Sunday, October 20, 2019

The key to happiness

Don't interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
He says, we walked on the moon
You be polite

I’m still in the woods.

At times I think I’m doing a little better.

I bumped my med dose up a notch and that seems to have helped.

I know that that merely treats the symptoms. Which is something. A respite from acute anxiety certainly makes it more possible for me to address the roots of the problem.

Or at least to define the problem.

Neil listened to a program on NPR about happiness.

He asked me to guess the degree to which these things affect happiness: genetics, circumstances, what you do.

I said, that’s easy. Circumstances, a very small amount. After that, it’s a toss up between genetics and what you do.

I couldn’t find a podcast or transcript of the show, but I did find a lot of info about a formula based on research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues.

According to the formula:
  • 50% of happiness is determined by your genes. 
  • 10% of happiness is determined by the circumstances in which you live.
  • 40% of happiness is determined by your actions, your attitude or optimism, and the way you handle situations.
So I was pretty close, although I though about what you do as being more about what you actually do with your life day to day than about your outlook or attitude.

In college I took a philosophy class taught by a professor of education. He made the claim that work is the greatest source of a person’s happiness. One of the students protested vehemently. She insisted that happiness was to be found on the weekends, in your time off work. She insisted that she was unhappy while working, i.e., studying, writing papers, taking exams, and happy kicking back with her friends and a cold drink at the end of her work time.

I got it though, what the professor was saying. If you’re lucky enough to find something that you are passionate about and follow that passion into a career, then I can totally understand that satisfaction and happiness would flow from the work you did in pursuit of that passion.

I’ve always regretted not figuring out how to channel my passions into a career. I know I would have derived much happiness if I could have put my talent, for writing, for example, into a job in support of a cause I believed it.

Of course, not all of us can be Pulitzer Prize caliber writers, enlightening mankind about the perils of climate change or the mandate for gun control, while getting paid a living wage. Not all of us can be New York Times best-selling authors of novels or memoirs that get optioned by Hollywood and made into blockbuster movies. Nor foreign correspondents covering humanitarian issues, nor evening news anchors, nor weekly newspaper columnists, nor any one of a number of occupations that I’d have found meaningful and happiness-generating.

Or maybe that’s pie in the sky, and all those careers have dark sides, second novel failures, biting annual reviews, ugly competitiveness, ageism challenges, a bullet in your head in the Middle East for your trouble.

I’ll never know.

I did the best I could, I did what I needed to do, I certainly had career high points as well as the low ones, and somehow I staggered through the finish line with enough resources to do whatever the hell I want to do with the rest of my life.

I do wonder about those statistics though. And here I will say that the figures are a generalization of a very complex equation and not a set of hard and fast rules.

So even if, say, depression runs in your family, if there is a hereditary component of mood disorders or an inherited susceptibility to a dearth of neuro-transmitters, that does not unequivocally condemn you to a life of unhappiness.

Nor is the reverse true, that you are immune to sustained unhappiness on the basis that no one in your family tree significantly suffered from psychological malaise.

As for the contribution to happiness of attitude and optimism, this idea skates uncomfortably close to the theory that we can choose to think our way out of depression by adopting a positive attitude. By pulling ourselves up by the proverbial bootstraps. While I agree that we have some choice about our actions and the way we handle situations, I’m unconvinced that we can choose our outlook. Would anyone chose to be unhappy or depressed if they could simply choose to be upbeat, optimistic, happy?

On the whole I’d say not, but I’ve considered the thought that melancholia can become a comfort zone. I can be down, blue, wistful, dispirited, when I don’t know what else to be. But that’s not the same thing as true unhappiness or clinical depression. Which aren’t the same thing by the way. I can be unhappy because a friend died, for instance, but not depressed. And I can experience depression with every reason to be happy.

What I can choose are my actions and how I handle this sort of unbound depression.

I keep going. I keep moving. I keep putting one foot in front of the other, doing the next right thing, taking baby steps when I must.

In my specific case that means signing up for classes, getting outdoors whenever the weather cooperates, walking online the treadmill, creating things. It might mean numbing my dinosaur brain for a while with crime drama or or historical fiction. It means spending time with Neil, even if it’s just going grocery shopping or making soup or going out for dinner or ice cream. It means shopping for a mother-of-the-bride trousseau. It means knitting hats and cowls to give as gifts.

It means going through the motions when I can’t be fully enthusiastic. It means getting dressed every morning and taking a bath every night. It means pretending to be OK when I’m not 100 percent OK. It means staying self aware so I’ll know if pretending gets risky and it means seeking outside help should I stop being able to help myself.

Right now I’m holding the black canine at bay. He hasn’t left the building but his jaws are momentarily muzzled. If he hasn’t gone to ground by the end of the year, I have a plan to hire an obedience trainer.

And yes, I know, obedience training is as much about training the master as it is about training the beast.

My mother-of-the-bride costume, unless I find one I like better.

But the shoes I am definitely keeping.

Don't interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
In flames are prophet witches
Be polite
A room full of glasses
He says, you're notches, liberation doll
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall

Anima rising
Queen of Queens
Wash my guilt of Eden
Wash and balance me
Anima rising
Uprising in me tonight
She's a vengeful little goddess
With an ancient crown to fight

Truth goes up in vapors
The steeples lean
Winds of change, patriarchs
Snug in your bible belt dreams
God goes up the chimney
Like childhood Santa Claus
The good slaves love the good book
A rebel loves a cause

I'm leaving on the 1:15
You're darn right
Since I was seventeen
I've had no one over me
He says, anima rising
So what
Petrified wood process
Tall timber down to rock

Don't interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
He says, we walked on the moon
You be polite
Don't let up the sorrow
Death and birth and death and birth
He says, bring that bottle kindly
And I'll pad your purse
I've got a head full of quandary
And a mighty, mighty, mighty thirst

Seventeen glasses
Rhine wine
Milk of the Madonna
He don't let up the sorrow
He lies and he cheats
It takes a heart like Mary's these days
When your man gets weak

Joni Mitchell © 1975; Crazy Crow Music)

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