September 3, 2022
Happiness
"Happiness is impermanent, but it can be renewed. You are also impermanent and also renewable, like your breath, like your steps. You are not something permanent experiencing something impermanent. You are something impermanent experiencing something impermanent." - Thich Nhat Hanh

I had a moment in college where I was pretty depressed. I remember walking across the Williamsburg Bridge (something I used to do frequently), looking across the water at the NYC skyline and thinking about how I felt connected to nothing. How everything felt distant and confusing, and purpose... purpose felt pointless.

I have struggled with bouts of situational depression off and on through my life, as I think many folks have. The emotional guru Karla McClaren defines situational depression as the emotion that forces us to stop, and reassess what's not working. She calls it The Ingenious Stop Sign of the Soul, and says it “arises when some aspect of your life is already unworkable or dysfunctional; depression stops you for a vital reason.” 

You may be thinking - wait, I thought this was an article about happiness? Why are we talking about depression?

Fair questions! To be clear, I feel it’s apt to start the conversation of happiness by clarifying the emotion we often consider it’s opposite. Sometimes we have to know what something is not before we know what it is.

Depression clearly arises when we enter into misalignment. It can arise for many reasons including being in the midst of change, reorganizing our identity, living or working in a situation that is not supportive to who we are, or generally feeling disconnected. Depression has also been described to me as anger turned inwards - the incessant criticism and reinforcement that we’re not enough - when perhaps the anger needs to be reflected outwards to better define what we’re lacking or in need of. 

It could be easy to default into thinking of happiness as the polar opposite of depression. Happiness means we’re in alignment or in flow, that we know who we are, that we’ve made all the right choices with how to live and work, and we’re connected to ourselves and to our communities. 

But I tend to think it’s a little more nuanced than that. 

In his book The Meaning of Happiness, Alan Watts, the author who brought me out of that college bout of depression, defines the distinction between suffering and unhappiness when he says: 

“...unhappiness is a reaction to suffering, not suffering itself…. The unhappiness of civilized man is chiefly the result of conflict within the natural forces inside himself and inside human society, forces that are all the more dangerous and violent because they come in unrecognized and unwanted at the back door.”

It is not the external circumstances that are the default causes of our unhappiness (although suffering for most people I think would naturally lead to unhappiness), but it is in fact our inner turmoil that causes us to respond to life with unhappiness. Do you see the difference?

An intense example of this perspective being lived out is through the holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Famously he said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Everything that is within us will shape our experiences outside of us. 

This is not to say that frequent happiness can be achieved easily or that a switch of our mindset is just that, a quick switch. We all know that happiness is an elusive emotion - that once you go looking for it, it's impossible to get your hands on. And when you do get a little of it, it falls through your hands quickly. Almost as if you're cupping water in your palms - you can only grasp it for so long.

So that said, how do we go about attuning ourselves to the internal conflict within and the external conflict without in order to start applying more ease? Cultivate more satisfaction? Enjoy more moments of happiness?

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Step 1: Let go

When I say “let go” I mean it in two ways:

  1. Let go of your idea of what happiness is and what it is not.
    Thich Nhat Hanh describes this beautifully when he says, “Our notions about happiness entrap us. We forget that they are just ideas. Our idea of happiness can prevent us from actually being happy. We fail to see the opportunity for joy that is right in front of us when we are caught in a belief that happiness should take a particular form.”

    The more we confine our idea of what happiness is, the less likely we’ll be able to experience it in surprising and unconventional ways. The more we envision happiness as coming to us through endless possibilities and through-ways, the more likely we will be tickled by it.

  2. Let go of the need to achieve happiness.
    Again, Thich Nhat Hanh gives us a clear definition, “Happiness is impermanent, but it can be renewed. You are also impermanent and also renewable, like your breath, like your steps. You are not something permanent experiencing something impermanent. You are something impermanent experiencing something impermanent.”

    What I love about this quote is that it also taps into the fleetingness of all of our experiences. Happiness can be as quick as an instant, but trusting that it will come back to us, just like our breath, will allow us to be open to it, and achieve it perhaps more frequently.

Step 2: Recognize what sneaks in through the back door

Returning back to that original quote by Alan Watts, “The unhappiness of civilized man is chiefly the result of conflict within the natural forces inside himself and inside human society, forces that are all the more dangerous and violent because they come in unrecognized and unwanted at the back door.

What do you think he means here? Personally, I think this means that dissatisfaction, discomfort, comparison, jealousy, envy, anger, disconnection, pain, etc. can come at us by surprise. One moment we can feel in our element, and the next moment we could feel like we’re flailing. 

These backdoor surprises can be caused by external experiences for sure, but also internal dis-ease. In both cases it’s easy to be swept away by the experience, and allow our emotions to take control of us. But an alternative is to slow down, acknowledge, and identify exactly what that backdoor surprise was, so that we can more consciously react and respond with care.

For example, perhaps you experience a moment of self-doubt while scrolling through social media. Rather than letting the self-doubt bleed into all of your thoughts and wreak havoc on your strength of self (for who knows how long), is it possible to see and acknowledge your experience, name it, recognize your self-doubt, and choose to react thoughtfully in a way that supports healing? Perhaps by reminding yourself that social media is only a series of greatest hits in glossy technicolor. Or finding gratitude for all you have and have to offer in your life. Or even choosing to limit social media use, or unfollow the folks that make you feel uncomfortable. 

Or another example, maybe a forgotten memory arose bringing back uncomfortable feelings. Rather than letting these feelings take over, can you acknowledge the memory and its powerful effect and remind yourself that it was in the past? Can you instead ask yourself what you might need now to heal that old version of yourself?

