Doug Bruns

Search for “happiness”

Happiness, Joy

In Family, Happiness, Life, The Examined Life on November 10, 2019 at 9:50 am

Photo by Joe Yates on Unsplash

A year or so ago while celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary one of our adult children asked if we could articulate the keys to a successful marriage. Carole went first. She spoke with intelligence and experience about the vital role communication must play when two human beings are committed to living together in support of one another. It was workable advice. Carole is nothing if not practical. When my turn came I quipped, “Lower your expectations.” I recall elaborating a little, saying something about resisting the urge for more, that success is more easily realized when we lower the bar. I’ve thought a great deal about my response and have been meaning to give my kids a better developed answer. So here goes.

*

The notion of lowering the bar goes back to something Melville said. I can only paraphrase it, having lost the quotation. If we expect less—less from life, less from others, less from ourselves–the chances of being happy will rise. Let’s label this attitude as pessimistic. The pessimist doesn’t expect much and therefore doesn’t require much to be pleased. There is, consequently, more opportunity for joy. Recent studies bare this out, citing that if not taken too far, pessimism will lead to a longer and happier life. Similarly, the life of the minimalist, the individual who eschews the cultural mantra of more more more, is likewise a happier individual. Like the pessimist, the minimalist too is lowering the bar. They don’t need much to be satisfied. It is said that Socrates walked through the market and marveled at all the stuff he did not want. He took joy in his lack of need. The other way of considering this is to think about saying yes to what matters. That in turn forces the question, What really matters, What are the essentials? These are good questions to ponder–or in the case of a relationship, to discuss.
* *
But isn’t marriage a contract between individuals promising to support the best efforts and designs of the other? Doesn’t lowering the bar take the punch out of this vow, leading to an attitude of accepting the simply adequate? My response: What is wrong with adequacy? By definition it meets the implied need, does it not? Why do we think we should get more than that? Of course we would like more than that. We will call that a preference. We would prefer more than the simply adequate. But we have little to no control over the successful outcome of our preferences. Yes, we will make our best effort, ideally with the understanding that our preference might not come to fruition. This is insurance against disappointment. If our preference is realized, we will be pleased, happiness being a side-effect. But if things don’t work out we are prepared and consequently we’re less disappointed. Indeed, we can experience a real degree of joy and satisfaction at our ambivalence. C.S. Lewis called joy “An unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”
* * *
That I have successfully lived over forty years with someone is testimony to a realistic attitude. Overt optimism is a dangerous and twisty road to travel. There are lots of ups and downs which can take a toll on a relationship. There is little point in magnifying them with unrealistic expectations and desires. More often than not things are not going to go the way you’d prefer. You can be upset about that, or you can accept it as a fact of life. The wonderful thing is that the more realistic your view, the more joy you experience. At some level the overt optimist knows the fallacy of the position. He or she knows that hope dashed is a painful and disappointing thing, yet they hope against hope. Realism, on the other hand, is a comfort. There is an internal peace that is in harmony with accepting the world as it is.
* * * *
As I’ve said before, happiness does not respond to being pursued. That idea is a cruel trick. It leads to mindless consumption, to uninformed expectation, to unrealistic desire. “Happiness cannot be pursued, it can only ensue,” said Viktor Frankl. Buddhists and the ancient Greeks both warned against desire (the desire for, and pursuit of happiness, for instance) and aversion (wishing to avoid unhappiness). They held to the middle way, the Golden Mean, as Aristotle described it. This position I call realistic pessimism. The night before our marriage Carole and I, jittery with pre-wedding nerves, asked out loud, “What if it doesn’t work out?” Our honest answer: “We can always get divorced.” We still joke all these years later about it. We can always get divorced if things don’t work out. That is realistic pessimism at work, complimented by a dash of humor. Ours is a joy-filled and largely happy marriage. We don’t take it for granted. We recognize that our hard work and efforts have paid us well in return. But we are also realistic people. We support and encourage one another, yet we don’t press too hard and are supportive when things don’t go the way we’d prefer. We don’t expect too much and are fine with things in a state of adequacy. Anything beyond that we welcome, but we don’t hold our breath. We’ve had more than our share of fulfilled preferences and are grateful for that. Going forward we are realistic. We are growing old. Things will likely get harder, life will grow more challenging in all sorts of ways hard to imagine. But realism is a comfort. There is hard-earned joy in that.

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.

_______________________________

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.

____________________

* 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)

Authenticity, and other over-used words.

