Bittersweet

celastrus_scandens.jpgWhatever happened to the emotion known as bittersweet? 

In a world that feels the incessant need to drive emotional sensibility out and force the typical into divergent extremes, it is a sorely missed human trait.

We have sacrificed complexity and nuance for the convenient speed of simplicity and suffered sorely for the choice.  Society has been fooled into believing that sadness and happiness cannot occupy the same space.  This is simply not true.  Emotional mixtures can be as complicated as the human spirit itself.

Pop psychologists and pharmaceutical companies seem to believe that happiness is attained simply by removing the sadness peg and replacing it with one dipped in happiness.  A five-step plan here and fifty milligrams there and the problem is fixed.  Birds sing louder and the sun shines brighter.

We are worth substantially more than this.

There is no magic pill.  We are not emotional vassals able to be empty and filled at a moment’s notice.  Our experiences stay with us until our last breath and constantly contribute to our identity.  Our hope of gaining happiness is not to vanquish sadness- for then what would happiness be- but to end the day with more positive experiences than negative ones.  That is our charge.

Once upon a time I buried a dog.  He had been struck by a car and left to lie in the middle of the road.  I had rescued him a a few months earlier- covered in mange and God knows what- from an inner suburb of Atlanta.  As I dug, two emotions clouded my soul- heartwrenching grief and the honest belief that the dog had died knowing it was finally loved by someone who chose to give a damn.  There was a fullness in my chest as the two emotions settled deep within me.  There was no competition- the grief sat alongside the joy and held muted hands as the piles of dirt grew higher.

Years later, the experience left me neither “happy” nor “sad”- to claim as much would denigrate both the sanctity of the experience and the memory of the dog.       

In my quest to discover happiness, it serves me well to remember this. 

Pace

Today is my “long” day.  I have classes at 10:00, 1:00, 2:30 and 5:30.  Which means I’ll be in class for about six hours today, and I won’t get home until around 7:45. 

If I think about that too much, it will start to effect my happiness level.  It’s not that class itself makes me sad- it’s mostly knowing how the day is going to turn out before it actually does that leads to melancholy.  If variety is the spice of life, Tuesdays tend to be a giant bowl of boiled cabbage.

As of now, I have two techniques that I use to combat the dreariness of Tuesdays.  One is to try not to focus on the near future, but simply on what is happening at the moment.  Each moment is unique in and of itself, even if the larger picture appears to be the same time and time again.

Last night, for example, I took maybe 25 photographs of one cat.  Each one was different.  Some were similar, but each one showed the creature in a different light or slightly different pose. 

Tuesdays are no different- they seem monotonous, but each one holds mystery and magic waiting to be discovered.  Part of overcoming my mental block about today is realizing this and spending my time searching for the ways the day is different.

Secondly, it helps to realize that I chose to run this academic gauntlet on Tuesdays.  Scheduling all of my classes on only two days has its advantages- I am able to work more on the days I have off.  If my classes were spread out in a more traditional format, I would have to rush back and forth to work and constantly check the time.  That would be bothersome, to say the least.

One day I was watching an episode of Dora the Explorer with my niece and was tickled by the ridiculously easy choices it offered kids.  For example, at one point she asked the audience to choose between two paths- one was blocked by an obviously hungry crocodile, whereas the other one was clear and lined with pretty flowers.  It was a simple decision.

Life doesn’t typically work out that way.  Each choice we make often has both good and bad ramifications.  We make the best choice we can with the information we’re given, and then go from there.  It does us no good to look back with remorseful hindsight and wish we’d done things differently.  Our only option is to maximize the good benefits of our decision while dulling or redirecting the negative aspects as much as possible.

So, I could spend the day bemoaning my self-chosen fate, or congratulate myself on making the right choice while realizing that certain parts of that choice necessarily put me in a tough situation for a few hours a week.  Then I can attempt to experience each moment, instead of tuning out and unconsciously painting a glum wash over the whole day and going to sleep tired and unhappy.

Seems like a pretty straightforward choice- I think I’ll avoid the crocodile.

Relevant Article on Happiness #4

In my exhaustive quest to cover all things “happy,” I use several cutting edge research techniques.

In other words, I usually just type the word “happy” into Google.com and see what’s there.  Tonight my search led me to this article called “Deceptive Happiness,” part of the aptly named site called findhappiness.org.  It appears to be a website that promotes Buddhism, but the articles usually end with a book sale at the end.  Commercialism is generally a red flag on the trustworthy scale- which is one of the reasons I took down my own advertisements after flirting with it for a few days.

