Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It's so important
To make someone happy.
Make just one
Someone happy.
~Jimmy Durante, Make Someone Happy


Happiness.

Fleeting, mysterious, unpredictable happiness.  This concept that we all chase, that we all suspect everyone has in spades over us.  Something we shun as moody teenagers and then pine after as life-trodden adults.  Wistful, powerful, energizing, amazing happiness.

And, when you think of it, really the source of most of the misery in the world.

I mean, okay.  Not happiness itself.  But the pursuit of happiness-- coming into this mindset that X will make us happy, or Y will make us happy.  That we will be happy when we finally fix this problem, have this ability, own this thing.  That we will be happy if we can just have one cup coffee, one cigarette, one piece of cake...or six.  That we will be happy when we finally graduate high school, finally have the degree, finally have the job.  Happy when five o'clock rolls around.

That car will make me happy.  That locale.  That weight.

If you think about how much emphasis Americans put on finding happiness, and how little of us actually, genuinely find it on the paths we're on, well, the forefathers really screwed the pooch on this one.

No disrespect, of course, to the visiter in England who found my site today searching for the phrase "I miss human decency" on Google-- that search term seems to indicate that maybe, they're not so happy across the pond, either.  I suppose we put ideas in their head when we sent them that damn Declaration.


One of the many things I've noticed that you're supposed to have-- and want-- a lot of, but rather consistently seems to make one less happy the more they have of it, is knowledge.  Knowledge-- and it's bitchy girlfriend, intelligence-- are supposed to be these incredible tools.  But, working with a theory that being happy is more important than being successful-- and I'm not asserting it is, at the moment-- one could make a very reasonable argument that it's in fact, a hinderance.

At this point, I had hoped to link to an article explaining some scientific study that smart people are less happy in their daily lives; I was surprised when I couldn't find it.  I was able to find multiple studies suggesting that intelligence does not correlate in a positive way with happiness-- except, perhaps, when living in a very poor nation where intelligence may give you the means to fulfill your very basic needs-- but I can't imagine who exactly thought it would?  Who, precisely, theorized that smarter people are happier and set out to do a rigorous survey or some kind of double-blind study proving themselves right?  My guess is it's those not-so-smart researchers.  The ones that got into science and psychology because they couldn't get into med school, and now they spend their time needlessly envious of the brains around them, thinking they'd be in nirvana if they just had that bad skin and those focused, bespectacled eyes.

I say this, of course, because I've never me a truly smart person who suspected, for a moment, that their intelligence made them happier.  Then again, I've also never met a smart person who would have been willing to trade their intelligence for happiness.  There's a weird paradox in that.

But intelligence is just the bitchy girlfriend-- knowledge, I think, is the real criminal here.  Intelligence is just a means to knowledge, after all, not often the other way around.  Knowledge is what really makes you miserable, too:  knowledge that, at any given moment, as you are drinking some divine, ornately-made choco-latte-grande-chino, there are starving children all over the world, and their helpless parents who could have fed them for a month on the three bucks you just spent on decadent caffeine.  Knowledge that eating a banana or having a bottled, in an attempt to eat right and feel good about it, really equate to terrorism in South America or the dangerous privatization of water sources.  Knowledge that there's acid in the rain, toxins in every food you eat, and that there's no such thing as the Tooth Fairy.

But, perhaps the knowledge that interferes the most with my own personal happiness is all the knowledge I've gotten in the past few years on the subject of personal happiness.

I just watched this TED talk, featuring Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling Upon Happiness.  He presents the information in this super-uplifting way, making the point that your choices, circumstances, and getting or not getting what you want don't effect your happiness nearly as much as you'd expect, making the point early on that, on average, one year after their life-changing events, lottery winners and those who lost the use of their legs are equally content.  He talks about your mind's ability to synthesize happiness, enabling a person to level out from life's disappointments, whether minor or major, with surprising ease.  The message is very mellow-- hey everyone, relax.  It's all gonna be okay.  Whatever happens, your mind has the ability to make you just as happy as you ever were.


