Archive for March, 2013

Happiness as a Choice

Sunday, March 24th, 2013

It’s been over a month since I jumped on my high horse (that long? why, yes), so I figured it was time to get back in the saddle. Although actually I’m a little loathe to tackle this particular bugaboo, because it involves a link that’s currently enjoying a bunch of Facebook play by people I respect and admire. So I’ll try to tread lightly.

(Chances that I will succeed: 17%. Nellies, I am not a light treader. More like a giant-footed floor-thumper.)

Here’s the story: 22 Things Happy People Do Differently.

I suppose the first sign of errancy is the website/blog itself, which is called SUCCESSIFY! (Yes, caps and an exclamation point.) “Success” as a concept sounds so appealing and is so over-hyped in our culture that I think it’s easy to miss how problematic it is. But if your intentions in life are to be present for your experience and to connect, both with yourself and others (Hint: those are my intentions), it’s not a word you’re generally going to endorse. Or use. Or like. It’s not compassionate, the idea of “success.” It sets up a good and a bad. It puts some people above other people, or at least some outcomes above other outcomes. And in a world where we’re not in control of most of what happens to us, that seems unfair at best. Why do we have to be successful? Can’t we simply be here for what is?

Then there’s the idea of “happy people.” This one is a little more slippery. I identify as a happy person, so it’s a concept that makes some sense to me. But I’m committed to experiencing all of my feelings as they come, and that means that at any given moment, you’re likely to find me excited, relieved, pissed off, joyful, in a state of wonder, deeply sad, anxious, enraged, delighted, curious, content, etc. I’m certainly not happy all the time, or even close to it. I know a lot of well adjusted people with great life skills, and neither are they. In fact, full-time happiness seems like a pathological state to me. So I worry about what the concept of “happy person” means to the writer of “22 Things,” particularly given what comes next. Wouldn’t it be more useful to look at the idea of essential emotional well-being, where you have plentiful and robust tools to deal with the chaos that life inevitably brings?

Then there’s the opening paragraph:

There are two types of people in the world: those who choose to be happy, and those who choose to be unhappy. Contrary to popular belief, happiness doesn’t come from fame, fortune, other people, or material possessions. Rather, it comes from within. The richest person in the world could be miserable while a homeless person could be right outside, smiling and content with their life. Happy people are happy because they make themselves happy. They maintain a positive outlook on life and remain at peace with themselves.

Let’s start with the tone, which is fairly unkind, no? It’s like, first of all, you’re either happy or you aren’t. (Sorry, anyone who feels happy sometimes and not others! You don’t exist. Apologies, people who feel numb! Neither do you. And if you feel mostly happy but also kind of consumed by one giant issue you’re afraid to deal with and which is really dogging you . . . yeah, we can’t categorize you, so you must not exist, either!) And then, if you’re unhappy (God forbid), it’s your own fault. In fact, it goes farther than that. It says that you’re actually choosing to make yourself unhappy. As in, you’re engaging in an active and perhaps even intentional process to make yourself miserable.


Let’s consider a few of the possibilities for why people might be having a hard time in life:

  1. They were born into a war zone and have experienced repeated, ongoing emotional trauma—without enough time between events to fully process their feelings.
  2. They were born into poverty and have experienced repeated, ongoing trauma—without access to the emotional and spiritual tools that would help them work through their feelings or the people who could help them do so.
  3. They were born into an abusive family and . . . same as above.
  4. They’ve been bullied for years and . . . ditto.
  5. They have a mood disorder.
  6. They have a physically painful disability or disease.

To name just a few. Here’s the thing: Life hands a lot of people a lot of shit. And while it’s entirely true that we can acquire plenty of great tools for working with the shit that life hands us—and while I absolutely believe in seeking out, learning, and using those tools, as I have done and continue to do—I would prefer not to blame anyone for not having access to those tools or for not being able to use them even if they do.

Healing takes time, which some people don’t have. It takes safety, which, ditto. It usually also takes at least one person who can help witness and hold your suffering. Again, a lot of people don’t have that.

To me, the situation (which involves a great deal of luck and a smidgen of choice*) is more this: Have you been given access to emotional and spiritual tools to help you process your trauma, and are you in a place where you are able to take advantage of those tools? Because if the answer is no to either of those questions, it might be awfully hard to do any single one of the “22 Things” the article lists.

*Then there’s the biological/genetic component of personality, which I’m not going to enter into here.