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on November 24, 2019 at 9:00 am

I heard recently, during the current impeachment hearings, someone accuse so-and-so of “lacking authenticity.” It caught my ear. Several years ago I was deeply hung-up in the pursuit of authenticity, or at least a workable explanation of what truly it is. Eventually I walked away, vowing never to use the word again. It seemed too much a rabbit hole. The accusation I’d heard on the news suggested that authenticity was a default setting, that human beings were naturally authentic in our dealings and projections and designs, that the individual in question lacked this natural human state. That is not how I see it, particularly in this age of Instagramed lives and curated online personalities. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I’ve spent a good bit of the last couple of years reading and studying the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Among the many things I find appealing about these thinkers is their practicality. Their’s was a workable philosophy. They were, above all, interested in how to live, how to enjoy what they called the Good Life. The good life was not a life of materialistic pursuit, as we might think today. Rather, it was a life framed around the pursuit of tranquility, a life that flourished, a way of moving in the world that was harmonious with others and with, most importantly, nature. That is the good life and they were dogged in the pursuit of it. To that end they reasoned that a human being, if he or she is to enjoy the good life, must develop a handful of attributes, exercise them, and never let them go. What they were talking about was leading a life of virtue.  Not long later the Christians incorporated this notion into their new religion. The Christian Scholastics of the middle ages later developed a dogmatism around the virtues that lingers to this day. It can be hard to get around that for some people when considering virtue.

Depending on which school of ancient philosophy you subscribed to the number of virtues, four, six, ten, and so on, varied. The Stoics, for example, had four. Aristotle had eleven. I want to focus on a shared virtue among the schools: Courage.

For the ancients, courage was a given. Hand to hand combat, invasions, sacking and plundering, common violence—demands upon the individual such that courage was required to simply survive. That is a definition of courage upon which we can all agree. But there is a notion more subtle also at work here, the courage to live. And with that aspect of courage, we circle back to authenticity. To live fully, to live the good life is to live with courage and in doing so, a life of authenticity begins to develop.

Courage from the Latin “cor”, heart

Not surprisingly, the word courage derives from the Latin for heart, cor. “That player has heart,” is not an unusual comment to hear in the arena of sports. It connotes a depth of character that speaks to drive, fearlessness, and commitment of pursuit. Consider Thoreau, for instance. Writing about his Walden project, he said, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” To summarize Thoreau, courage is the first and most important thing he learned by living close to nature. That is what I mean by the phrase, courage to live, advancing confidently. I encourage you to read the last chapter of Walden, Conclusion. There is no better writing about courage than you’ll find there.

The barriers to courage, and subsequently to a life of authenticity, are not difficult to find. “How deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!” wrote Thoreau in that last chapter. I touched on this in my last essay, that is, the cultural pressures to be something other than individually realistic. It takes courage to resist the modern trappings which often lead to herd life, herd life being the antithesis of the good life. That is not to say modern life cannot afford us opportunity for a courageous life of authenticity. Indeed, the more ubiquitous is herd life, the more opportunity there is for one to stand tall courageously and authentically.

* * *

I would be remiss if I failed to consider a mistaken notion of modern authenticity. There is a current stream of thinking which suggests that authenticity is an excuse for incivility, for rudeness, and crass comments. “He can’t help himself, he has no filter, he’s totally authentic.” Really? I don’t think so. True authenticity is a manifestation of courageous self-knowledge. As such, by definition, a natural harmony is set into play–that is, if you’re following the path the ancients laid out. Authenticity demands of us a purity of character such that we are agents of harmony. That is not to say one is necessarily passive. With virtue as the motivator, the natural course, passive or aggressive, will be apparent.

Here’s the core of it. The ancients held that the closer we align ourselves with nature–green nature, the nature of the cosmos, human nature–the greater the degree of harmony we manifest. They saw an order to the world that was both teacher and student, a guiding self-referencing energy. You don’t have to subscribe to ancient metaphysics to observe that the world works better when harmony is pursued over discord, when kindness is a motivating factor. Here we might want to consider Kant’s moral categorical imperative:

“Act so that you can will that all persons should act under the same maxim you do.”

 

Take a moment and read that again. Genuine authenticity reduces religion and philosophy to kindness, to paraphrase the Dali Lama.

In summary, I take issue with the interlocutor at the impeachment hearings. Authenticity does not come naturally. There are too many other forces at work. It requires courage and work. So what is to be done? How does one live with courage and consequently, authentically? I turn again to that most American Zen Master, Henry David Thoreau for a clue. To wit:

“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Listen to your music and dance gently. To quote Nietzsche, “Become who you are.”