One problem with the upbeat message:  he doesn't go into the fact that, despite your mind's ability to manifest your own personal amount of happiness whether you logically should have it or not, your own personal amount, well, it might be significantly lower than most people's.

I've talked about this before-- the concept of the Hedonic Treadmill, the current reigning pop-psychology theory that indicates that, despite changes in your life for the better or for the worse, you are destined to return to your baseline.

Which more or less validates a belief I've always had-- there are happy people, and there are unhappy people.  And there's really not a lot the have-nots can do to catch up with those damned haves, in this case.  So wouldn't it be lovely if they would just leave us alone already?

It's a little bit of a digression, but there's nothing more frustrating than a happy person who tries to force some platitude on you to get you out of your slump-- all the worse when that platitude is something along the lines of "Be grateful! There are people who have it worse than you!"

Two points for you, gratitude-platitude-punks: One, my glass-half-empty status is mostly genetic, not dependent on my circumstances, no matter how comfortably first-world those circumstances are.  And TWO, I know all about those people who are miserable and suffering.  THINKING ABOUT THEM is a big part of why I'm guilt-stricken, neurotic, angry and sad most of the time.  So why don't you go have Poland Spring water and a banana, and stick them both up your socially unconscious, blind, arrogant ass, Smiley McLifeIsGreat?

Okay.  Digression over.


Anyway.  There's some hope, I guess.  From what I can tell, the newest studies indicate that as much as 40% of one's happiness might be due to intentional activities-- IE, you can get, to an extent, happier.  You'll still be anchored by the 50% that is genetics and the 10% which is uncontrollable circumstances.  But 40%, well...if it's true, it's a little more hopeful than I was lead to believe.

I should point out that I have no idea how they got these numbers, by the way.  What is 40% of one's happiness?  Is it measured in time?  40% of the time they spend feeling happy?  Or is it measured in the amount of happiness in one's...emotional set at any given time?  If you, overall, are made up of ten parts happiness, ten parts regret, fifteen parts anger and five parts resentment...is forty percent of your happiness really just ten percent of you, overall?

It's a confusing number to say the least.

The other thing is-- and I am far from being an expert at this time-- I've never read anything that said you couldn't effect how often you veer from your "baseline" of happiness, though I suspect that if I were better at understanding graphs, I'd find that it can't be more all that often, as that would necessarily shift your baseline, unless you counter it with equal periods of sadness, or, I suppose, the occasional hour of absolute searing heartbreak.


So, I want to know more about this.  I've made a lot of changes in my life-- I moved to San Diego recently, got on ADHD meds, got bangs-- and I'm finding mostly improvements with respect to these changes.  San Diego is beautiful and full of things to do, places to explore.  ADHD meds make me more productive and focused, and I'm having an easier time learning things I've always wanted to learn and being the person that I've always wanted to be.  The person that I thought I would be the happiest as.

But I'm not really happier, I don't think.  Aside from the fact that the medication, for some reason, never fails to give me a very mean, very upsetting irritable hour in the late-afternoon every day, the more pertinent reality is that doing these things I always wanted to do-- spending more time drawing and painting, learning the ukelele, and watching videos on Lynda.com to hone my design skills-- well, they're not what happiness is made of.


So I'm thinking of getting a book, despite my disdain for the happiness-intel, though I'm having trouble deciding between the many available on the subject.  Daniel Gilbert's aforementioned Stumbling Upon Happiness?  Happier, by Harvard Professor Tal Ben-Sharar?  Or perhaps the How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, whose book's average Amazon review, at 4.5 stars, seems to kick the other two poseurs, with four stars each, right in their happy-sacks.

Then again, when it comes to books on happiness, it seems prudent to stray from my normal loyalty to Amazon ratings.  I want science, not uplifting nonsense that makes people feel like they have more control than they really do.

