Thursday, June 28, 2007

You Could be Happy...

Is happiness a mood or a state of absolute being?

When we are asked whether or not we are happy, I think most of us respond according to our current mood. It's no wonder we feel bipolar most of the time, swinging from what we assume is happiness to what we assume is misery. It is my belief that we confuse pleasure with happiness. We chase moments of pleasure, thinking that it is actually happiness we are after. So, when the pleasure wears off, we often convince ourselves that we are miserable and seek out that next moment of pleasure and the next. But pleasure is is a moment of satisfaction or enjoyment. It comes, and with it, a seeming high. But it is not lasting and thus, it is not really fulfilling. The initial excitement of a new love, a new purchase, an exhilarating amusement ride, a massage. All come with a thrill (to varying degrees) but the effect soon wears off and it can leave us feeling empty.

Are you chasing pleasure or happiness in life? It seems to me that many people confuse the two for the entirety of their lives. I certainly did until just recently in my life and even now, I need to constantly remind myself of the disparity between the two, as I still find myself chasing pleasure as though it were happiness.

The same seems true of melancholy and misery/depression. Melancholy is often confused as being misery. But melancholy is so beautiful and so distinct from misery. I was watching this special on PBS with Sting. He was discussing his album, Songs from the Labyrinth, and he said that many people have labeled it as depressing. But Sting eloquently distinguished melancholy from depression. Depression is a medical condition. Melancholy comes about through self-reflection and there is a beautiful sadness in that. "Inspired melancholy," he says, is cathartic and inspiring.

In Buddhism, the first of The Four Noble Truths is "Life is Suffering." This has profoundly stuck with me since I came across it many years ago...this notion of life as suffering. But I don't see it as depressing or miserable whatsoever. There is a tremendous beauty in accepting suffering, and without suffering I don't see how we could fully appreciate life.

This is the life we are given. As far as we are aware...this is the ONE life we are given. How do you want to spend it? Accepting suffering and death does not relegate a person to depression or misery. We all have the potential to be happy. And happiness can coexist with individual trials and tribulations, mistakes and failings. Although achieving happines may seem like a daunting life ambition, I don't think that happiness is so complex or demanding. I believe that it is only requires our consent.


carra said...

B, I agree, I don't think many people know the difference between happiness and pleasure or misery and melancholy. All four are so different. I try very hard to aim for happiness and not pleasure, but like most of us I slip along the way and mix the two or sometimes just aim for a few moments of pleasure. But then it wears off and the true sense of direction comes back. As for melancholy, well I have surrounded myself in melancholy for many years and I loved it, it probabely was the most creative time of my life so far. I seem to be more myself when I suffer, because then I really do know who I really am. And when I say I suffer, I don't mean physical pain, I am talking about the pain in my soul that comes with realisation of the world around us.

Cavalock said...

one of the ways i try to be happy is to be content with myself and my situation.

b said...

carra...understandably, we all slip in this regard. but i don't think that pleasure must be strictly avoided by any means. i just think it is important to be conscious of the difference, as pleasure does not provide happiness and when we feel ourselves feeling empty, it is usually because we confuse the two. and yes, same thing applies with melancholy and misery.

this is probably why we get along so well...our indulgence in melancholy. as idealistic as i am, i love melancholy. my deepest connection with life often comes through melancholy, and indeed, inspires my creativity immensely.

suffering is beautiful though, isn't it? even when my soul is touched with sadness for the suffering of others, i realize the beauty in it, the potential behind the pain. it makes me strive to be better for this world, and that is inspiring and beautiful in itself.

as always, it is wonderful to hear your thoughts here. gros bisous!

cavalock...i think that is THE way to be happy and it is always ever-present. so simple, isn't it?

Richard said...

I was happy for most of my life. Up until I was 36. Sure, some days were better than others, there were highs and there were lows, but on the whole, I was happy. Or, at the very least, contented with life. Life was good and proceeding pretty much as I would have expected it to.