Once again we reference the wisdom of Viktor Frankl, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”

The more we can slow down and name those backdoor surprises, the less likely they’ll be able to grab the steering wheel. The more we can take control of our responses and care for ourselves in the moment. We can ask ourselves what we need to re-establish equilibrium, and by doing so we prove to ourselves our inner power and strength. Which leads to…

Step 3: Challenge yourself

In his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, Mark Manson, describes happiness as the experience of overcoming obstacles. That when we put ourselves in challenging situations, and are able to navigate our way through them, we prove to ourselves that we're resilient, capable, and we can trust ourselves. This naturally conjures up feelings of self-satisfaction and therefore happiness.

“To be happy we need something to solve. Happiness is therefore a form of action, it’s an activity, not something that is passively bestowed upon you, not something that you magically discover… You don’t find it waiting for you in a place, an idea, a job – or even a book, for that matter. Happiness is a constant work-in-progress…”

Science has proven that when we go against what we're afraid of and make it out on the other side, we get a strong hit of dopamine - the happy chemical - which can sometimes even encourage us to take risks, but most of the time gives us that jolt of happiness we so often are seeking.

Step 4: Seek out what is generative

This particular step makes me think about the word "should" and how often we use it for ourselves and for others. How often are we telling ourselves that we should do or be something rather than just wanting or needing it? How often are we pressing ourselves to live a certain way rather than just following what naturally brings us enjoyment and energy?

By beginning to identify what is energetically depleting and what is energetically enlivening, we can begin to make choices that align with our nature and what organically feeds us (in all the ways). Sure it’s easier said than done sometimes to relinquish the responsibilities that weigh heavy on us. But the more we choose what’s generative in small ways every day (by perhaps taking the scenic route to work, or allowing ourselves to really enjoy our morning coffee, or feeling the subtle satisfaction of the shower water against our skin), the more we will naturally start making choices that guide us towards that feeling. The more naturally we’ll start to approach things and choose things that bring us joy and happiness. 

Step 5: Align with your interconnectedness

In his book, The Book, Alan Watts describes the root of our unhappiness stemming from the illusion that we are disconnected from nature. He says:

“This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean ‘waves,’ the universe ‘peoples.’ Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”

It was simply remembering the interconnectedness of my life to the cycles, rhythms and impermanence of this planet that somehow made me feel more whole again back in college. I was reminded of the bigger picture, and that my small moments of pain and dissatisfaction, at times all consuming, were temporary. And not only were they temporary, they were also experiences that we all have had at some point in our lives, which meant I was not alone. 

The more we remember we are not just from nature, but that we are nature, the more we can accept the “two most important characteristics of life [which are] circulation and change”. With this acceptance, we can see how if the rest of our planet is supported through circulation and change, we will also be supported via our undeniable interconnectedness.

Step 6: Remember your abundance

I might sound like a broken record most of the time when I say this, but I only repeat it as often as I do because it’s truly the key to almost everything. Be grateful. Listing on paper or to yourself everything you can possibly be grateful for - from the roof over your head, to the clean water you drink, to the people you love most in your life - will inspire deep satisfaction and appreciation for your life. 

Additionally, I am a firm believer that what we focus on and put our energy towards naturally grows, and when we focus on what we’re grateful for, we will naturally be given more of that simply by the law of attraction and sympathetic resonance. 

Find just a little bit of gratitude every day and then watch how quickly it grows.

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I will leave you with this quote from Danielle Laport that has inspired me over and over again through the years:

"Happiness is like rising bubbles — delightful and inevitably fleeting. Joy is the oxygen — ever present."

Most emotions are fleeting. They come and go simply because they’re energy in motion. Enlivening emotions, however, like happiness, we often want to cling to. We yearn for them to stay, maybe stay forever. And although it would be lovely to live in eternal bliss and lightness, it's not sustainable - not on this earth at least.

But if we follow this quote from Danielle, we can recognize that happiness is meant to be fleeting - it’s meant to tickle us just for that moment. And it is those moments of sweetness that gain their specialness from the contrast of the moments of bitterness and saltiness. 

Joy, on the other hand, is the constant. It is the possibility within every experience and every moment, no matter what the flavor. So if we perhaps let go of our search to be connected, to feel at ease, to find the perfect set up, or person, or place, we can recognize the oxygen that supports us through everything. We can be still and feel happiness within the joy of just being alive.

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Questions:

  1. When have you experienced depression, happiness and joy? What have those experiences taught you?
  2. Observe the difference between happiness and joy. Bring mindfulness to what makes you feel lighter and what makes you feel happier
  3. When have you overcome challenges in your life and what did you feel on the other side of those challenges?
  4. Observe the obstacles that come up in your week, and observe what you leverage in yourself to get through them. Notice how you feel after you get through the challenge.

Contemplations:

  1. Can you reflect on a few different moments where you felt happiness? And now a few moments where you felt sadness, anger, or hopelessness? How did they manifest in your body and your mind? Are the emotional sensations isolated in one part of the body or are they all consuming? How are these sensations similar? How are they different?
  2. Are there any recurring “should” pressures related to happiness that are holding you back right now? Can you, instead, replace these pressures for natural desires and inclinations?
  3. Can you think of a time in your life when you felt the most happy? Are you currently clinging on to or trying to recreate circumstances from that time in your life? Perhaps it was a previous relationship, an age, a job prospect. 
  4. Is fear holding you back from starting anything right now? Maybe it’s starting a new hobby, a relationship, a career change, etc. Imagine yourself facing this obstacle. What is the worst case scenario? What is the best case scenario? How can you support yourself in facing and overcoming this obstacle? Create a plan.

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