefits because I'd been a high-salary worker. I used the money to pay my share of household expenses, and I did a lot of travel. My life, while painful and sometimes difficult, was still good, and I still maintained the attitude that no matter what my body did to me, I'd always have my mind, and I'd make the best possible life for myself and my daughter, no matter what.

Then SHE got sick.

Turns out that she got the bad side of the 50/50 chance that a parent with EDS will pass it on to their child. We hadn't spotted it sooner because many of the indicators were "normal" for me -- can't EVERYONE do that? Her hypermobility didn't really manifest until puberty (which is common, it's why women are much more disabled by EDS, at about an 80/20 split -- and all but one of the EDS-affected men I know are trans men.) And her symptoms came on gradually -- first GERD, then severe anemia, then two-week migraines, then elusive cardiac problems that required four years and specialized tests to nail down.

I'm more affected in terms of damaged joints/spine, she's more affected in various organ systems -- expression of the disease can vary even within the same generation of one family, with mildly-affected and severely-affected siblings or parents/children with the same mutation, but different results.

Then her cardiac problems got worse, dramatically, and I started bleeding money like a sieve. I'd separated from my ex and moved to another state, living on my own, and was very happy about it, with my daughter normally being home for holidays and summer break. Instead, she had to leave school (twice) and move in with me full-time, and her medical bills destroyed the savings I'd built up, and I went from having $10K in the bank and zero debt, to being vastly overextended on every front.

And my boyfriend lost his job, and his apartment building burned down, and my trigeminal neuralgia was getting worse and I kept failing the new treatments they'd try, and I started having to deal with mobility impairments and bad falls, and then *I* lost my apartment due to sleazy management wanting to "remodel" and jack the rent by $300/mo, and I started having distressing cognitive issues caused by the TN, which laughed in the face of me "always having my mind" . . . and all the while, I was worried for my daughter's LIFE, because her tachycardia/low-blood-pressure issues (common in EDS) had started putting enough strain on her heart that she developed *cardiomyopathy* at age 20.

And somewhere in there, I lost the ability to chill the fuck out and live in the moment.

(cont'd again because of LJ's stupid comment limit)
ashbet
Sep. 7th, 2014 04:06 am (UTC)
At this point, I'm anxious, hypervigilant, prone to depression, prone to catastrophizing, try to avoid "jinxing myself" by expecting a good outcome to situations, etc., etc.

When you spend enough time juggling chainsaws, it changes you neurologically. I'm holding out hope that if things ever calm down, I can slowly learn to be happier again -- I *like* being happy, I liked who I was as a happy person, and I want to get that back! But I'm going to have a hell of a lot of life lessons to *unlearn* to get there, because right now, all the "hoping for the best" basically came up snake-eyes.

I still *have* hope. And I'm being proactive to make my life, and my daughter's life, as good as possible (we have no idea if she'll ever be well enough to work and support herself -- she's attempting another semester of school, after a year's break of cardiac recovery, but she could need to come home next week, for all we know.) And I fight, HARD, for that quality of life . . . and I've spent a lot of time fighting insurance companies and bureaucrats to try to get her the care she needs. But all the fighting in the world sometimes isn't enough.

And that's not an attitude that I had before, and it saddens me.

But, yes -- a life that is chaotic and stressful, that emphasizes powerlessness to affect the outcomes of major events, when you're in physical pain and mental distress, when you're constantly on the edge financially . . . that's not conducive to "being a happy person," and it's actually counterproductive when it comes to the successes that happy people are able to achieve through confidence, willpower, and *luck*.

While I absolutely respect the fact that this was written with the best of intent, and that many of the statements are true (I hate the "happy people can't..." assumptions), I don't think that happiness is either just a matter of brain chemistry, or a matter of willing yourself to be a happier person. It has to do with both of those (and bad brain chemistry/mental health issues absolutely can affect the *ability* to be happy) . . . but it also has a hell of a lot to do with life circumstances, because disempowerment and constant stress WILL wear down a person's ability to achieve baseline happiness.

-- A <3
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