Doing The Happiness Rag

It is obvious if you pay attention to the world at large, that great numbers of people are unhappy. Maybe you are unhappy. All the negative things we see happening all around us prove this out. According to one website, people change jobs an average of 12 times over the course of their working career. Another website shows the 2018 divorce rate in the U.S. to be at 50%. Out of 195 countries in the world the U.S. ranks 18th on the World happiness scale so you would think that overall, we’re a pretty happy bunch. But are we? Every time I look at any news media I see unhappiness. Shootings, robberies, war, a 50% divorce rate, and crimes of all kinds. Our prisons hold more prisoners than any other country. Are we happy?

I know I’ve written about this before but it bares repeating. Happiness has little to do with outside circumstances and almost everything to do with how we react to those circumstances. I’ve had some pretty crappy jobs over the years. One job had me shoveling carbon that was used as a filter material for chemical laden water. It was a dirty, toxic, hot, all around miserable job. I had to dress in a hazmat type suit which was horribly hot, crawl inside a metal tank through a tube which I could barely fit and shovel this filtering material out and into barrels for processing. It was not what I thought of when a grade school teacher asked my class what we wanted to be when we grew up. Not even close. One day in the middle of shoveling I contemplated the work. It was good hard labor. It kept me in the best physical shape of my life. I was lean and strong. The pay was good. And I needed that job to pay the bills and hopefully work toward a day when I didn’t have to do it any more. There were actually a lot of positive aspects for doing something Mike Rowe calls, a dirty job. While my co-workers bitched and complained about it all day long, I kept my mouth shut. While a cleaner, easier job that payed as well would be desirable, there were a lot of reasons to appreciate what I was doing. (It was at this point when I meant to click the preview button to check my writing here and I actually clicked the publish button instead. I reacted very negatively, with much swearing, and fist pounding. I was unhappy.)

An example: My wife Ann had depression and anxiety. There were many times she felt the crushing weight of these illnesses and yet she was a happy person. Because she chose to be happy. Now I’m not an expert or even know much about mental illness. So I’m sure that I can’t speak to those issues. But I did know my wife, rather well at that. We talked about these things. She wanted me to be as informed about her depression and anxiety as I could be. And I wanted that as well. Not only were we married but we were best friends. I was the one she turned to in her darkest hours. In spite of all the things that could have gotten in the way of her happiness she decided to be happy. To enjoy her life to the fullest extent possible. Mental illness aside, she was a lot happier than many people I knew. And it was due mostly to her attitude.

There is a story that goes like this: When John Lennon was a child, one of his teachers asked his class what they wanted to be when they grew up. He answered that he wanted to be happy. His teacher suggested that he didn’t understand the question and he replied that she didn’t understand life. Whether or not this is true, I can’t say. But it does say something about life. Whatever you “do” in life, happiness is the foundation of all of it. Maybe you clean toilets for a living, and maybe you’re the CEO of a successful company. But if you’re not happy, what difference does it make what you do? Success cannot be measured by how much prestige, or wealth you gain. It can only be measured in what it brings to you in personal satisfaction. Happiness. How you see the world around you, whether or not you look for the positive aspects, can mean all the difference between misery and happiness.

I know I sound like a self help guru here but it really is up to us to make ourselves happy. Outside circumstances have an affect on us, this is true. How we react to those circumstances makes all the difference.

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Choosing Happiness


Now that I’m finished with writing about my trip to Ireland, what’s next? I could just take a break and not write anything for a while. I’ve definitely done that before. But I don’t feel like that. I don’t really want to take a break. Something I do almost all the time is observe people. I’m fascinated by what makes people tick, as the saying goes. Psychology and Philosophy are two of my favorite things. So I’m a people watcher, and I listen to people’s words. What they say and how they say it. It reveals a lot about how a person thinks, and how they think is fascinating. This morning, I was thinking about happiness. What makes people happy and why? I had a conversation with a friend recently and he asked me, “What makes you happy?” I thought about this for a while. I knew the answer immediately but I was curious how he would respond to it. To the question of what makes me happy, I answered, “Nothing.” He gave me a look of surprise and said, “But you seem to be pretty happy most of the time, and yet you say nothing makes you happy. I don’t get it.” So I responded with this: “The word ‘nothing’ is derived from two words, no and thing. No thing makes me happy. I, make me happy. I’m happy because I’ve decided that I want to be happy. Period.

