BE HAPPY NOW, DAMN IT!
I don’t want to come off sounding like a grump here and I am as prone to reading and quoting uplifting daily slogans, repeating positive mantras to talk myself down off the fret ledge and listening to Dali Lama tapes as the next nirvana seeking person. But it feels to me like there is an overwhelming pressure these days for everyone to be rhapsodically, blindly, foolishly happy at all times. And not only should we be in this constant undying state of ecstasy, we need to achieve it within the next twenty-four hours or we are total happiness failures.
I feel this is a lot of pressure. I also feel it is unrealistic: you can’t demand happiness in life nor can you create it out of thin air. Nor should you be made to feel like a failure if you are bummed out, perhaps for a really legitimate reason. I personally think the bummed to happy swing can be a good ride. But I am clearly in the minority.
On Amazon you can find literally over one hundred and fifty books with the word “happiness” in the title. And most of them are how to achieve it in anywhere from four to twenty steps. Many have the word project in them. The most famous of which is the newest bestseller The Happiness Project. When you link up “happiness” and “project” my mind immediately goes to homework and the next place I go is unhappy at thought I might have to do some.
Now I actually read Gretchen Rubin’s blog The Happiness Project, on which she based her bestselling book. And I find many interesting tips and interviews. There are days I get a lot out of it.
Though I am also sometimes confused by her commandments on what to do to conjure happiness. I also wonder is everyone so very miserable that something like putting on sunscreen is the answer to every lasting pleasure or are we really stretching it at that point?
Happiness seems to have gone from a state of being that one comes in and out of to a mandate. Mandates have a way of making me unhappy.
The dictionary defines happiness as:
1- feeling or showing pleasure, contentment or joy
2- causing or characterized by pleasure contentment or joy
3- feeling satisfied that something is right or has been done right
4- willing to do something
5- slightly drunk (my favorite) I wonder if shit faced is under delirious?
6- Resulting in something pleasant or welcome
None of those really indicate an ongoing state of mind or being. In fact there is an element of the temporary in all of them. And under meanings you actually find the word “lucky,” which indicates chance. I.e., you can’t hunt it down and drag it home like a bear for dinner.
Now again, trust me I am all for happy. But I’m also not afraid of its cousin sadness. When you read the books on Amazon about sadness for the most part it is characterized as in illness as in bi-polar, depression, or a very justified grief. But aren’t these all just part of the cycle of life? If we are happy all the time, doesn’t that become like sunshine everyday– you don’t appreciate it when something really special happens?
I read once they did a study and we all have our own pre-set thresholds for happiness much like our set-point weight and we would return to them no matter what happened, be it winning the lottery or losing a limb. You are pretty much programmed to be as happy as you are. In my life I have found this to be true. Happiness can fluctuate but it tends to go back to its set-point. Maybe if you work on the project hard enough you can change this. I don’t know, I haven’t worked on it.
I tend to be very high strung, which I imagine everyone who has read this for long has picked up. I hate it when people tell me to relax. I hate it so much it makes me even tenser than I might be and I tend to shoot back with, “This is me relaxed – get used to it. Watch me when they cancel my plane then you can tell me to relax.”
The thing is if I were relaxed all the time, it would be death, I would get nothing done. I feel the same way about happy. Because I’m funny and don’t tend to pout, people assume I’m happy all the time. I don’t walk around glum, but this does not mean I’m elated. If I were elated twenty-four seven I would also get little accomplished. I fear I would wallow in my happy state.
My favorite book on the subject is Stumbling Towards Happiness by Martin Seligman; partially because I tend to agree with the philosophy it’s something we stumble in and out of and towards, it’s not a project like making a gingerbread house. Plus Seligman is hysterically funny and truth be told laughter tends to make people happier and is a bigger indicator of happiness than almost anything.
And the people who are the funniest you will find are often the least constantly happy people you will ever meet. But they have an internal compass that points them from what often times is misery to what is funny in a situation and that makes people laugh instead of cry and thus happy. It also makes the person who has made them laugh feel a sense of accomplishment and if we go by the dictionary “feeling satisfied that something is right or has been done right,” then making people laugh would lead us back to being happy ourselves.