Muster those habits, pilgrim.

In Creativity, Happiness, The Examined Life on October 6, 2019 at 9:44 pm

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~ Aristotle

I looked up the etymology of the word “inspiration” recently. It goes back to the 13 century, is shared with Old English and Old French, and means to breathe into, to inspire, excite, inflame. Inspire, from which inspiration is derived, is to draw in breath, to breathe deeply. The original context of inspiration is to note the “immediate influence of God, or gods.” The creative individual, for instance, in seeking her god-muse, is hoping for that rush of inspiration, that substantive nugget, from which all creative power is drawn. Lacking that, one is simply faced with the prospect of hard work, which if you recall Edison’s comment comprises 99 percent of genius, inspiration being the remaining 1 percent.

When I moved to Maine ten years or so ago, I was often asked, Why Maine? My response more often than not was that my muse lived there. Indeed, the first few years of life in Maine were intensely creative and productive. I wrote frequently and met with a bit of success placing my work here and there. My photography took off, and projects fell into place with an abundance. I met new and interesting people. I explored a rugged and beautiful state. I was full of life, full of deep-breath inspiration. Then it tapered off, then fizzled. The new was no longer new. My muse, like an absent god, pack up and hid herself away. Somehow I had failed to nurse her appropriately, perhaps I even offended her.

I’ve been thinking along these lines recently as I’ve been reflecting on the most productive and rewarding phases of my life. The Greeks used the word eudaimonia in this context; they pursued a eudaimonic life. It is a word that most often gets translated as happiness, but to the Greeks it was a word better describing a life that flourished. Happiness was a by-product.The word happiness trips me up, frankly. The pursuit of it, happiness, seems most often a cruel trick, a blind alley, a lost ideal. The pursuit of anything sets up a counter reaction of avoidance. The pursued animal will flee. Happiness it seems mostly, is a thing that happens when other things fall into place. It is not a thing to be chased after, cornered and secured. That is why the idea of to flourish is so appealing. To flourish triggers a process beginning with a series of questions: What needs to be done in order to flourish? What does it feel like to flourish? Consider this, does history record the human lives that flourished, or the human lives that were happy? Consider the creative arts, DaVinci,  Michelangelo, Picasso, or in the sciences, Einstein, Newton, and so on. We don’t remember happy people so much. My hunch is that we remember people who were happy, but not because they were happy. They did something else, something that generated personal happiness, but that’s not why we remember them.

I’ve been in a long fallow period. Motivation has been largely absent. Emerson said that enthusiasm was necessary for anything of significance to come together. Motivation without enthusiasm seems an empty vessel. Inspiration, from which motivation and enthusiasm spring, has been hard in coming. That seems too much the absence of flourishing. I can point to the things that in days past made me flourish, like writing here at …the house…. At the core of things, I think, is the loss of good habit. Slowly things slipped. I wasn’t keeping my journal regularly. My reading fell off. My meditation practice began to slip. And so on.

William James gave a lot of thought to such things. His work on the value of habit is ground-breaking. “…there is reason to suppose that if we often flinch from making an effort,” James wrote, “before we know it the effort-making capacity will be gone; and that, if we suffer the wandering of our attention, presently it will wander all the time. Attention and effort are … but two names for the same psychic fact.”

Attention and effort, the stuff of habit. I have mustered my dormant attention. I have scripted my effort. Let the habits begin–again. Perhaps my muse, if she is still around, will take pity on this poor needy pilgrim. But should that not be the case, should she leave me high and dry, there will always be the hard work.

 

Pay Attention

In Happiness, Philosophy, The Examined Life on December 16, 2018 at 8:00 am

My experience is what I agree to attend to.” ~ William James

I’ve been spending more time that usual paying attention. Specifically paying attention to what I pay attention to. You see, like everyone, I’m feeling the acceleration of time. It comes this way to us all, that speeding train called life. It chugs along, toiling uphill, then, clearing the pass, it starts the decent. Faster and faster. But I’ve found the brakes. I’ve discovered that if you get focused and pay deep attention, time slows down. You can’t stop the train, but you can slow the descent. Time–the more attention you give it, the more of itself it reveals.

James Wilson Williams is a technology scholar. In the current issue of New Philosopher magazine he is quoted as saying that when you “pay attention,” you pay “with all the things you could have attended to but didn’t; all the possibilities you didn’t pursue…all the possible yous you could have been, had you attended to those other things. Attention is paid in possible futures foregone.” By paying attention to one thing, you have made a conscious decision to ignore something else, principally the past and the future. And that has great rewards. As Goethe said, “Happiness looks neither forward nor backward.” Indeed, the present is the only reality that belongs to us.

