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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.



Sep. 7th, 2014 04:30 am (UTC)

(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