The Thing About Happy People
People who are truly happy are not smug, self-satisfied, complacent. They are not hoarders of happiness. They don’t own it. It’s not guarded territory. They don’t see themselves as part of an elite club with a difficult entrance exam. Truly happy people don’t need to do anything to be happy, or work hard to achieve it; it’s effortless. It’s free. And yet they aren’t lazy or irresponsible. They aren’t chewing themselves up in angst, beating themselves up for inadequacy, comparing themselves to others, worrying about end results. That isn’t to say they aren’t compassionate, caring, invested in outcomes or others; it’s just that they have achieved the simple yet often elusive Taoist sense of wu-wei, doing without doing, acting without trying, being without striving.
Happiness is infectious. No one begrudges a happy person her happiness. There’s no lording it over others, no strutting. There is, as Pharrell Williams exemplifies in his song, “Happy,” exuberance; there is full enjoyment of the bliss. But true happiness is a constant invitation, a pair of open arms, an ungated community with ample room for any who would enter.
Happiness does not diet. There’s no limited servings. It’s not rationed, saved for later, cut into manageable pieces, but stays whole. You dive into it with your clothes on; you don’t take a cautious sip.
[Confession Digression: Sometimes I am very jealous of Happy People. Why are they so damn happy? It’s ANNOYING. Annoying because they are Happy and I am Not. Ok. Back to the regularly scheduled programming…]
Happiness, a Privilege?
I think of this, because I worry about enjoying my privileges. I worry that I can afford good food and special fizzy water; I worry that I go to the gym and yoga class and get massages. I have a Kindle and buy books and send my kids to horse camp. I feel like I am indulging in unnecessary, trivial activities that are not fair, not available to everyone, that I am rubbing it in the faces of others, that by enjoying my clothes or nice wine that I am no better than the millionaire buying a third plane or a second mansion, when others are starving and cold and homeless and lost and jailed and running for their lives.
That is: I am scared to let go and be happy.
I’m scared that to do so is immoral.
I can imagine someone responding to this saying, It’s not your fault you are where you are; abstaining from what you can afford doesn’t help anyone else; you’re not bad for enjoying yourself or making choices for better things.
Yet, that’s the devil’s voice, isn’t it? I am wary that if I give myself a pass to enjoy the things I can afford to have, I have wiggled out of acting with a moral compass; I’ve excused myself.
Again: I am disgusted by people with so much money they waste it on truly worthless, useless things. I am not a Kardashian. But at whatever level of the economy I exist, whatever pittance is my income, I am afraid of behaving like one.
None of us can really afford to be Kardashian. We don’t exist on this planet alone. If you believe, as I do, that we are all family, interconnected, part of the whole, then consuming more resources than you need, taking more than your share, wasting what is precious – these are all not just selfish and immoral acts but ultimately impractical and harmful to you and your interests – someone else’s suffering eventually comes to you, your descendants, your interests.
The Moral Questions
How do I act responsibly with my privileges, while others suffer?
How do I enjoy myself while others are suffering?
How can I be happy when others are suffering?
I’m not sure these are the same questions. Or the right ones.
They are the ones that come.
Money & Happiness
Certainly, happiness is not owned by people with privilege. We all know that. Money doesn’t buy happiness. True, deep joy can be experienced in profound ways by people in concentration camps, by the deeply impoverished, as much as by hermit monks, shipping magnates, housewives. Just go watch the musical “Annie.”
But anyone who has been poor or enslaved will also tell you that parading around on a “money doesn’t buy happiness” float does not mean that money or privilege or freedom do in fact buy some really crucial things that preclude one’s ability to be happy. (Again, watch what happens in “Annie.” Expensive tap-dancing.)
Is having adequate food, shelter, clothing, and care really a question of happiness, though? Isn’t happiness extra? A dessert? Something only rich and privileged people can afford, accrue, earn, pursue?
Famous ole’ Maslow seemed to suggest this when he posited his hierarchy of needs – you know – because it’s a hierarchy. You have to eat before you can blink your third eye.
Be Happy, No Matter What?
Sure, we can learn happiness, practice happiness — all the recent research seems to say so. We can all take responsibility for our own happiness. We can stop blaming others or the system when we feel unfulfilled and empty.
But it’s one thing to say that we should all be fully realized buddhas, and then our circumstances won’t matter, so really the onus is on you to be happy, get over yourself. And it’s quite another, I think, to then tell a starving, beaten child that she needs to get over herself, buck up, and think pleasant thoughts. It’s all in your head, sister.