Now you might ask, “Aren’t there things that make you unhappy? Things that really make you mad? Sure there are. And when I say that nothing makes me happy, That’s not quite true. There are a lot of things that can make a person happy, or sad or angry, jealous, envious, joyful etc. All those emotions are stirred by lots of different thing. The problem is that feeling emotional about something is temporary. Someone says something that really riles you up. You get really angry and then after awhile you settle down again. Or you become really joyful about something but after awhile, that settles down too. So by that definition, no thing can make you happy. Because the happiness you get from things and from people is always temporary. Lasting happiness comes from deciding that you’re going to be happy. Is it that simple? No, not really. In order to choose to be happy it takes a certain mind set. So let’s explore that.

One of the reasons why people are unhappy comes from their prejudices. And believe me, we all have them. Prejudice can be about anything. We can be prejudice over people who drive expensive cars. We can have prejudices about race, politics, or about the choices people make. It goes on and on. If you give honest thought about what your prejudices are I’m sure you’ll realize some of them. I know I have. Choosing to be happy means in part, getting rid of prejudice. To shed the things that make you unhappy. To realize that most of the things that we care about really don’t matter. My mom was a worrier. She worried about everything, all the time. If you weren’t worried about something, she would worry for you. When she reached her 80’s she told me that she finally realized that she had wasted a lot of her life worrying about things that really didn’t matter. She regretted doing that. This is what I’m talking about. Being happy means getting rid of the things that get in the way of being happy.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get angry. There are plenty of things a person can justify being angry about. Look at our politics today. But being happy means that your base line is happiness. That’s your starting point, and that’s where you return after feeling other emotions. Realizing that all emotions are temporary and shouldn’t be clung to can help you shed a lot of emotional weight. In order to have happiness as a base line you have to let go of the things that get in the way of that. And you have to realize that no thing can make happiness for you. Let’s say you buy a new car. It smells great, everything is shiny and new, and it runs great. Four years later it’s dirty, banged up and repairs cost a lot of money. Your feelings have changed about the thing you used to love. All things and people cause emotions to arise and feeling them is fine. In order to be truly, lastingly happy we cannot cling to our emotions. Feel them and let them go and realize that because someone made you really happy today, and maybe they will make you really happy tomorrow, they are not where true lasting happiness comes from. It comes from inside yourself.

Depression can get in the way of happiness. And if you have depression, you can’t simply get rid of it because you want to be happy. But just like other illnesses, depression shouldn’t define who you are. When you are introduced to another person, are you introduced as the illnesses that you have or are you introduced by your name? A person can still choose happiness as a baseline even when they have depression. My wife did that. Sometimes her depression was debilitating. But she would rally herself and come back to a basic happiness. I’m not a doctor or a psychologist. I know there are lots of things about depression I don’t know. I only know about the things I’ve experienced with the people I know who have had it. And I know that not all cases of depression are the same.

I’ve told the story about one of my granddaughters who went to Honduras. There she met children in an orphanage who basically lost everything. No home, no parents, etc. And yet these kids were happy. They were so joyful that American teenagers would come so far just to see them. They played and laughed without a care in the world. How does that happen? They haven’t been indoctrinated into believing that they shouldn’t be happy. You can see it in all children. Most kids are pretty happy all the time. Sure, they fall and scrape their knees and cry, but soon they’re up running around again. They haven’t been convinced that happiness is not normal. Children don’t care about what color someone is or how many studs or tattoos a person has. They don’t care if you’re gay or care about your past. If you play with them and love them, they’ll love you back. True happiness. We are born with it. But as we live our lives, lots of things get in the way of our happiness. We can however, find it again.

Happiness


My wife Ann who died of cancer in 2017, was a happy person. She had depression and anxiety throughout her life and endured much suffering because of that. And yet she was happy. I have known others who have had depression and anxiety but I can’t speak for them. I only know what I’ve experienced myself. I know that Ann was happy against all odds, against debilitating depression. Against fear inducing anxiety. Even dying from cancer didn’t take away from the happiness she felt. It was obvious to those who knew her that she didn’t want cancer, didn’t want to die so young. But throughout the whole ordeal of CT scans, MRI’s, biopsies, PET scans, lab work, chemo, and radiation she maintained a calmness, a ready acceptance of what was next. Knowing she was going to die from this, didn’t change her attitude. She would be happy.

It wasn’t always like that for her. She suffered for years being unhappy. Family issues, a failed marriage, and many other things caused her much grief. Somewhere along the way she realized that happiness, true, lasting happiness doesn’t come from outside of yourself. Owning things, having money, friends, family, situations, none of these things brings lasting happiness. They bring you a high. Like taking drugs gets you high. But like drugs, the high you get from a new car, or from praise, or from having money doesn’t last. It wears off and leaves a hole where it once was. It leaves you wanting more. This is something she came to know. Something she embraced. If she wanted to be happy, she’d have to do it herself.

