Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Happiness’ Category

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.

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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.
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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.”
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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.
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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.

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.

Harmony

In Happiness, Life, Wisdom on March 23, 2018 at 8:04 am

I don’t do New Year resolutions, but this year I did something similar. I selected a word I wanted to focus on for 2018. It’s a touchstone* of sorts, something one turns to for guidance and direction. My word is Harmony.

I can’t directly say how harmony presented itself. I suspect it was the result of current social conditions. I cannot recall a time of such discord previously. I was born in 1955 so I was a young person in the sixties and seventies. I remember the cultural upheavals of those times. Indeed, I vividly recall my frustration at not being old enough to truly participate in what was going on, the war protests, the “Summer of Love,” and such. Those were tumultuous times certainly. But they didn’t seem to carry the personal import these heavy days do. Regardless, I wanted to do something to counter discord as best I could, in my own little personal way. Consequently, Harmony.

We’re only a third of the way into the year. Is it proper to take an assessment of my personal contribution to harmony? That itself is a big assumption. Have I, in some fashion, contributed to world/personal/social harmony?

Well yes, I think so.

In my world an action can take three forms, or a combination of: body, speech, or mind.

Body. Speech. Mind.

Actions of the body, related to harmony, might be manifested by a hug, a handshake, a smile. Hold the door for someone, wave to a neighbor, let the car merge in front of you.

Actions of speech–that gets a little trickier. We all know words can hurt. Don’t use hurtful words. It sounds simple enough. Hello. You’re welcome. Good morning. These are words we like hearing. But how many times do we make a snide comment, use a rude description, say something disparaging under our breath? For me, in my attempt to train in harmony, I am daily growing more aware of such usage. Being aware of it, I can better modify my actions of speech. But that’s the trick–awareness, which takes me to actions of mind.

Actions of Mind–thoughts, essentially. If you truly want to make a positive contribution you want to get a handle on what’s going on between your ears. A teacher said to me once, “What’s your practice? We all practice something.” We might meditate, go for a run, read poetry, write, pray, clean the house, make the bed, change a diaper. What is your practice and do you understand that it first manifests as a thought? Your practice, do you pay attention to it? I wrote here once about seeing runners having a phone conversation while they ran. I wanted to stop them and say, Be a runner. Be just that one thing right now, be that one thing truly. Be that thing with all your heart and concentration. Pay attention.

My personal assessment, a quarter way into the year, is that my teeny-tiny contribution to harmony has taken root, albeit ever so modestly, close to home. I realized early into this project that there is little I can do about world politics, about discord between countries, about hatred in the world at large. Instead, I decided to be more thoughtful toward my neighbors. I decided to do the dishes when they stacked up. I will make the bed. I will pick up litter in the dog field. I said they were teeny-tiny things–but harmony spreads beyond family. Courtesy gets passed around. A smile is contagious. Civility counts. These are things I can think about, I can talk about, I can do. Mind, body, speech.

I hope I have not sounded too high-handed here. I don’t want to be preachy, nor do I have any reason to call myself out as being better than anyone else. I’m just a guy trying to be a better person, a better citizen of the world, a better father, husband, friend. Harmony, yep, a good focus word for me this year. I encourage you to find your own personal project at making the world a better place. We need it. Pass it on.

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*The origin of touchstone is interesting. The first known use of the word takes us back to 1530. A physical touchstone was a stone related to flint. By rubbing it on gold or silver one could determine the purity of the ore by the streaks left behind. Metaphorically speaking, a touchstone might be used to point us toward authenticity and genuineness.

 

How best to think.

In Happiness, Philosophy on January 26, 2017 at 7:13 pm

Cardiff, Ca

I was walking the beach this morning when I heard a woman talking behind me. Her voice grew increasingly loud and strained.  I turned and saw a runner. She was having a conversation on her phone. A few minutes later another runner passed me. I could hear music leaking from his ear buds. I used to run. I was a runner. I was not a runner on a phone. I was not a runner listening to music. I ran with all the focus and concentration I could muster. Running was the training of the body, concentration the training of the mind. Our minds are difficult things, flitting here and there.  A monkey swinging from branch to branch. Getting it under some fashion of control, bringing focus to our mind, is no small matter. If you are going to run. Run. If you are going to hold a conversation respect the other person and give them your full attention. It appears that everyone is interested in mindfulness these days. You don’t have to be sitting on a cushion to practice it. Concentrate. Focus. Please, we need our wits about us. The world is scrambled enough. Be a force of concentration.

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Carole and I were having lunch at a nice restaurant yesterday. We sat at the bar. Behind us a man called for his waitress. He complained that there was a lemon in his water. He did not ask for a lemon in his water. He wanted it removed from the table immediately. It was a moment when an elder of a prior generation would have turned and said, “Shut up and drink it, you entitled bastard. There are children dying of thirst in Africa.” I listened, feeling as if I was in an alternate universe. “Oh my god,” the waitress said. She was dressed in black, head to toe. “I’m so sorry. And, like, I totally brag about our water too.” Alternate universe indeed.

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“A man is as miserable as he thinks he is.” That is Seneca, the Stoic. He was an adviser to Nero. Eventually Nero went nuts on him, as despots do. Nero ordered Seneca to kill himself. He did, but not before botching the effort multiple times. The ancient philosophy of Stoicism is having a moment. There have been articles on Stoicism recently in the The New York Times (“How to be a Stoic“), the Guardian (“How Would the Stoics Cope Today?“), and The New Yorker (also titled, “How to be a Stoic“). Several new books about it are due. A sign of the times perhaps? Back to Seneca. If  one is as miserable as he or she thinks, does it not conversely follow that one is as happy as he or she thinks they are? If you’ve spent any time here at “…the house…” you know the theme: How best to live? The better turn of thought, however, is not how to live, but how to think. Figure that out and everything else follows. Ancient philosophers were judged not only on the philosophy they proclaimed, but also the life they lived. The life of the mind, measured as a function of existence. It is a refreshing thought in these troubling days, the evidence of disciplined intelligence as manifested in one’s life. Sadly, it seems a curiously unique notion.