Regardless, I’m merely pontificating and cataloguing here, so it doesn’t take much to warrant archiving something.  I did find this quote from the article an interesting subject for discussion, however:

Everyone wants to be happy, but no one in samsara experiences true happiness. In comparison with the amount of suffering they endure, the happiness of living beings is rare and fleeting, and even this is only a contaminated happiness that is in reality the nature of suffering. Buddha called the pleasurable feelings that result from worldly enjoyments ‘changing suffering’ because they are simply the experience of a temporary reduction of manifest suffering. In other words, we experience pleasure due to the relief of our previous pain. For example, the pleasure we derive from eating is really just a temporary reduction of our hunger, the pleasure we derive from drinking is merely a temporary reduction of our thirst, and the pleasure we derive from ordinary relationships is for the most part merely a temporary reduction of our underlying loneliness.

Besides being an incredibly depressing way to look at the world, I also think that perhaps this is backwards.  Darkness is the absence of light, not the other way around.  Notwithstanding the fact that a “darklight” would be an incredibly cool invention, it’s just not possible.  The quote above makes unhappiness seem like a never-ending zombie invasion, and our pathetic attempts to stem it simply delay the inevitable slaughter…

Continue reading

Future Value in Practice

Last night, I decided to try again to quit smoking.  I have tried countless times with little success.  This time, however, I’m going to approach it from more of a happiness viewpoint than at prior times, using the future value of happiness theory I advanced below. 

Not smoking a cigarette will not give me much happiness at the moment- sure, they’ll be a small sense of accomplishment, but that will be about it.  However, the future value of that happiness could grow quite large.  If, a year from now, I can be nicotine free and exercising regularly, the small act I’m doing now will reap astronomical returns.  The future value is both huge and incalculable.

If their were a financial equivalent, I would throw every penny I had into it and wait to become rich a year later.  It seems absurd that I won’t do it with something like happiness.

This goes back to something I posted about earlier- sometimes in our lives we have to be sadder for a while before we can reach a higher level of happiness.  The first week I quit smoking is not going to be a pleasant experience.  But that’s okay, because the happiness the activity will cause in the long-term more than tips that balance.  Likewise, the first week I go jogging is the worst- I’m always sore and I feel like a failure when I stop after half a mile- but it leads to achievements that I couldn’t reach otherwise.  The dip in happiness is worth it, due to the fact that the happiness returns are so high.

What I have to focus on is the image a year from now- running effortlessly through the streets of my hometown, lungs greedily and efficiently sucking up air and legs pumping like pistons as I cover miles and miles.  This is possible- but only if I try for it.

So today I’m going to start stop smoking.  It’s been long enough.

Emotional Compounding

Being somewhat of a nerd, I sometimes like to play with investment calculators and figure out what one dollar invested today would be worth after about three decades in the stock market. 

The growth of the dollar is quite slow at first, but then the power of compound interest causes it to accelerate quite quickly. 

I’m starting to think that perhaps human emotions work the same way.  The little things we do each day at first seem to not matter much.  But they run together and build up steam, and the once trivial acts of our lives become the overall theme. 

I think that this is just as true of happiness as it is sadness or anger or fear.  Getting frustrated several times a day leads to a pattern of frustration that may one day pervade our entire life.  The future in this sense is much greater than the present.

So, the happiness we find today has multiple values- the joy of anticipation, the extemporaneous pleasure found in the moment, the tranquil recollection a few days afterward and the future value of that happiness down the road.  By viewing happiness and human emotion as a multi-dimensional object, it gives us a greater urge to chase it.  We do things not just to be happy for today- but to paint our lives with a wide and joyful brush.

This is even more important when the nature of the act appears quite trivial.  We might question whether or not it’s worth it to even do, compared to the small amount of happiness the task will give us.  But when we look to the future value, and the effect of emotional compounding, the answer becomes clear. 

Every rivet, though it may be unnoticed, is important when it comes to building a ship.  Leaving out one rivet may be forgivable; forgetting one or two here and there is probably okay, as well.  But if two many rivets are cast aside, the future value of the ship begins to suffer.  At that time it won’t matter if the fancy cannon or steam engine is in perfect working order.  The die is cast- the ship is going down. 

This is perhaps why I see so many people who have a lot of stuff but never seem happy- they forgot the rivets, and all of their grand things have no safe foundation of happiness to rest upon.  The objects, incapable of giving happiness in and of themselves, simply end up slipping silently into the forlorn sea.

