Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness to just be happy. – Guillaume Apollinaire
Do you pursue happiness? No? Me neither! I just float around on a cloud of bliss all day, because I’ve chosen to just be happy instead.
Ha! As if it was that easy.
March 20th is International Day of Happiness, so some of us in 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion are already thinking and writing about happiness. I loved Michelle Grewe’s post, I’d Be Happy If…
In that post, Michelle says:
People say happiness is an attitude. A state of mind. A choice. I can see that, to an extent, but faking happiness is not the same as being happy. That’s all you’re doing by “shifting your attitude,” is faking it, and it’s probably unhealthy to do for long lengths of time.
I agree with Michelle that to an extent, happiness is a choice. I also agree with her that faking it is not the same as being happy, and that faking for a long time is unhealthy.
Most of us fake happiness some of the time. Actually, most of us do it several times a day.
Someone asks, “How are you?”
We know they don’t really want to hear about our sore head, and the argument we had with our brother last night. They’re just being polite. So we smile, and say, “Fine thanks.”
And maybe we are fine, really, because the argument is over, and the headache would probably ease if we let go of the thoughts and feelings we’re holding about it. But in that moment, we don’t feel fine, and so we lie, cover up. Maybe the person who asked us would even be interested to know how we’re really feeling, but we assume they wouldn’t be, so we lie.
There’s nothing really wrong with that. It wouldn’t necessarily help us to tell every person we met about our list of troubles. It would just keep them in our minds, and ruminating is widely recognised as a main cause of depression. According to psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, even when rumination brings a potential solution to a significant problem, the rumination itself may induce a level of uncertainty and immobilization that makes it hard to move forward.
So yes, dwelling on your worries and letting your mind run off into scary futures isn’t such a great idea. The argument with your brother is over. Running it through your mind, whether to feel sorry for yourself, figure out how to get back at him, or to try to work out what you did wrong, all keep your mind from enjoying what is here right now.
I had one of those moments yesterday. It wasn’t an argument exactly, just a teenager who was tired, grumpy and didn’t appreciate my “wisdom” or the help I’d given. I noticed my mind churning a bit, imagining things would keep going wrong, berating myself for not handling it differently. (Because you see, I didn’t follow the book for Perfect Parenting correctly and I should have done.)
Well, I’ve been down that old route a few times, and nowadays instead of staying on for the duration of the journey, I like getting off at the first stop.
So off I hopped, and gave myself a little self-compassion. I let myself feel the churned up emotions and I noticed how they felt familiar. I’d felt this way, many times before, had been feeling it since I was a kid. These were old, old thoughts that used to come into my mind with monotonous regularity, and what’s more I used to believe them.
“I’m not good enough, got it wrong, said or did the wrong thing. I get anxious when other people don’t, blah, blah, blah.”
That thing about other people. Have you ever heard the saying, “Don’t compare your inside with someone else’s outside”?
You have now!
We all do this, we think that what we see of others is how they are, but we mostly have no clue how they really feel inside. (With a few people, I can tell; at least I can tell if they are very tense, because I can physically feel the tension around them. But even then, I can’t see the thoughts going through their minds, and I can’t tell their exact emotions.)
And if someone is putting on a happy face, we truly don’t know what’s going on inside.
Fear drives the vast majority of people. Sometimes it drives me, though less often than it used to do. I used to feel ashamed of “my” fear. It seemed as if it was “me.” Some people didn’t like my fear; they told me I was stupid for having it, blamed me for it. And yes, I’ve done the same thing to other people. I’m not proud of that, but it’s just how it is.
We aren’t just afraid of our own fear; we are terrified of other people’s too. If someone’s fear reaches massive proportions, we call them crazy and medicate them. Sometimes we even lock them up. Instead of allowing our own uncomfortable emotions, we try to stop other people feeling theirs.
So we have a massive culture of “positive thinking.” Many of its proponents blame other people for being “negative” and try to “cut them out” of their lives. I frequently see rants on Facebook from people who “…will not tolerate any negativity on my Timeline. Anyone indulging in it will be unfriended. You have been warned!”
Wow, what happy, positive behaviour! I guess the irony is lost on them.
Okay, I get it. People who write these things feel weighed down by their own struggle with emotions and trying to deal with someone else’s darker feelings and thoughts seems more than they can manage. It’s a hard, sad place to be in.
Fortunately, there is another way. While there is evidence that being around people who are feeling negative emotions affects us, it is possible (if not always easy) to be around them and retain our equilibrium.
How? Not by “choosing” happiness and ignoring their feelings. Not by trying to think happy thoughts instead or to pretend they didn’t say or do what they said or did. Not by ordering them to change (so we don’t have to.)
But by noticing our own feelings, and giving ourselves compassion for that.
Say you’re in a state of panic, and I think I have to help you feel differently. If what I say or do doesn’t change how you are, I think I’ve failed and I start to feel panicky too. But if I notice that I feel anxious about you, I can let myself feel that, be kind to myself and that kindness helps me feel calmer. At least one of us is calm now, more able to listen to the other. I might not solve your problem, but at least I don’t join you in it, and because I am more able to listen, you might just feel a little better, more understood.
So now I’m going to return to the quote from Michelle, the part: “shifting your attitude,” is faking it. Yes, it can be, if we’re doing it because we think we should. When I tried to have a have a happy attitude because I thought I was too fearful, my motivation was to get approval, to get other people to think I was okay. (I was trying to control myself to control how other people saw me! How tangled up we get when we try to get from others what we can only get from ourselves.)
In those days, nothing really changed inside me. It’s as if I had a cart full of rocks I carried around (rocks labelled: Not Good Enough, Loser, Idiot, Scaredypants, Own Worst Enemy, and so on.) Then I piled another rock onto the cart, one labelled: Trying To Be Happy. Actually, I shoved a ton more rocks on, and several of them were labelled: Not Good Enough. A few more were labelled: Fake, Imposter, and Nobody Would Like The Real You.
Instead of lightening our load, trying to fake happiness just makes it heavier. We need to empty out our carts first. We need to notice that actually we aren’t idiots, just people doing the best we can to get by. We need to realise that we are no worse or better than other people, and that everyone feels this way sometimes. We need to see that feelings like fear aren’t enemies we have to push away, but neither do we need to cling onto them and believe they are who we are.
Unless we do that, any attempt to shift attitude or choose happiness is faking it. When we do start emptying our carts (in my experience at least) it’s damned hard work at first, but after a while we start to notice that without even trying to, we are choosing “just to be happy” more and more.
I’ll end with a photo of my kids, from many years ago. We were on a beach in Maine, and as you can see the weather wasn’t exactly optimal for July. It didn’t bother them one bit. I felt happy because they were so happy and and I still remember it as one of our happiest days of the holiday.
Now, it’s over to you! I love comments, so please drop me a line to let me know what you think. Do you pursue happiness and is it possible to choose it instead?