Doug Bruns

Sunday Repost: Happiness

In Family, Happiness, Memoir, The Examined Life on February 24, 2013 at 6:00 am
Your host in the land of Gross National Happiness--Bhutan.

Your host in the land of Gross National Happiness–Bhutan.

A repost from May, 2010.

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There are lots of things I didn’t teach my kids. I didn’t teach them how to manage money or change the oil in their car or even how to cook an egg. I am hesitatingly interested in someday sitting down with them and finding out what I did, indeed, teach them.  I think their mother and I did a good job of instilling in them a thirst for life, that is, a way of looking at the world so as to render it exciting and if not exciting, at least interesting. That is, it seems to me, important. I know I failed in teaching them how to think about their life in some meaningful context, which is, I intuitively feel, part of being happy. It would have been good to teach them how to be happy. I’m not sure it’s correct to call that a “meaningful context,” as I refer to it above. But it doesn’t feel wrong either.

We live in a country that embraces the pursuit of this effervescent, ineffable thing called happiness. It is important–I guess–to have an unalienable right to chase it.* But it seems there are a lot of people who aren’t, happy that is, or even pursing it directly, there being too many other pressing issues. That is nothing more than my generalization, but I am, as I have said before, comfortable with generalizations (in general). I see a lot of people on the streets here who are struggling, a good many of them living hand to mouth. I don’t think they are happy, at least not the ones I talk to. At the other end of the spectrum, I see people on nice boats who seem happy, especially on pleasant summer days. But when I talk to boat owners they almost all express a degree of frustration about owning a boat. I am surprised how consistently the phrase, “A boat is a hole in the water you throw money into,” is used. If there is a creed for boat owners this seems to be it. People with money are worried, particularly as the markets are roiling, that they will lose it. People without money are worried that they will never get it, and the relief it grants. Don’t get me wrong, having money is better than not having it. Studies have shown that people with it, are likely happier as a result. But it’s not a sure-fire recipe for a hearty belly-filling meal of happiness.

There is a great deal of interest in happiness in physiology at present. At Harvard, in 2009, the class “Positive Psychology” by professor Tal D. Ben-Shahar was the most popular class on campus. In a phone interview with the Boston Globe, Professor Ben-Shahar said,

“When nations are wealthy and not in civil turmoil and not at war, then I think, like Florence of the 15th century, they start asking what makes life worth living, and that’s what positive psychology is about.”

It is time someone got to the bottom of this quest for happiness. One thing that troubles me, is how to go about understanding it. This is one reason I could never teach my kids anything much about it. I don’t really understand it, can’t put my finger just on it. I think we–their mother and I–showed it to them. They were raised in a household by loving parents, two adults succeeding at making a marriage work. That is a level of, a degree of happiness: a home, solid and unshifting. Such an environment is a garden in which happiness can grow. It is rich soil. Happiness doesn’t necessarily flourish as a result, but the odds are better. Perhaps it’s so simple as attending to your garden properly.

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* It is no less than ironic, that in this time of Tea Parties and faith-based political initiatives, that “the pursuit of happiness” is an idea born of eighteenth century notions of European enlightenment. “I believe that humanism, at least on the levels of politics, might be defined as every attitude that considers the aim of politics to be the production of happiness.” (M. Foucault, 1967)

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  1. Happiness? Right at this second I’m sort of happy, happy everything is O.K. right now at this moment. But worry, I’m worried right now. I wonder what “positive psychology” has to say about that? I confess to not knowing much about the field, I wonder it that group as a whole feels you can affect the outcome of a situation by how much you worry about it? Not so much a comment, sorry

    • You know, Lacey, I think you’ve stumbled upon good point: You’re sort of happy and everything is O.K. That’s the thing about happiness, the transient nature of it, its fleetingness–“the sort of” aspect of it. I think the science of it (see Kevin’s comment below) is interesting and perhaps will help pin down the subject. I suspect it boils down to biology and endorphines and neural receptors. I’m a fatalist when it comes to biology…

  2. Happiness and the secret to happiness is revealed in a 2004 Ted talk with data from some pretty good scientific experiments: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html

    • Thanks for the link, Kevin. Gilbert says something at the end of the talk that resonated: “When our ambitions are bounded we are more likely to be happy.” I was just talking with a poet friend last week and we were discussing modern fiction where the difference between what we called “edges” of narration and no edges make the difference between a compelling story and one that is less so. That sounds terribly esoteric, I know, but it seems to prove the point of the video. A life with definition is more likely a happy one than one without. Definition? Not sure, but perhaps discipline, a meaningful goal, a job that satisfies, a relationship that is solid (limits) verses one that’s fluid. I ramble, but really appreciate the input. Good stuff to think on. Thanks.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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