Is happiness escapist?
This question, which came up at a happiness workshop on a lovely Sunday afternoon in Vermont a little over 24 hours before Super Storm Sandy hit the U.S., carried extra weight in the following days as we witnessed the storm’s massive destruction and personal tragedies. Most painful was the news about a Staten Island woman whose two young sons were swept from her arms by powerful waves as she tried to carry them to safety. Both little boys drowned. I cried at her despair.
Even worse, though, is the foreboding I feel. I know I am not alone in believing Sandy is the new “normal.” I suspect there will be many more neighborhoods aflame, beautiful beaches and treasured covered bridges washed away, and toddlers dying.
And, we all have our normal garden variety of suffering to deal with: aging, failing bodies; money worries; heartbreak from our own and others’ failings; and, ultimately, death. For all of us.
In fact, I’m feeling a little sad while I write this blog. Yet, on both a micro and macro level, my answer to the title question is a resounding no. Quite the opposite, really. For me, cultivating happiness, positivity, and well being is a moral imperative on both the big systemic and deeply personal levels.
Why? Most urgently, because, on both a personal and societal level we are chasing the wrong goals: money and material success. I know that is not all that many of us seek. We are also spiritual beings, who treasure and nourish relationships and the opportunity to do good and to create. And we are physical creatures, who dance and have sex and go to yoga class. Nonetheless, because our economy is fixated on growth, the pressure on us to buy and spend is enormous. The resulting consumerism is trashing the environment.
To begin to ameliorate the insidious, unpredictable effects of climate change, we must reject the sacred cow of a growth economy. Equally, we must understand that a rising Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is not a valid indicator of a flourishing society. This is not a new idea; Bobby Kennedy eloquently articulated the flaws of GDP way back in 1968. I’ve watched a video of his GDP speech many, many times and it still moves me to tears. Today, viewing it again, I want to add “the ravages of a hurricane” to RFK’s list of what contributes to a “healthy” GDP.
One other quick primer on how destructive consumerism is: “The Story of Stuff.” If you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend investing the 20+ minutes this smart, sassy video lasts. And, BTW, happier people shop less.
But what will take the place of a growth economy, consumerism, and GDP? Something needs to fill the vacuum. That something should be a Gross National Happiness (GNH) paradigm — or, in more politically palatable terms, the genuine well being of people and the planet. Systemically, embracing happiness is embracing a sustainable future.
On the personal level, first of all, I have to question what good it does anybody for me, or you, to be unhappy? How is that going to help fix anything?
But it’s not just me. Sages from across the millenia — the Dalai Lama and Aristotle, for example — say that happiness is what all humans desire. The Dalai Lama has also written that whenever we interact with another person, we can add either to that individual’s happiness or to their unhappiness. Thanks to mirror neurons, we are much more likely to boost another’s spirits if we ourselves are in a happier place.
When I was at the national happiness conference in Seattle in August, I learned a simple but profound exercise from Scott Crabtree, proprietor of “Happy Brain Science.” Scott divided the group into paired-up “A’s” and “B’s” and then instructed the “A’s” to maintain sober facial expressions while looking at the “B’s” who were instructed to smile, smile, smile at their partners. You can guess, it is just impossible to not smile back!
Of course, I am not recommending fake cheeriness or inauthentic saccharine behavior. What I am suggesting is, as Christine Carter puts it in Raising Happiness, that we need to “put on our own oxygen masks first” when it comes to helping others be happier.
Thanks to positive psychology research and multiple other studies on human behavior, we now know that nurturing happiness builds our own ability to respond to crises and to serving others in their moments of need. Positivity breeds greater resilience, and the ability to see and appreciate silver linings. Happier people are kinder — and kinder people are happier. Happiness is also good for our health, and, damn, sometimes we need to be strong and healthy to fight the good fight!
Another powerful argument for strengthening our happiness muscles is the value of mindfulness. Taking time to meditate and build personal awareness is one of the most important happiness strategies any of us can adopt. With mindfulness comes greater compassion (for ourselves and others), more inner peace, less stress — and, the ability to make better decisions. “To lead a happy life, we need to make good choices,” write father and son happiness mavens Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, “and this involves the recognition that problems arise, even in good circumstances” (Understanding True Wealth, p. 18).
The circumstances in North Central Vermont were very good indeed — a sunny, warm, late autumn day — as Sandy was headed our way. Even way up here, we were warned of very high winds and the likelihood of losing power. It was time for mindfulness and good decisions: after watching Tropical Storm Irene devastate much of Vermont last year, we knew that if the power went out, it could stay out for a long, long time. Our wood stove and gas range meant we could stay warm and cook hot meals. But our well needs electricity to work, so we stockpiled pitchers, jars, trash cans, and bottles of water to drink, clean, take care of the baby, and flush the toilets.
The storm wobbled a bit to the west and we never needed all that extra water. But the threat was — and is — quite real. My sister Peggy in New Jersey is now in Day 8 of no power, no heat, no water. It is, she says, “the pits.” I can’t regret for a moment my choices to stockpile water; I am grateful for mindfulness and the awareness to “be prepared.” (After all, I was once a Girl Scout!)
Diener and Biswas-Diener also observe, “challenges look easier when you are happy.” I’ll tell you something else that makes my challenges look easier: coffee! I don’t drink a lot, but, oh, that first cup in the morning is a savoring experience every single day. During our preparations for Sandy, I became very mindful that I had wholly inadequate coffee preparations. Next time, I will make even better choices, stocking up on coffee (ground!) as well as water.
That’s not a moral imperative, of course — but, it will help me keep smiling!