Thursday, March 17, 2011

Are we happy yet?

Like many Americans with a little too much time on their hands, I am a sucker for any article with "happiness" in the title. Perhaps, I say to myself as I click eagerly on the link, this one will be the answer. Finally, I will know the truth: am I happy or not? This WSJ article got me thinking...well, dang, maybe I am.

I hesitate even to say this, given that in addition to being (possibly) happy, I am also deeply superstitious about admitting any form of good fortune. So let me protect myself by saying I remain on constant high alert for bad stuff to get upset about. Bad stuff is always happening, and will happen, to me and to others, whom I know and don't know. I mean, jeez, all you need to do is look out the window, or, god help you, at the Internet, and you will see that there is an infinite amount of stuff to be unhappy about, even if you personally are not at this very moment unhappy. In fact, there must be some reason why the Internet is so full of awful, aggravating, horrible information--if we didn't seek out awfulness, content providers would rush to deluge us with some other kind of content. Like...what? What would we rather have?

That question gets us back to the article, whose main point is that what many of us think of as "happiness" is not really worth pursuing after all.

The pleasure that comes with, say, a good meal, an entertaining movie or an important win for one's sports team—a feeling called "hedonic well-being"—tends to be short-term and fleeting. Raising children, volunteering or going to medical school may be less pleasurable day to day. But these pursuits give a sense of fulfillment, of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run.

Until recently, I guess I thought of "happiness" as either this "hedonic" business, or else the absence of any kind of bad feelings...which, on reflection, translates to a sort of blankness that seems scary. No wonder the pursuit of this is so unsatisfying.

The article suggests that engagement, a sense of purpose, and above all *not ruminating on your happiness or lack thereof* are the keys to a different type of happiness. This is "eudaimonia," which is more akin to fulfilling one's potential. People who feel eudaimonic happiness "are good at reappraising situations and using the brain more actively to see the positives... They may think, 'This event is difficult but I can do it[.]'"

Since completing my novel, I've experienced a lot more of this type of happiness. MIND YOU there are still plenty of things I strongly believe that I can't do (self-marketing, cutting the cats' toenails). But being able to focus on my writing and finish a large project have given me a certain confidence that I didn't have before. On any given day I feel despair, frustration, even self-loathing, but the difference is that I expect these feelings to go away at some point. Back when I was seriously depressed, I figured the despair was permanent, which contributed to the depression all the more. I've somehow--for now--concluded I can handle these experiences.

Based on this article, I might suggest swapping the word "confidence" for "happiness" when thinking about what we want to pursue. I'm not talking about bravado, the false confidence that requires an audience to exist--and usually attracts one. I mean a confidence you feel whether or not anyone is looking.

That's what I'm going to try for, anyway, because I no longer think the other is possible. (I say this with hope, not despair.)

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