That is, for sure, the Privileged Get-Out-of Responsibility-Jail-Free Card.
What if we make the following distinction?
Happiness, true happiness, is an internal state. That is, there is the spiritual matter of happiness that does not rely on externalities.
What we would think of as the external state creates comfort and well-being, which is not the same as happiness. It’s not just external, but applies to the emotional and psychological world, too.
And when we are weighing our own happiness, we cannot compare it to our own or anyone else’s comfort; they are not the same commodity or currency; they don’t share an exchange rate. In “Annie,” the light shining from the titular character does not originate in anything but her hope; it shines when she is a dirty, lonely, orphan child as much as when she is rich and adopted.
But what sets Annie apart from the other orphan girls IS her happiness, which is not based on externalities.
Yet who can begrudge the other orphans their desires for comfort and belonging?
Is Annie an imaginary figment or a true evocation of the spiritual ideal, attainable to all?
Crucial here, in this possible model, is not a relationship of “higher,” more valuable spirituality vs. “lower,” less important physicality.
Rather, I see them as mutually impacting each other and possibly in flux as to how much attention they receive and impact they are having on the whole person.
Why Do We Care About Suffering?
The thing is, if we think of happiness as being unyoked from comfort, then why do we moral beings care or worry about alleviating the physical suffering of others? If happiness is the goal, and it is obtainable despite discomfort, why worry about the latter at all?
Even more to the point, if we know that life is suffering, why do we strive to eliminate it? Wouldn’t getting rid of suffering take down life, too? Isn’t it necessary? What is the goal, here?
I’m not sure the ultimate relief from all pain is the goal. Learning how to offer compassion, comfort, cradle, care for one another in our pain – that is part of what we do, in our becoming. It is not a matter of solving a problem, fixing a leak – it is a process, a way of life, a manner of being. It is being part of the balance, pain and joy.
Do not look for rest in any pleasure,
because you were not created for pleasure:
you were created for joy.
And if you do not know the difference
between pleasure and joy
you have not yet begun to live.
Happiness is the deep realization of happiness’ independence from anything else along with the interdependence of all things, both internal and external. Joy is the fountain of god-ness that springs within and without, surrounds and holds and encompasses and fires throughout the universe. It is both everything and nothing because it is everything. It is god and not-god.
Happiness is for sure not a commodity to be owned by me or anyone else, however privileged or underprivileged or what. That, I can see.
But I still haven’t answered my question – because my question really is about the comforts and pleasures of the world I live in (1st world, middle-class urbanity) and how I reconcile my experience and enjoyment of these with the lack and suffering of so many others.
And then it hits me, that I’m too wound up in the end result, in the fixing solution.
The question of how to be is not about how to solve and what to do but how to be.
The question is not how to be happy.
The answer is happy, to the question of how to be.
Joy is a moral imperative, I think, once you wake up to the reality of being.
Happiness is what happens when you give up trying to do things for the sake of having results you think will satisfy whatever you believe you lack. Happiness is the default state of a person who is awake to the preciousness of what is.
I remember I used to think my parents were so stupid for boycotting Dole products because of their questionable (evil!) corporate practices. What good does that do, I asked, under my breath, as they picked out their canned pineapples (canned fruit – whatever!). I was a teenager. I adored my parents but I felt sorry for them – not only would the two of them not buying Dole fruit have NO effect whatsoever on the problem, but really, what corporation had clean, unbloodied hands?
And I ask that myself in the grocery store, often: How can I even think I can buy food in a grocery store and not be participating in / supporting / condoning corporate and state practices that impoverish, enslave, harm, working people here and abroad? Not to mention environmental pollution? Political manglings? How do I have any righteousness at all if I am not off the grid?
Is going off the grid my only answer? And then what am I proving/achieving? I cannot solve poverty, end sex trafficking, resolve wars by washing my laundry by hand and trying to pick up enough farming know-how from wikipedia to not starve.
The answer is that there is no answer at the end of the book.
The answer is really the Way, in the way we practice and behave and choose.
I also used to get really irritated by the Buddhist nuns who, to fulfill their vows of killing no living thing, wear masks when they sweep so they don’t breathe in and inadvertently murder flies. That’s nice, but limitless numbers of living organisms that we cannot see live and die on and in our bodies all the time. There is no way to touch the earth and not cause harm.
