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. 

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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…

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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.

Relevant Article on Happiness #3

At NPR.org, there’s an article about Eric G. Wilson, the author of a new book entitled Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy

Here’s a quote from his book:

At the behest of well-meaning friends, I have purchased books on how to be happy. I have tried to turn my chronic scowl into a bright smile. I have attempted to become more active, to get away from my dark house and away from my somber books and participate in the world of meaningful action. … I have contemplated getting a dog. I have started eating salads. I have tried to discipline myself in nodding knowingly. … I have undertaken yoga. I have stopped yoga and gone into tai chi. I have thought of going to psychiatrists and getting some drugs. I have quit all of this and then started again and then once more quit. Now I plan to stay quit. The road to hell is paved with happy plans.

As I understand it, his argument that mild to moderate depression is actually a good thing is twofold: that melancholy actually creates and causes human creativity, and that moderate depression is not a disease that needs to be treated with piles and piles of pretty pills.

 While provocative, I’m not sure I agree with his entire thesis.  First and foremost, it is not necessary to be depressed in order to be creative.  Sure, at times its influential, but there have been brilliant works of art that have not come from gloomy and self-loathing artists.  It is a disservice to our minds to think that our emotions control and rein in our intellect to such a substantial degree.  Personally, I do not think better when I’m depressed- depression tends to focus the thoughts into such a narrow spectrum that my output pales compared to when I view the entire world as a possible palette of ideas.

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Observations

I’ve noticed a strange and wonderful thing…

…happening over the last few days- as a result of my efforts on this blog, I’ve truly grown happier.  Not a monumental change to be sure, and I have no plans of dancing on the rooftops, but I’m happier.

Attitude certainly influences our reality, in that our attitude can determine what choice we make.  If I wanted to make tomorrow the worst day of my life, I probably could.  I could drop out of law school, burn down the house I’m living in, leave my wife, and then kill five people before being wounded by police and later arrested.  I’m pretty sure that would qualify as my worst day ever.

 Conversely, it’s more difficult to have your best day ever.  There is no happiness gun one can just shoot aimlessly.  We can’t plan on saving the lives of five people or helping the police capture a criminal.  We can’t schedule the day we meet the love of our lives.  All we can do is try to think positively and hope for the best, even when the situation looks grim.

I’m the last person to buy into The Secret, and I don’t think that sitting in a dark room thinking happy thoughts will bring you fortune and fame.  But if we encounter even the humdrum elements of our daily lives with a small measure of happiness, two things seem to happen.  First, we become more happy.  Second, the people you interact with are happier and the resulting relationships are much more meaningful and fulfilling.  This success leads to confidence and security, which leads to even more opportunities.

Those that are happy also see problems as opportunities, whereas those who aren’t so happy see problems as problems.  The difference is that happy people have more opportunities, which leads to more success.  Someone in the early 1900s saw the problem of walking or riding a horse everywhere, and made a car.  I’m sure thousands of other people saw the same problem and simply whined about it while riding their horse. 

That’s the difference.  Tomorrow, when you encounter a problem- and you surely will, if you are human- try to find a way to turn it into an opportunity, and see if the results aren’t surprising.