Friday, November 21, 2008

This Week's Theme: Trends That Will Stick
Happiness Remains Possible


Today's "trend that will stick": happiness remains possible. I know, I know, spare me the load of New Age crap spouted by wealthy gurus like Kapok Dopra. OK, done. But nonetheless happiness is possible for just about everyone not on their deathbed, or suffering from a severe untreated mental illness, or in the sharp terrible grip of grief (loss of a loved one) or in pain only morphine can ease.

That leaves most of us.

The word happiness, like the word love, is inadequate to the task assigned it. These words encompass too much to describe much of anything. Perhaps an analogy would be if we only had the one word "taste" and no words for salty, pungent, sour, bitter, sweet, savory, meaty, rancid, etc.

All questions about taste would be reduced to "yes" or "no" answers which essentially say nothing about the various flavors of food. The word "happiness" carries the same limitations and the same reduction to nonsense.

One aspect of language which has always fascinated me is words which are unique to specific languages. Ideally, a word is a symbol or "shorthand" representing an object or an idea which is at heart a complex of thought and/or emotion we grasp without much explanation.
Some languages contrived words to express complex emotions which are universal to humanity, while others find that linguistic cupboard bare. For example, the Japanese word aware (ah-wa-ray) has no English analog--not even close, though "nostalgia" is in the general direction. Since I am not a native speaker of Japanese, I don't fully trust my own sense of the word, which is something like a bittersweet awareness of the passage of time. I think it a very Japanese word in the sense that this feeling, while universal to humanity, is keenly felt in Japanese culture.

In English, we are left groping for this special sense of the tinge of sadness inherent in the passage of time; nostalgia veers too close to mauldin "ah, the good old days" smoothing of memory. And so a complex of ideas and emotions which are captured in one single word in Japanese requires a paragraph of words in English.

Which brings us to schadenfreude, the happiness felt in the losses or defeat of one's rivals or enemies. It's not a warm and fuzzy happiness (as in, "happiness is a warm puppy"), but it is nonetheless an instinctual, universal slice of happiness.

Who says happiness isn't possible when rivals and enemies are suffering stupendous losses every day? (Take that, Kapok Dopra! Yes indeed, happiness is not only possible, it's enjoyable.)

I hope you detected that this is written with tongue firmly in cheek. (Such a great phrase, and so entirely meaningless when literally translated.) The point is that happiness comes in many flavors, however you slice and dice it:

"Psychologist Paul Ekman divides happiness into 16 emotions, including personality traits such as optimism and cheerfulness, the state of mania, moods of euphoria and contentment, sensory pleasures such as visual, gustatory and auditory (his personal favorite) and three states of mind with no English translation - schadenfreude (German for feeling good about the pain of your enemies), nachas (Yiddish for joy at an offspring's accomplishments) and fiero (Italian for what you feel when you've met a challenge).

"I believe we can understand life a lot better if we make distinctions, not by just saying, 'I'm not happy,' " he said. "If it was up to me, I'd abolish the term happiness and use these terms so we'd know what we're talking about. You could have organized the meeting so you'd have a panel on each kind of happiness."

We tend to think of happiness as some point-in-time sensation or celebration, but some sorts of happiness are more akin to well-being; others are a priori shared with others:

"Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley who heads the university's Greater Good Science Center, discusses evidence that compassion and kindness are traits biologically programmed into humans.

"I think we have a deep and rich legacy in Western thought that suggests we are competitive and aggressive and only out for No. 1," said Keltner. "But all the research I do in my lab (shows) that we are designed to care and play and be concerned about the welfare of others."

(From the S.F. Chronicle article Happiness and Its Causes: It would be hard to find a better time to talk about happiness, something you can't buy even if you still have good credit.)

So let's work Ekman's insight a bit. How many happinesses can you count? Just riffing off Ekman's list:
1. The happiness of fullness of belly.
2. The happiness of listening to a favorite song once again.
3. The happiness of overcoming sloth and/or procrastination.
4. The happiness of mastering a new tune, skill, trick, etc.
5. The happiness of removing a rock beneath your sleeping bag.
6. The happiness of rigorous exercise completed.
7. The happiness of coasting downhill on a bicycle.
8. The happiness of helping a child or teen finish their homework, but without actually doing it for them.
9. The happiness of a child or teen asking you to accompany them.
10. The happiness of not needlessly worrying your aged parents with your own difficulties.
11. The happiness of changing the oil in your vehicle without losing the oil plug or skinning your knuckles.
12. The happiness of finding you're not too badly injured after a wipeout/accident.
13. The happiness of a new recipe turning out even better than expected.
14. The happiness of feeding hungry kids something healthy and tasty.
15. The happiness of hopskotch.
16. The happiness of an improvisation that works/flows to your satisfaction.
17. The happiness of opening a book you've wanted to read for some time.
18. The happiness of realizing the pain in your back is a little less today.
19. The happiness of new shoots rising from the seeds you planted.
20. The happiness of acquiring a new object of ownership.

I do not begrudge the happiness of #20, as it is the sole foundation of a consumer economy: the happiness of acquiring some new object or purchased "experience." But I also listed 19 other happinesses which required no acquisition of new material objects or shopping per se, though there needs to be healthy food in the house to feed the kids, and a bicycle to ride down hill, etc.
But used bicycles cost less than a month's cable TV charges, and food is far less costly than it is in other countries. And there's food stamps if you're in dire straits.

A reader (Lari) on sfgate.com (S.F. Chronicle site) left this message which should resonate with anyone pondering the various flavors and sources of "happiness":

"There's a Carlos Castaneda quote I read once that has become my touchstone during bad times: "Death is the only wise adviser that we have. Whenever you feel that everything is going wrong and you're about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you're wrong, that nothing really matters outside his touch. Your death will tell you, 'I haven't touched you yet'."

I learned this lesson particularly after 9-11. As a native New Yorker, the twin towers represented so much to me - including the location of my first job. Two friends died in those towers that day and two cousins barely escaped alive. Not a day goes by that I don't think about people who died that day - I could be standing in a long line, worried about bills, my job, but then I just stop and breathe in, so grateful that I can still do so.

One last small happiness:

21. Finding a phrase that makes a new kind of sense.
For instance: Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasures. (Rumi)

Thank you, James D. ($30) for your much-appreciated generous donation to this site. I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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