Hmmm, and there again is the problem-- as Dan Gilbert points out in his TED talk, synthetic happiness is of just as high a quality as the "natural" stuff, though people are stubbornly skeptical of it. If reading that book made people happy-- if reading that book can make me happy-- than why would I care if it's fact or fiction?  Why should I care what the controls of her experiments were?  This isn't a cancer treatment, this is happiness.

Also, David Rakoff, author of Half Empty, would probably like me to point out at this point that, contrary to popular belief, a positive outlook does not improve one's likelihood of surviving a terminal illness, according to studies he quotes in his book.  That's one that I think I will buy, actually.  In the name of fairness and balance-- plus I love his voice, and I'm getting my choices in audiobook format.


It's 2:45 AM, yet again.  I have acupuncture tomorrow at noon, and it will take me at least an hour of tossing and turning to sleep, probably more.  So far, I have no real evidence that these community acupuncture sessions I've been attending several times a week are helping me feel happier, or, more to the point, helping to cure any of the problems that I, perhaps short-sightedly, blame my unhappiness on.  But what I do have very compelling evidence of is that staying up too late the night before one does make me very unhappy when it's time to get out of bed in the morning.  Thus far, despite the fact that better sleep is supposed to be a side effect of the treatments, I haven't been able to get my schedule back to any degree of normality, despite several attempts with varying strategies.

Last night, I stayed up making a drawing for Zack-- or, that's what it turned into.  At first was a sketch to busy my hands as I watched reruns of "How I Met Your Mother" on Netflix-- if you want happiness in my book, it's eating and watching TV on the couch, but that knowledge-monster I mentioned before understands the causal link between that action and a pant size that, well, isn't happiness in my book.  So I was drawing, and right around the time the sketch began to remind me Cthulhu with an eyepatch, I decided to make it into a little present for Zack.  I finished up the transformation of Cthulhu into a full-blown Cthulhu-Pirate, and then carefully scripted a note on a treasure map in the corner:

Zack-
Cthulhu Pirate wants you to have a marrrvelous morning!
Then I went outside and taped it to the steering wheel of his car, before climbing into bed with him around 3:30.  A few hours later, he woke up, groggy and overtired, got dressed, packed a lunch, and left for work in the pre-sunrise dimness of a january morning.

He loved the drawing.

I don't do things like this often enough for him.  It's a bit surprising, because, for money, the simplest route to happiness is gifts.  Not for me.  For other people.  I love giving gifts, I love putting a lot of thought and effort into something that makes it clear to them, once again, how much I love them.  An elaborate birthday package, a random amazon shipment, something they've mentioned they want but never gotten around to getting.  I tried to learn Hallelujah on the uke for Sam's birthday-- and I basically did, but the idea was to record it in a video and post it on his wall, but my equipment was shoddy at best, and I was still another six weeks from being able to get all the way through without a mistake-- or at least, I hope it's only six weeks.

I bought a giant box of blow pops for Elorza one year, and the box set of MTV's The State another-- both were unexpected and thrilled him.  I had Zack bring Holly, at work, a cup of ice coffee on a day when neither of us could leave-- I had asked her what she thought would make her day better, and that was what she listed.  I set up a Happy-Birthday-Bill Hotline, and twitter bombed all his favorite celebrities to get him to call it: Felicia Day was the only taker.  I knew she'd come through.

I used to have...more people in my life that motivated me to do over-the-top things, people I wanted to spoil.  Still, it's time to refocus those efforts, though maybe more economically than I have in the past.  See what I can do to brighten a day here and there, and hope that's enough brightness to get through a week.  Between that, and whatever goddamn book I decide to buy, maybe I can get somewhere that's...40% more worth being than here.

And if that doesn't work, there's always Jimmy Durante.  Come on.  Just TRY to be depressed when you listen to this guy.

And you will be happy, too.

On with it.

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