When I started writing this piece a few weeks ago, I was once again grieving, with the sure knowledge that I would bounce back. And so I have. Though I am finding the restrictions of Covid to be more and more disheartening, I’m basically fine. Still, I like the ideas I was jotting down then, so let’s return to the week of July 20, 2020, back to a time of sadness:
I’ve been pretty happy this summer, but emotions are never linear. Neither happiness nor sadness is a destination to arrive at, and declare the journey over. These emotions and an abundant bouquet of other human feelings are constants throughout our lives, especially during this time of Covid, which is both exacerbated by and is also exacerbating political chaos. That chaos last week, in particular the storm troopers set loose on Black Lives Matter protesters in Oregon, gave me plenty of feelings: fear, horror, anger, dismay, empathy, hope, and inspiration. And, sadness. I believe we may well need to traverse some exceptionally muddied (bloodied, even) waters before arriving safely at a happier collective tomorrow, so I try to hold on to the long view. Ultimately, I hope, all will be well. But, oh, the suffering between here and there! We will need to cling tenaciously to happiness to not drown in the sorrow.
No matter the big picture, we each have lives filled with our own private happinesses and sadnesses. Last week gave me plenty of both, though ultimately sadness won out. My family and I started the week in coastal Maine, saying goodbye to my brother-in-law Richard, who died suddenly a year ago. I’ve done some grieving, but not enough. I don’t think I’ve fully processed the fact that he is gone. The send-off was a sweet family affair on the edges of Acadia Park — simple and loving. There were many smiles. Yet, the act of literally scattering my husband’s brother’s ashes was devastating. It was pretty darn concrete evidence that Richard no longer exists in his familiar bodily form. I shed a few tears during the car ride back to Vermont.
At home, happy news awaited: I was interviewed about my new book for a really cool podcast, “The Leftscape: The Shape of Progressive Conversation” AND learned that Action for Happiness (an awesome grassroots happiness group endorsed by the Dalai Lama) had just published an excerpt from the book! And … I only had a few days at home before packing for my next trip, on another profoundly sad family mission.
I’ve written before about the value in recognizing and accepting our inevitable grief. What I want to suggest at the moment is that it is also important to embrace our happiness. Sometimes I think that is harder for us. When we see so much hurt and injustice all around is, it may feel almost immoral to be personally happy. You may even think you don’t deserve to be happy. But we really do need to claim our happiness, for ourselves and others because it is good for us in so many ways. Crucially, it’s important to remember that happiness improves our capacity to minimize the pain and suffering. To build a better world. To love. To laugh. Embracing happiness is a very moral path.
In my book, in sermons, in workshops, in previous blogs, I’ve quoted many an expert on this theme — for example, Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, who, with other researchers found that myth that “happier people have more confidence, optimism, self-efficacy, likeability, sociability, and more originality. They are more active. Happier people also have better physical well-being, stronger immune systems, and more energy. And, happier people are more flexible and cope better with challenges and stress.”
Or former United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. During the Obama Administration, Murthy made happiness part of his public health agenda. He emphasized happiness as one of the main ways humans can prevent disease and live a long, healthy life.
I greatly appreciate the experts, but I also take comfort from homegrown wisdom. I sometimes reflect back on a conversation one hot summer day years ago with my friend Felicia. We swam across the lake and then sat on a neighbor’s dock, our legs dangling in the water. I told Felicia that I felt like I couldn’t be happy, even though I had plenty of reasons to be, because both my adult children were going through rough times. Felicia set me straight. She told me that my children’s journeys were their own, and I had to seize my happiness when it was available to me. She assured me that I would have plenty of time to feel sad, too.
Such wise advice. I will always be grateful. Indeed, I have had — and will have — plenty of time to feel sad, including the trip I took on July 23rd. I have a sibling who is now on hospice. No need to go into the details, but I needed to make the drive to another state (less Covid free than either Vermont or Maine) to visit with this sibling for what could be the last time. So off I drove, by myself this time. Another weekend, another goodbye to another sibling.
Obviously, this was a recipe for sadness, but even this period of time was interspersed with a variety of positive emotions. Happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive. Feeling them both at the same time is one of the many paradoxes of the human existence.
Here’s one of the positive experiences that made me happy: I am a huge Shankar Vedantam fan (of course! he’s all about the brain science!) and had loaded lots of Hidden Brain podcasts on my phone. I listened to Hidden Brain after Hidden Brain and learned lots of cool stuff. Learning cool stuff makes me happy.
Even more — much more — I got to spend quality time with another sister and her husband. I love them both, and savored our time together.
My time with my dying sibling was also precious. Poignant. Difficult. Unforgettable. I’m so glad I made that trip.
Then, I was sad the whole drive home — all 10 hours behind the wheel. Once again, Shankar Vedantam rescued me. More Hidden Brains gave me the equilibrium I needed to stay safe behind the wheel. On one episode, he discussed a very interesting concept, all new to me: our internal “hot and cold empathy gap.” That is, when we’re feeling a really hot emotion (say, anger or desire), it’s hard to remember the cooler emotion (non-anger, or prudence). But when it comes to happiness and sadness, I think we can remember, and that it is helpful to do so. When I am very happy, I know that it is a fleeting sensation — and vice versa.
I actively cultivate happiness because I think it is helpful, as well as more enjoyable. But we have all our emotions for a reason. So let’s have them all, within reason.