CAN WE RESOLVE TO BE HAPPY?

I know it’s a bit early to be talking about resolutions. We haven’t even gotten through the season to be jolly; the much anticipated making ourselves crazy season when we over shop, over do, and over eat while trying to replicate a Norman Rockwell illustration. It never seems to be the happy time we want it to be.

When it’s all over, we collectively sigh in relief and nurture the idea that we can make the next year better. I’m a firm believer in resolutions. I’m not talking about the I want to lose ten pounds and go to the gym everyday kind of resolutions that are a recipe for failure (Sorry. I couldn’t resist!)  I prefer something closer to thinking about doing things differently, if not better.

David Brooks wrote a great column this week titled Life Lessons from Lives Long-Lived. He asked people over 70 to send him what he called Life Reports—what they felt they’d done well or poorly in their own lives. From this self-selected group, he concluded that happy people are those who think of their lives in chapters. They were people who reflected on their lives as phases, seeing time in divisible sections so they could more easily stop, assess, and change.  Those that were unhappy were more likely to see life as an unbroken stream, resulting in little control.

Optimism is built into the idea that you can partition your life into manageable phases and improve them as you go.  As children, we operate that way.  School organizes us naturally into chapters. With each phase of school we grow physically, emotionally, and psychologically.  Our brains develop and expand.  We are in a state of becoming.  We are expectant. We are encouraged to believe in possibility as reality.

Fast forward on life’s trajectory.  If we aren’t careful, we only see what isn’t happening for us as the operating factor.  We get stuck in what we can’t do, what isn’t possible rather than what is. We often think it’s too late for some things. Obstacles and heartache are givens.  Life is really hard. We get walloped and barely recover before we are hit again.

Yet as a culture, we expect happiness.  Our goal is to find what that is for us and hold on to it. Self-help books fly off the shelves to teach us how to find it and, more importantly, to recognize it.  The Happiness Project is a bestseller. It was preceded by the Dalai Lama’s book, The Art of Happiness, his handbook for living.

When reading the Dalai Lama book, I was struck at how his core premise seemed out of whack with the way most of us have been raised.  He says that one’s main obligation is to make oneself happy first because when you’re happy, it spills over to other people.  I think as a society we balk at that because it sounds self-centered. But think about it.  What could be truer?

Brooks agrees but asks the question. We are told to live for others.  What if we modify that by doing what makes you feel okay even if it might not be right for others?  He wonders if  that is selfish or hard-earned realism.

Had I responded to Brooks, I would count myself among those who were happy— at this point in time. The unpredictability of life makes happiness precarious. We define it as we go.  I guess the point is to try to be vigilant in guarding the part of yourself where your happiness lives.

A friend said to me the other day that some people aren’t meant to be happy.  She may be right, though I prefer to think not.  There are some people who have suffered so deeply, the idea of being happy is a cruel joke.

This is a big topic, requiring a long conversation.  What are your thoughts?

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4 thoughts on “CAN WE RESOLVE TO BE HAPPY?

  1. As you said, these thoughts are part of a long conversation.

    What David Brooks talks about and the idea of moving from childhood to adult seem to coincide. The notion of happiness is too often put in terms of a state of being. This seems to be part of the media influenced culture that we exist in, which offers quick fixes or fraudulent solutions. That we are “happy” or “unhappy” are stated as if these things are stopped in time, when they exist on a continuum. I think of being “peaceful” or “safe” (in the broader sense) as states of being. Another issue is the idea of achieving happiness, as if it is something to strive for and then hold on to. It is the holding on part that is problematical; again, this suggests some accomplishments or events that end in the result of feeling or being happy, and we try to cling to that feeling as if it were some precious object. A geometrical or mathematical example is the person walking toward a wall in a room, and reaching the wall is the goal. The idea is that one has to proceed halfway to the “goal” , and that continues, so the person can never get to the wall, because you always have to go halfway from whererver you are. Perhaps there is some relationship here to the idea of happiness, that it is always a journey/quest, which is endless and infinite.

    It is interesting to put this in terms of the development of a child toward adulthood, where there are certain phases that we pass through. Some part of the “problem” can be seen as the placing of signs or points of growth that eventually culminate into a set of goals. The bright child goes through traditional schooling with the goal of becoming a dr. When this goal is achieved, there is some expectation of a reward. We know that monetary success is often achieved, but it is simplistic and false to equate this with happiness in the absence of accompanying growth or fulfillment. The same thing can be applied to the gifted athlete, who is often overvalued in the culture. How many crash and burn cases have we seen with young men and women who place their happiness into the egg basket of athletic achievement, which may yield money and fame. This is true even with many of those who reach this false goal and then realize that they feel empty or unfulfilled, especially as compared to the enormous expectation.

    I am switching gears to the whole notion of what the holidays, especially Christmas, signify and the dysfunctional behaviors and anxiety that are attached. It seems the ultimate bad bargain that the cultural norm has invited us to participate in with the perverse commercialization of Christmas and Channukah. I squirm inwardly when I hear the horror stories of family expectation, jealousies, and squabbles that come out of this dynamic of gift giving. The general trend toward greater materialism combined with the media blitz that bombards us create a whole set of external pressures which seem antithetical to any idea of feeling happy, comforted, or peaceful in mind and spirit. When you factor in the huge expectation attached to this phenomenon, we see a dysfunctional set of dynamics that are bound to leave people feeling anxious, unsatisfied and ultimately bruised. On a basic human level, this seems terribly sad and a formula for disharmony within ourselves and feelings of anger and disconnectedness from others. I think of the power of the media, and how it has been so “successful” in setting up this situation. At the end of the holiday season, how painfully often do we hear people mention how they are so glad that the holidays are over. It has become a cliche. If mid to late December were truly joyous in the larger sense of providing feelings of good will, why should we then hear about the weariness and stress as the dominant themes.

    I was going to (attempt to) tackle the subject of the Dalai Lama and self vs. self-centered, but that is too broad to discuss with the necessary depth in this space.

    Thank you for the opportunity to express my thoughts.

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