I don’t know why people persist in believing that being famous is a ticket to happiness.
Here in mid-life I have come to believe that happiness* comes from having passions that are their own reward. Acceptance, accolades, and good hard cash money for doing what you are passionate about are all nice but they are not a given and counting on them to result when you really don’t control if any or all will come is not a prudent plan.
The passions needn’t always be the same ones over the course of a lifetime. In fact, sometimes the things we love when we’re young are things that we can’t do later in life. Or maybe later in life something strikes your fancy that would have left you cold when you were younger. The people I see who are most unhappy are the ones who don’t have passions that fire them up and engage them. The people who have good reason to get out of bed in the morning are the happiest. Even if nobody else cares about those reasons but those individuals.
These passions are harmless by definition; that is they can’t hurt the individual or anybody else. Being passionate about drinking a bottle of wine daily does not count. Being passionate about screwing other people out of their money does not count. And so on.
You’ll notice I’m not saying anything about love or relationships with other people bringing about happiness. It isn’t that I’m discounting them (hardly) so much as I believe they alone are not enough and you can actually overburden your relationships when you try to get everything from them. Also – your passions are something under your control. They feed you independent of your relationships with other people.
*If you don’t like the word “happiness” (one which I generally don’t use because I think it’s a transient state, one of many), feel free to insert contentment, peace of mind, or satisfaction.
NOTE: I’m having internet issues and may not see or respond to your comments right away. But it doesn’t mean I don’t like ’em!
The major religions and philosophies generally advocate that people need to knock off all the desiring – that it is desiring and its pals coveting, wanting, and greed (greeding?) that cause us so much misery. That, and keep us from attaining higher states of consciousness.
As a creature of wants and desires, I’ve given this quite a bit of thought. And it bugs me. Why? Because to be human is to desire. Even if someone is so evolved they no longer succumb to the impulses of the flesh – they don’t need sexy time – and they’re content to subsist on next to nothing in terms of money and material goods, they still will have human needs for food and companionship. Oh, you could argue that the evolved person just eats rice and forgoes shrimp cocktail and frozen gelato, but even that doesn’t work, because variety is needed to satisfy nutrition and sustain life.
And the companionship part… sure, there are people who choose to live in isolation, and others that vow silence, but these are the exceptions. Even people who avoid others often secretly, deeply, need human interaction and they’ll pay the price for its absence. Further, shunning and solitary confinement are the grievous punishments they are because we humans so need that connection.
What I’ll concede is that desiring has a way of feeding on itself. You get one of something, them you want two or a bigger something. I’m going to paraphrase this old idea loosely, the one that says the man with no feet wants feet; the man with feet wants a pair of shoes; the man with a pair of shoes wants two pairs of shoes; and so on like that (I’m pretty sure I don’t have it exact, but that’s the general idea). Get one need met and another pops up. Why, life is one long, drawn-out game of Whack-A-Need! Git me a mallet, by gum.
I just need to rest a minute. I want to swim in the ocean. I want those people to shut the hell up already. I want more money. I want to run my hands across that man’s shoulders. I want a chocolate-iced donut with cream filling. I want a nice, worry-free retirement. I want these aches and pains to go away. I want those dogs to stop barking. I want a bowl of popcorn and a DVD. I need to sleep for two days. I want this traffic to start moving before my head explodes. I want all the cellphones to go back to where they came from. I want the neighbor to go smoke somewhere else. I want to be somewhere beautiful in nature. I want more closet space. I want a microwave that has a nice old-fashioned bell and not an insanity-inducing horrid long whining digital buzzer. I want cute tie-up ankle boots. I want heat. I want air conditioning. I just want a shower. I want my hair to look right every day. I want a really good book to read and get lost in. I want to never hear anything more about crime, murders, violence, wars, and terrible sickness again. I want to live without fear. I just need to get over this cold. I want pasta and garlic bread. I want people to act right. I want decent customer service. I need a hug. I want a break. I want to eat breakfast in a real diner, not some corporation’s idea of a diner. I want my writing published. I need more security. I want a big seafood feast. I want sane, non-creepy landlords. I want leggings that don’t pill and sag. I want it to be sunny. I want to breathe clean air. I need to think. I want disturbed people to leave me the hell alone. I want a snappy little red sports car. I want a handy little pick-up truck that never breaks down. I want good coffee not watery swill. I need a decent night’s sleep. I want to be taken to dinner. I want a raise. I need to be appreciated. I want people to do what they say they’re going to do. I need allergy medicine. I want to stay independent till I die. I want the people behind me in the movie theater to shut their yaps and stop kicking my %#&$ seat. I want to make art and get paid for it. I want to stay healthy. I need to eat NOW. I need to get up early. I need to be more productive. I need to go the store, to the DMV, to the doctor, to the repair shop, to school, to work, to the awards ceremony, to the funeral, to the graduation, to the meeting, to the appointment, to the wedding, to the gym, to the class, to the training, to…
We often get caught up in comparison and I think it’s our nature to compare “up the ladder.” We look at people who appear to have more or better than we do, and covet what they’ve got, whether it’s youth, beauty, material goods, health, cars, homes, spouses, kids, jobs, or money. Rarely do we compare ourselves to people who have or do less. I don’t talk around thinking, “Well at least I’m not a meth head.” And yet, I have been considering that if we’re going to play the Comparison Game (perhaps when we take a brief break from Whack-a-Need), we SHOULD look not only at who is standing on the rungs above us, but also at those below.