The self help industry, for an industry is what it is, is huge. It’s a billion dollar industry. Books, magazines, DVD’s, websites, You Tube videos, all there to tell you how to improve, how to be happy. Most of them however, are only telling you how to get high. Choose this diet, get the sculpted body you’ve always craved, buy this new car, wear this make up and look twenty years younger, believe in this religion, buy my book for the secret to wealth and fame, etc, etc. Not that any of these things are bad, in and of themselves, but what they are selling you is a high. Diets are healthy. I could stand to lose some weight. More than a few pounds, actually. But it won’t make me happy. I can be just as miserable weighing twenty pounds less. So why do we seek these temporary highs? Because many of us don’t know where else to look for happiness.

We make the mistake of thinking that happiness comes with achievement. If I could just lose twenty pounds I’d be happy. If I could just get that job promotion, I’d be happy. If I could just get that new car, that face lift, that new hair style. Then I’d be happy. Some of us spend our lives seeking that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow thinking we’ll be happy when we find it. If I could just win that lottery my troubles would be over. All we end up doing however is trading one set of troubles for another. We prove to ourselves every day, that these things will not make us happy and yet we keep running after them like a hamster in a wheel. Someone once said that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. And yet we don’t believe it. Happiness has eluded us for so long that we feel the answer has to be complicated. And so we run, and seek, while holding the answer to what we seek in our hands, and not seeing it.

We need to realize that only we can make ourselves happy. All by ourselves. Ann decided she was going to be happy, even though she was dying of cancer. Each day she was happy for one more day of life. One more day to be with her friends and family, one more day to enjoy a sunrise, or a good conversation. She was happy just to be. This is a lesson all of us should learn. To be happy simply to exist.

One of my granddaughters has been to Honduras a couple times for mission trips. They spent time at an orphanage with the children there. These are kids who have lost their families, their homes, basically everything they had. And they are some of the happiest children she has ever met. They are happy just to be alive, just to be. They have no material goods, no parents, none of the things that the rest of the world values. And yet they are happy. How do children know the secret to happiness? They haven’t yet been indoctrinated by what the world sells as happiness. They haven’t been told that they shouldn’t be happy. They haven’t come to believe that their inner joy is not enough.

But it is enough. Our inner joy, even though it is attacked by depression or anxiety is still there. Ann found it. Even though the world tells us that we can’t be happy unless we are striving after something, our inner joy is still there. We just have to realize that it is and find it. And it doesn’t cost a thing. We have to realize that the things we find value in, if they are external, are not valuable. The things that are valuable, like love, happiness, and joy are things we already have. We need to find them.

Expectations


I was talking to a friend the other day and she expressed that she was very disappointed that another friend had let her down. This friend had treated her with a fair amount of disrespect. I asked her why she was so disappointed in that and she replied that she expects people to treat others with respect. She treats others with respect and she expects them to do the same. That got me thinking about expectations. Why do we have expectations? Why do we expect certain things to happen, or to be a certain way? It’s an interesting concept that many of us have probably given little thought to. When I started thinking about it, a whole host of things came to light that I think are interesting. Maybe you will too.

The question of expectations brings up the issue of control. We have almost no control over anything that happens. And that’s a problem for a lot of people. People like control. They like their day to go a certain way. They like their children to behave, they like their jobs and their homes and environment to go in the way they expect things to go. They don’t like it when things get “out of control.” One of the big reasons we are disappointed is because things didn’t go the way we wanted them to. And that takes us back to expectations. We are disappointed because our expectations are not met.

If I ask a friend for help and they say no, I find that I’m disappointed. I think my friend should help me. I’ve helped him quite a few times after all, why won’t he help me when I need it? And then I blame my friend for my disappointment, when the truth is, my disappointment is my own fault. It’s my fault because I had an expectation that wasn’t met. There are many reasons why my friend might not help me when I ask. There’s at least a 50% chance at any given time that someone will not meet your expectations. Depending on a lot of variables, like how their day is going, what kind of mood they’re in, etc. So anytime you want something, if you have an expectation that that want will be met, you’re setting yourself up for a pretty fair chance that you’ll be disappointed. And this takes us back to control. We want things under our control, and we don’t like it when they’re not. So what can be done about that?