And yet, that is how they practice their intention – imperfect in the result, yet perfect in its practice.
Does that make sense? My parents and their boycott – maybe no effect whatsoever – yet their practice, their choice – the execution of a choice out of compassion and justice – how elegant, how moving (and notice how I am still thinking about it, all these years after).
We can never, ever know how our actions impact the world. We really can’t. Good intentions can lead to hell and bad intentions can lead to heaven. Good actions can have bad results, bad actions can cause good things to happen. A small act can have a large effect, a big move can change very little.
We cannot control the results.
Suddenly, I am all about Thomas Merton. He says:
“It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting an immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition. “
– from No Man is an Island
We can only choose the manner of our input and interaction with / within the living, ever-changing system.
We can act from a place of love, compassion, hope, and justice, and practice these things.
Thomas Merton quotes Chuang-tse:
“My greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is calculated to obtain happiness . . . Perfect joy is to be without joy . . . if you ask ‘what ought to be done’ and ‘what ought not to be done’ on earth to produce happiness, I answer that these questions do not have [a fixed and predetermined] answer” to suit every case. If one is in harmony with Tao-the cosmic Tao, “Great Tao” — the answer will make itself clear when the time comes to act, for then one will act not according to the human and self-conscious mode of deliberation, but accord ing to the divine and spontaneous mode of wu wei, which is the mode of action of Tao itself, and is therefore the source of all good.
The other way, the way of conscious striving, even though it may claim to be a way of virtue, is fundamentally a way of self-aggrandizement, and it is consequently bound to come into conflict with Tao. Hence it is self-destructive, for “what is against Tao will cease to be.”
Final Thoughts – for Now
It’s an elusive thought, but there is something important to say here (and yes, Merton talks a lot about this, too) about how knowing and growing our own hearts and spiritual selves is crucial piece of acting as a loving being in this world and of knowing god.
I often ask myself, What is here? What is before me? What is tugging at my heart?
In an effort to avoid heady intellectualizing over distant peoples it would feel good for my ego to go save, I try to ground myself in the Here and Now and the Real. And from there, practice love – the feeling, the intention, the action – toward myself, toward the others around me, those in my heart.
It may be for someone else the way to live out their moral imperative and virtue is to go off-grid, to become a monk, to join the Peace Corps, to give all their money away to the poor.
It may be for someone else to grow their own food and find a way to avoid corporate greed.
It may be avoiding certain products. Not because you win anything that way. But because you find you can’t buy them and still feel ok inside. Others – you let go.
And we make those choices, don’t we? We make the best choices we can make with what we have and what we know. And ultimately the only person who knows whether those are the right choices for us is – ourselves. I may go to Walmart and that may be the best choice I can make with my budget, my time, my responsibilities – knowing what I know about Walmart – while never darkening the door of Chik-fil-A. And that may look like a contradiction to you, like laziness or greed. But for me, that may be where I am right now – and that’s what I can do.
If I am following the call within my own heart, I am less focused on what it looks like externally – my do-goody actions – and more on what is required for the virtue and righteousness and principles activated within – the right speech and right relationship there…
And oddly, there is happiness in that – in letting go of the Shoulds and the burden of the world’s suffering – the guilt and the fear of not doing the right thing – of not being able to do the right thing – the anxiety of it – that is not going to motivate one to act out of love.
I find my own path involves small things that are very hard things. Like staring at a banana peel and contemplating about my love of the earth vs. my laziness at walking to the compost bin.
Mindfulness means avoiding habitual escapism. It doesn’t mean I don’t ever give my mind a break. Finding the right balance of attention – hold on loosely, don’t let go! – and being is – a growth point.
But I want to walk in peace and act in love, however that is for me, without any worries or attachments to the results. This is not, by any means, an easy way out. It is a way in – a way into integrity and authenticity. A way that is full of mishaps and mistakes. A way that is about our (dynamic) relationships with ourselves and others and god, not about our duty or job.
Enjoying This Ride
Ultimately, I cannot say that I know much about the right way to react to this world, the time and place I am in.
What I do know is that my time here is limited, and it would be the biggest slap in the face to this gift of Being Here to not embrace it, however messy it is.
There’s not any reason to be happy. No reason at all!
So let yourself be happy. We are here! We’re alive – for now – and that is, in itself, you are, amazing.