See, a thought came to me two days ago that offered a useful boost in perspective. It is that there are people who could be envying me or what I have. Generally, if this isn’t the last thing from my mind, it’s still pretty damn far away. And yet, it occurred to me when I’m thinking about everything I want, there could be people looking at what I have and thinking it looks quite good to them.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate what I have – I really do, increasingly, try to keep my focus there – but I expect I think MORE about my desires and wants. If I lived out in the woods here in the U.S., and quite honestly, there are people in my community who do, or I lived in an overcrowded hut in a third-world country, I bet my life, my things, my existence, would look awfully nice. As I write that, I’m taken aback. I need to remember that more.
So I played a little mental game of envying myself. What do I have that I’d be wishing for if it was not mine already? I’m no Pollyanna (“Let’s all just look on the bright side and sing a happy little tune!”), but doing this mental exercise was – is – instructive. The reality is I’ve got more than a few things I’d be wishing for if I didn’t have them. I’m determined to do this more. To think about what I have in terms of if I didn’t have it.
I think a lot about stuff, things, and consumerism. Both how they play in my life and on a broader scale. It is easy in America, to fall into tunnel vision, where the focus is on gobs & gobs of possessions, forever trading up, keeping current, going bigger, and god forbid, not getting left behind. I live very simply; I don’t have money or things by the standards around me, yet even I am susceptible to the desires perpetually stroked by our consumer culture. I don’t know when exactly happiness and possessions became so inextricably linked here – likely further back in time than I’d guess, but linked they are.
At times I intentionally force myself out of the limited tunnel of vision, and think about how my life and possessions might appear to someone in the second or third world. It’s almost embarrassing to consider, especially when I’m feeling deprived in any fashion. I see an abundance. Food, clothes, entertainment. I see the positive effects of lifelong nutrition and dental care. I see plants, greenery and the upside of nature. I see education and access to books. And access is a great word here, because that may be the one thing, access of all stripes, that stands out in relief. This kind of reflection jogs my thoughts out of wanting mode and makes me see that what I have is enough for a happy life. That is, I’m reminded that if I am not happy, or more accurately, satisfied, it is not the fault of my possessions or what my life affords me, literally and figuratively.
Within the last couple years, I have put my hands on every last thing I own. There are no “mystery boxes,” no “what is this part for?” conundrums, no “I haven’t worn this shirt in 10 years but dagnabbit I’m keeping it anyway” stances. If I’m hanging onto anything extraneous or illogical, I know what it is and where it is. I’ve moved a lot of junk on down the road. It’s outta here. A woman I know told me that you spend the first half of your life collecting things and the second half getting rid of them. I’d never heard that before! It sure sounds like what smart people would do. I can’t exactly sign on for that plan though, because I never really had much in the first place, and what I mean by that are nice, quality things. I don’t have any family heirlooms, no good China, no investment pieces. What I’ve sent packing was detritus, even if it took awhile, in some instances a long while, to see that.