If we don’t have expectations, we will find that there’s a lot less disappointment in our lives. How can you do that? You have to give up the notion of control. And that can be hard. You have to make yourself understand that the only things you can control are the things you think, do, or say. Without force, you cannot control anything anyone else does. So when you expect something to go a certain way and it doesn’t, you have to realize that you had no way of controlling that situation. And because you couldn’t control it, having an expectation of the results just sets you up for disappointment. So can my friend really blame her other friend for the way she was treated? Or should she realize that she had an unrealistic expectation of how that situation should have went? Keeping in mind that this is not a license for people to be shitty human beings and blame others for expecting them not to be.

Should you be able to expect others to treat you with respect? In a perfect world, yes you should. But we don’t live in a perfect world. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t want people to treat us well. But if we don’t have the expectation that they will or they won’t, when they don’t, we won’t be disappointed. Controlling our own minds is something we can do. We can control how we think. We can decide not to have expectations about how things should go, giving up the illusion of control. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a situation to go a certain way, but when we expect it to go our way and it doesn’t, that’s when we run into trouble. Controlling our own thoughts, our own desires, is the only way we can control the amount of disappointment we suffer. And that’s a good goal, isn’t it? To be less disappointed makes room for more happiness.

Another Year

candleEvery once in a while I fall into the trap of reflecting on my life. This usually happens at the end of the year. The Gregorian calendar, the calendar which most of the world uses, says that today is the last day of 2015. Named after Pope Gregory XIII and introduced in 1582, the Gregorian calendar was a “fix” of the Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar to add 0.002% to the year to keep Easter at relatively the same time every year. The year end is just a date however, and one would think that a better time to start a new year would be to coincide it with the beginning of a new season, like Summer perhaps. But I wasn’t in on the making of the calendar so my ideas don’t count. Anyway, reflecting on your life is something uniquely human. My dog Sophie, couldn’t give a hoot what happened yesterday, or last week for that matter. The only thing that matters to her is what’s happening right now. Which, if I was following the Buddhist teachings I’ve learned, should be all that matters to me. Ah well, no one is perfect.

It is amazing to think about how things change. Falling back on Buddhist teachings I find that everything changes. The human body has somewhere between 50 to 75 million cells which are dying and being replaced all the time. So technically, you are not the same person you were yesterday. Everything changes, all the time. Especially feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes. We are not the same people we were when we were 20 years old as we are today. When I was twenty I would be preparing for a night of drunken partying on December 31st. Today I am lounging around my house in sweat pants and thinking about getting pizza for dinner. Woo Hoo! And I want to make sure I get back home before the crazies go out drinking and partying. Hey wait, that was me once!

I know for a fact that I have done and said a lot of crazy things over the years. I don’t regret any of it because it has all come together to make me who I am and I kind of like who I am. There’s always room for improvement however, but I seem to be doing alright. Would I change some things if I could. Undoubtedly. For like everyone else I know, I have made mistakes. I’m not going to list them here because I don’t dwell on past mistakes. What happened, happened and there’s no going back. There is only today, and so far today has been pretty good. Buddhism embraces reincarnation and the idea that what you do in this life affects how your next life will be. I’m not so sure about that because I’ve seen no evidence of past lives that I may have lived. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try my best to live a good life however because I do believe in the saying, “What goes around comes around.” I think if your life is filled with hate and fear, that’s what you’ll see and experience. If you are a good, decent and happy person, that’s what you’ll see and experience.

So generally for me, reflecting on my life is not unpleasant. I have lived and loved, laughed and cried. I have gained and lost and gained again. Many people have passed through my life. Some of them are still with me and some are gone. I know what happened to some and wonder what happened to others. I’m sure that what I’m describing is typical for most people but I like to think about it. I’m not living in the past, just remembering what was and wondering at how it has changed. Life really is amazing. There have been times when I didn’t have enough to eat, and times when I didn’t have my own place to live. I’ve slept on peoples sofas, and went through a day eating only a can of soup. And then there have been times of plenty. I’ve never been in a war or had my life threatened. The people in Palestine and Somalia live lives I couldn’t imagine and I’m grateful that I haven’t. But I do my best to bring awareness of these things to others like myself who don’t really have a clue.

So on this last day of the year I am sending out good thoughts and blessings to all the world. (Why limit myself?) I hope that everyone thinks about the good and bad things that have happened and I hope that the good has outweighed the bad. Please remember those whose lives are not as good as they could be and do something (even if it’s just writing about it) to help make a change for the better. Peace.
Mr bean