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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

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