There are still things I want, still cravings and wishes. However, I can catch myself and decipher what’s motivating those urges. I think carefully before bringing anything into my life. There has to be room for it in every sense. I now buy smallish things that make my life easier or more enjoyable, that I did without in the past (whether I opted out, they didn’t yet exist, or I just didn’t know they existed), but even they are subject to standards. It’s a bit of a cliché that when you get rid of old things, space is freed for better things. I gotta admit, cliché or not, I’ve found it to be true. Habit, fear, and imagined senses of obligation (“I must hang onto this!”) drive much of what keeps a person stuck. And what I’m saying applies to objects yes, but it’s shown itself beyond that as well. I hadn’t figured on that. The thinking changes I’ve made are broad and philosophical in scope. You have to clear the decks of all the crap and clutter, create space and then consider what you want to fill in the spaces with, if anything. That’s where I’m at anyway.
I never pretend to be happier than I am.
Doing so, as anybody who does it knows, is exhausting. Nonetheless, there is a lot of pressure to turn it on, crank it up, and act as if you’re having the time of your life. We cut people a little slack if they’re sick, or just lost their job, maybe were recently divorced or widowed, or otherwise are dealing with a major event. Short of that, the prevailing cultural message is often to whoop it up by god, git yourself a beer, watch the big game, and smile damnit. Because we’re having fun! (If the available “fun” really isn’t to your liking or quite your style, well too bad.)
When I was younger, I thought “happy” was the goal, a place a person could reach, should strive to reach, and once achieved, just stay. As I grew older, I of course absorbed that happiness is one state of many; none of them are meant to be permanent. I came to see contentment as a better goal. Further: people who think a lot can pretty much scrap Happy Land as a destination. Thinking and happy are at cross-purposes. Which is not to say thinking isn’t enjoyable or worthwhile or valuable in and of itself. I happen to be a big advocate of it! And for those so dispositionally inclined, thinking is a place to live.
“Don’t worry, be happy”? Well, naturally! I hadn’t realized it was that easy, silly me. Can you tell I can’t stand this sort of soft-headed pablum? Who has a delightful and stressfree life that calls for no worries? That kind of mantra suggests but for our negative (pointless) thinking, happiness could be ours! The message – and others of its ilk – strips worrying of any legitimacy. How realistic is that, for anyone?
I’m pretty sure most of us recognize that money in and if itself doesn’t buy a happy, worry-free existence, and if we don’t we should from the rampant examples. Frankly, what it seems to buy is better drugs. (I mean, what does THAT say?!) Yeah, I can already hear it: better to have the worries of the rich guy, yes? To a point it’s true but only to a point; studies in recent history suggest that once a certain level of financial equilibrium is achieved, i.e., basic needs and reasonable comfort, additional income does not provide more happiness. (People, and maybe Americans in particular, really don’t want to believe that.)
Still, the pressure to be, to act, happy persists. And many oblige. Personally, as I said at the outset, the more conscious I’ve become of this, the less I feel obliged. When I’m comfortable around other people, I have an energetic, social personality. I’m quick to smile or laugh, and dare I say, be funny. It’s not forced, it’s my natural inclination. Few would call me reticent or shy. All that being said, when I don’t feel as I’ve just described, I don’t pressure myself to keep it up. With intimates, if I’m tired or sad or somehow less-than-cheery, I say so. The curious thing is that I find that people don’t really accept that from me. They don’t like it when I’m not jolly. To this I now think: tough (okay, maybe not quite that bad). It’s limiting and unfair to expect me or any human being to maintain a constant state of being “up” or “on.” Who is that one-dimensional? Who is not subject to the continual ebb and flow of human emotions?
The word “mask” comes up a lot in this context; what people show to the world to hide their true selves, the ones they think others will find unacceptable. Wearing a mask though, boxes their owners in, and makes it that much more difficult to reveal other dimensions when necessary or desired. Naturally, people are fearful of rejection should they remove the mask. And it’s true when you’re used to seeing another person behave pretty much one way or show only one “face,” it can be quite a surprise or even shock when out comes a different, sometimes less palatable side. Initial reaction aside, I think in the end, within the right context, most of us prefer the “real thing” and have more to gain from it. When someone takes their mask off and stops working so hard at acting happy, it touches other people and gives them permission to remove theirs as well.