Let’s set aside the very real and frustrating absence of awareness about non-privileged people in the article and take a white, middle-class person as our example. Let’s say that this person is in her early twenties and had a rough time both in high school and in college, including feeling objectified by boys, having a group of friends suddenly turn on her and reject her, and being pressured by her parents to perform academically while they ignored the increasingly visible signs of her emotional distress. How might she experience the directives in this article?

  • Don’t hold grudges. It’s a lovely concept, but she’s in a lot of pain ever since her entire friend group suddenly dumped her. She’s hurt and angry. She doesn’t understand what happened. And if she believes that she should just “let it go,” what happens to those feelings of pain and anger? Very likely, they get shoved down, and she loses an important and tender part of herself, a wound that needs addressing and healing.
  • Treat everyone with kindness. Again, it sounds great. But how does this play out for her? Does she treat the guy who says a lewd thing to her in the hall as though he’s a friend? Does she call up her ex-buddies and try to get them to hang out with her, even as they laugh in her face?
  • Never make excuses. Ow. That feels harsh. Quite often in life, we have good excuses for why we do certain things and not others. For instance, if the young woman we’ve taken as our example doesn’t get her homework finished one night because she’s been crying into her pillow, missing her former friends and feeling ashamed that they rejected her while not being able to turn to her parents for support, that sounds not only like a good “excuse” but like an appropriate and emotionally sound way to spend her evening.

No matter who you are in this world, you’re going to have trauma. Everybody does. And until you have the tools to work through and heal from that trauma, dark feelings may dominate. And as long as those feelings are dominating, it’ll likely be extremely tough to assume the behavior of people whose wounds are already healed. From what I can tell, ”22 Things” is taking the behaviors of (so-called) happy people and telling everyone else to emulate them, with no regard for how the happy people got that way—or for what might be standing in the way of people who are unhappy.

Success, as I pointed out, is a problematic concept. And when you apply it to the realm of the feelings—i.e., that some feelings are the “right” or “good” feelings to have, and you’re failing if you have the others—you end up not merely being unkind (and, um, causing unhappiness) but cutting out a large and important swath of human experience. Bad shit happens. Dark feelings are real. You’re making yourself smaller, and you’re trying to get other people to be smaller, too, if you seek to deny them.

I would prefer to live in a world where we open to the reality of whatever feelings arise, where we learn how to befriend them and let them happen in ways that are healing for us and safe for others, and where we move through them as best we can. I would prefer that we all acknowledge how hard life can be, share in the difficulty, support each other through the dark places, and not pressure anyone to be happy. Ever.

Thanks, Rainbow Rowell

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

You know when you’re having a colossally difficult week and you’ve been reading a lot of great and “serious” fiction but at this moment what you really need is something light but not insipid or insulting to your intelligence, so you download a YA book that your friend told you about and it’s so perfectly sweet and heartfelt and minutely observed that you get junior-high-level goosebumps and finish it in one night, and then you download the author’s other book which is not quite as good but still compelling in all the right ways so you finish it the next night, and then on the third night you feel bereft that her next book isn’t coming out until “fall 2013” and beyond that there are no other books from her?

That just happened to me.

Here’s the author.

And here’s the first book I read (which she wrote second).

And the second book I read (which she wrote first).

Thanks, Rainbow. You helped a girl out this week.

I Don’t Know Why You Say Hello

Friday, March 8th, 2013

So I was all, like, I haven’t blogged in a week; maybe I should blog, and then I looked at my blog, and I was like, What the horking who? I haven’t blogged in three weeks? (Give or take.) How is that possible?

But I know how. I had a work thing happen. A work thing that was essentially:

  1. Exciting new project!
  2. Scribble scribble scribble scribble!
  3. Turn it in cross fingers hope for best!
  4. Client not happy! Client opposite of happy!
  5. OMG freak out wish I could explain not really my fault! Bad direction! No direction!
  6. Anyway doesn’t matter scramble scramble scramble scramble!
  7. Pant pant stress stress don’t sleep write write!
  8. Client very happy! Client immensely happy! Client loves!
  9. But meanwhile other projects! Many other projects!
  10. And edits from client! Always more edits!

And so on. I don’t know what’s happening with the San Francisco economy, but have I ever had more work? Possibly not. I’ve had to turn away more projects in the last few weeks than I want to count. Let’s leave it at: lots. Many words are going unwritten by me! And many dollars are going unearned! Although I am managing to fold other money into the nest—quite literally, since the house is what eats up most of the funds these days.

Anyway, work is officially on hold for a week. Because on Sunday, we’re headed to Ashland to be with and help and love one of my closest friends, who is recovering from a very, very shitty 6 months of cancer. I can’t wait to see her. Beam us away, Honda Element!