Happiness Quote Week Two

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

– Albert Camus

While perusing quotes about happiness, I encounter a great many that seem to trumpet this principle that the quest for happiness is always fruitless- that the search itself destroys what we seek. 

I once read somewhere that humor is a lot like that- when we attempt to analyze a joke we understand why it is funny but the process causes the joke to lose much of its humor.  The same thing happens when I create a mental image- I can often see it in incredible detail with my mind’s eye unless I focus and try too hard, if that makes any sense.  Then the image quickly falls away.

There’s another scene that comes to mind from The Simpsons.  On one occasion, Marge asks Bart if he wants to ride a tandem bicycle with her.  He responds that he would, but he’s busy playing his video game.  The screen cuts to a video game where he’s riding a bicycle outside, and pressing a button fervently to pedal uphill.  As he does so he narrates, “Alright, I’m at the top of the hill.  Time to enjoy the view.  Enjoy!  Enjoy!  Enjoy!  Enjoy!” as he continues to push the button in an effort to fill up his enjoyment meter on the screen.  I would like to think that Mr. Camus would definitely disapprove of that.

However, I think Camus would also disapprove of someone who never stopped to take stock of their emotional inventory or to question whether or not they were making worthwhile decisions.  He worries about people who wonder what happiness “consists of,” to use his language.  I agree that happiness, like humor, is best left unexplored on such a fundamental level.  Some things should never be dissected, explicated or laid out on a cold and bare table- the symbolic human heart is one such thing.  That said, I think he would agree that doing things that tend to create happiness is a valid and healthy exercise, as long as we don’t question too deeply why or how such things work.

The following quote states this perfectly:

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

– William Wordsworth 

As I read this I look back on the football game I played yesterday.  During the game my five senses went into overdrive and any attempt at tranquility was shot.  There was simply no time to recollect anything while I was experiencing the moment.  Even now, many moments in the game are being lost to the gradual withdrawal of time.  A few moments burned into my memory so deeply, however, that I feel they’ll be with me for the rest of my life.

The ball hanging high in the air- only sense sight and the wet earth beneath my feet- not knowing who’s around me or behind me or what’s in front- don’t think- keep moving- caught.

When you’re enjoying life, you can’t stop and do that- it would ruin the moment.  However, after you’ve wrenched every last drop of fun out of an event, look back on it with a calm outlook in a few days later and “replay” the moments in your mind.  Recollection offers the individual a chance to take further enjoyment from a pleasurable event.

Hear No Sadness, See No Sadness

Today I did our bimonthly grocery shopping while my wife stayed home and straightened up the house.  Since we have three dogs and five cats, the grocery shopping is pretty intensive.

 I was probably in WalMart about 90 minutes- the last 30 minutes or s0 began to really get to me.  There’s just so many people and lines and things to think about (constantly checking the list, where in the store to go) that it can get overwhelming.  It’s simply not a pleasant experience.

I stood in the aisle for a few minutes and took a few deep breaths.  I knew that if I let it that this experience could make the rest of my day that much worse.  I knew that this would be a bad thing, if only because it wasn’t that big of a deal.  It’s hard to think that, however, when you’re in the middle of the situation.  Worse yet, I was slightly worn out from the long week and in no condition to deal with the teeming masses that is a Walmart Saturday afternoon. 

I dealt with it by basically surrendering.  I shut my brain down and simply went through the routine so I could get out of the store with my happiness intact. 

I looked at it this way.  Say you’re a king, and your primary goal is to protect your castle.  You only have so many boulders to load into your catapult, and it takes time to make more.  That means it’s best to save them for a serious situation. 

In my example, the Walmart situation was basically a lone, deformed zombie that repeatedly banged against the stone walls.  There was no point lobbing my boulders at it, because it was obvious it would die soon anyway.  So I simply ignored it, knowing that soon it would go away.  Had I treated the situation as being more serious, I would have expended serious energy and effort into vanquishing an enemy that really didn’t matter in the first place.  This necessarily leaves me vulnerable when the real enemy decides to attack with arrows and slings of misfortune.

So today I learned a valuable tool for preserving my happiness when annoying things occur- I simply ignore them until they go away.  Of course, such a thing won’t work (and is patently unhealthy) when something serious or relationship-based occurs, but it does the trick when life throws you the occasional pothole that can’t be avoided- particularly when you lack the energy to deal with it in a more effective way.