That is the good news, that we’re paying attention to something. The bad news is that if we aren’t careful, if we don’t pay attention, and then, zip, with a blink of an eye, it’s gone. An opportunity for happiness lost, a moment–an eternity–squandered. The train picks up speed.

When we were little the world was fresh, new, interesting. We were captivated by it, struck by simply being alive. It was a raw, cosmic happiness. But as we age, the days connect, they go rolling by, one after the other. Tedium builds. We’re on the train, just staring out the window. We’ve seen it all before. Maybe we day-dream, more likely we turn to social media. Either way, we’ve lost the discipline of attention. It is the present foregone. We’re on the train to oblivion.

I’ve discovered a way of slowing things down again, somewhat like it all was when I was a little child.

I credit my meditation practice with much of the slow freshness I feel when I move about the world. It is curious how sitting quietly and paying attention to your mind will instill in you a calm when going about the hustle and bustle of life. But there are other things I practice too to slow things down and pay attention. I am right-handed, for instance, but I frequently use my left hand for common tasks like eating or brushing my teeth. In doing this, I am turning a mundane task into something requiring my attention. Time slows down accordingly. Or, sometimes when I’m traveling a common route, a road I might drive several times a week, I pretend to have a passenger, someone from another country, often a distant relative. I point out this or that to my passenger. I try to see the route through their eyes. It makes it fresh again and new, delivering a degree of child-like happiness along with it. Try it.

In his book, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, Pierre Hadot writes, “Because the sage lives within his consciousness of the world, the world is constantly present to him [or her]…the present moment takes on an infinite value: it contains with it the entire cosmos, and all the value and wealth of being.”

Pay attention. Be a sage. Therein lies happiness.

Life Enhancements

In Happiness, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on October 7, 2018 at 9:30 am

I’m coming to the end of Stoic Week 2018 and there is much I want to share You’ll likely find me rattling on for weeks about it. It has been a significant life-enhancing experience, which is different from a life-changing experience, as I note below. But first, a few words about a core Stoic notion regarding happiness.

The Stoics, both ancient and modern, hold that the question, how best to live, is answered in the context of how one embraces and internally develops four essential virtues, the Four Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism. They are:

  • Wisdom
  • Courage
  • Justice
  • Moderation

To elaborate briefly. Wisdom is valued in a practical sense–that is, it is an acquired knowledge which helps us navigate the world. The ancient philosophers where respected not only for their teachings, but for the life they led. The philosophy and the life could not be separated.  Courage, also called resilience, is not necessarily battlefield stuff, but also the simple courage to define a proper life possibly contrary to popular notions. As Seneca said, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” The virtue of Justice includes one’s capacity for fairness, kindness, and compassion. And lastly, Moderation, which includes self-discipline, and a conservative approach to consumption. In ancient thought, these qualities were not only of benefit to ourselves, but also of benefit to others. Indeed, to the Stoics, all actions were related in a universal web of existence, a net of cause and effect, what in Eastern philosophy would be called karma.

I find there to be a number of overlaps between these four cardinal virtues and the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, but that is something I’ll save for another post. (Stoicism also includes a meditative practice, by the way.) In a nutshell, Stoicism teaches that the cultivation of these virtues directly increases one’s core happiness. This happiness is not influenced by outside experiences; no one, nor anything can take it from you. I should add that many modern Stoics prefer the word flourishing over happiness. That is a subtle distinction you should think about. Properly established, your core virtues will properly guide you through life. In other words, you flourish regardless of the confronting challenges.

I could go on, but will stop for now as there is a related topic I want to toss out.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about change and enhancement, about changing one’s life verses enhancing one’s life. A little over a year ago I participated in an eight-day meditation retreat not far from here in the mountains of Colorado. It was a silent retreat but the silence was lifted on the last evening and I introduced myself to a young man who had been sitting, as I was, Zen style throughout the week. He told me that he had lived and worked in Manhattan but had recently left the city and entered a Zen monastery to train and practice full-time. As much as I cherish my quiet time and my contemplative life, I would never consider making such a life-changing decision. It settled on me that, at this stage of my life, it was not change I was after, but enhancement. The difference is subtle but significant. I like my life as it is, I like it very much. I don’t want to change it, though I wish to enhance it. So I put this to you, change or enhancement, what are you looking for? Do you have a plan as to how to go about it? I suspect, since you’re reading this blog, that you’re in pursuit of one or the other, no?  

Thanks for reading.