I think we should strive for contentment. I think we should be grateful for what we have and give back, but I’m not convinced we should run around in a state of constant ecstasy.
The Happiness Project is amazingly successful; people want to be told how to be happy in steps. They seem to not want to learn how to live life but be guided through it, which I think may be a cause of unhappiness. I think much happiness comes from self-reliance. And then what if you bungle a step? Are you reduced to misery and shame?
Here are the ten steps that the Happiness Project says will make you happy.
1. Make your bed.
I can’t leave the house if the bed is unmade. But it doesn’t make me happy— it only makes it so I don’t think my whole universe is out of whack. Now perhaps that is happiness but for me it’s just a natural habit and I find people who don’t make their beds are slobs. What does that have to do with being happy? “I’m happy I’m not a slob”? That’s like saying I’m happy I’m not a kleptomaniac.
2. Wear sunscreen.
Where does this link with happiness? It’s preventative medicine. I will be happy if I don’t get melanoma? The flipside of which is I will be terrified and miserable if I get it. So it’s really unhappiness avoidance– as they say, an ounce of prevention saves a pound of cure. This can also be associated with vanity– I will be happy when I’m sixty and my skin isn’t withered and wrinkled. But does taking vitamin C make you happy or merely sensible?
3. Wear your seat belt.
This to me is absurd. I’m happy I won’t go through the windshield if I have bad luck (read: unhappiness) and have a car wreck. You could take it one step further and say I’m happy I closed the car door so I don’t fall out on the highway and get run over. This feels like a very cheap and easy road to happiness if you ask me.
4. Jump up and down a few times.
Depends on your knees. If they are bad this could make you unhappy as one might pop, then you’re in for laparoscopic surgery which is never as easy as they say it will be. And if you’re not in the mood to jump you could look idiotic and unnatural and downright unstable which might cause people to steer clear of you and result in, god forbid, loneliness– which can make some people miserable and then you have totally blown your happiness project altogether.
5. Pick up one object that’s in the wrong place and put it away.
I do this anyway. I agree it makes you feel better. But things should not be out of place. Perhaps I’m a bit of a Nazi. To me this is just life 101: everything has place and things should be in them at all times. It’s also a version of a line from the musical Pippin, “Everything has a season everything has a time. Show me a reason and I’ll soon show you a rhyme.” Now that makes me happy.
6. Go for a ten-minute walk outside.
Why ten? I walk hours a day in New York, not sure it makes me happy. I think it could be a counter balance if you are really angry, then walking it off calms you down. The “I’m going to take a walk and then we will discuss it.” But does it make you happy or merely prevent you from getting in a fight?
7. Eat a fruit or vegetable.
I can’t even answer this one. Which fruit? Which vegetable? How are they prepared? Where am I? A random fruit or vegetable will make me happy? What if it’s a lima bean? That would make me so miserable I cannot tell you. I would rather throw out my knee jumping than be forced to eat a lima bean.
8. Put your keys away in the same place.
Common sense, otherwise you lose them, spend an hour looking for them and miss a meeting. This again feels like a way to avoid unhappiness but not necessarily to make you happy.
9. Touch everyone in your house with affection.
What if I’m annoyed with one of them? What if they are just back from the gym and sweaty and gross? I like this one best and see how it could work, but it is very dependent on circumstances.
Bonus: 10. Go to sleep as soon as you’re sleepy, if you possibly can.
What if you’re on your ten minute walk? You could end up sleeping in the street, and getting picked up for vagrancy, possibly thrown in jail, which would result in depression. Unless of course you had the right fruit or vegetable handy.
I know this is a lot to digest. I would write more about it, but Real Housewives Of New York is about to start and watching that makes me really happy.
In the meantime, if all else fails, download the song “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and keep singing it yourself. Singing works wonders. Better than jumping if you ask me.
Tomorrow: the ten things that make me happy.