All that changed in August 2002, when I underwent about 2 months of very devastating malaise. Even though the lowness passed, the health consequences continued through until March or April of 2003. Then again, in August 2003, I had another low period, this time never quite lifting. In August 2004 I began my descent into despondency. September, October and the beginning of November were incredibly dark days for me. My mood started to slightly improve at the prospect of a 6 month sabbatical coming up in the new year - though, it ended up postponed until March 2005.

Toward the end of my sabbatical, my mood improved - although, not before I wrestled with (and am still unresolved with) the question of free-will. In days gone by, I was absolutist on the question of free will - although, now I see patterns that seem to indicate free will is only an illusion

As I improved, I recognized I was incredibly fragile. After a long period of not being well, one only keeps wondering when the darkness will return. Slowly, I have recovered and am mostly my old self, but not quite - although, perhaps that is no more than the lingering memory of my despondency.

I agree that most people go from one stimulus to another in the hope of finding happiness. Seneca had written something on it (the exact wording eludes me), commenting that people run hither and thither trying to find themselves, trying to find happiness, but the problem is that wherever they go, they bring themselves.

One observation I have made is that people seem to change their life direction every decade. So in the teens, they know it all and live life with reckless abandon; in their 20s, they look back at their foolishness and live their lives with responsible abandon; then in their 30s, they undertake a new life direction – having learned from past mistakes; this happens again in their 40s, 50s, 60, and so forth.

Of course, it can be debated if the contentment I felt when younger is the same as happiness. However, I considered my intrinsic nature happy, subject, peripherally, to extrinsic factors. I consider myself the same today, but with the added doubt over free will. It is a very important issue for me, since it is core to my entire being.

b said...

richard...i truly appreciate your openness here and feel sincerely compassionate for the struggles you have endured and continue to endure in this regard.

do you believe that your perspective on free will is due in large to the srong presence of this despondency that took over your life? i can easily see how that would influence your thoughts.

do you also think that the strong presence of this despondency may be due to hereditary factors and thus, a medical condition? i believe that is not uncommon. although it sounds as though you were quite content when you were younger. did something specific happen to bring about the despondency you first really struggled with?

was it the sabbatical that helped you shake the despondency? perhaps this time of despair was an indication that you needed a change?

i'm sorry for all the questions. i am just trying to see where you are coming from. i cannot pretend to know what it is like to feel such constant despondency. i certainly have my days, however, in which despondency creeps in.

as i type this, i can increasingly appreciate how your views of free will have been formed as of late in your life.

i hope this despondency is behind you for the most part and that you can move forward with increasing confidence that it shall not return. does it help when you are putting your thoughts more fully into those pursuits you've always wanted to fulfill...i.e, publishing a book, establishing a publishing house, etc.?

Richard said...

My current angst over free will occurred in March of 2005 - the first month of my sabbatical (beware too much time to think). Basically my despondency caused me to question who I was, my beliefs, my tendency to coast along in life and expecting things to fall into place because that is how life unfolds. This was not out of any sense of destiny or fate, but more that the universe is an ordered place and that a good life is generally fruitful and an evil life sows its own seeds of demise. Of course, life doesn't work that way.

At that moment, I simply recognized that human behaviour is incredibly predictable (not necessarily specifics, but the general tendencies) and has not changed in all recorded history. While it is true that in our countries we have relative peace, calm and order and are not anarchic Afghanistan. Yet, without the force of law, our nations would quickly degenerate into anarchy. Not a utopian anarchy as might be hoped ("Men are rational, they do not need control; rational beings have no need of a state, or of money, or of law-courts, or of any organised, institutional life." – Isaiah Berlin), but the tribal lawlessness of Lord of the Flies.

It occurred because of a fundamental shift in my perception of people. I had always believed people to be good and noble, often innocent victims of tragic circumstance. Yet, if that were the case, then we should be slowly advancing, pulling ourselves out of the muck and filth of our origins, yet ... optimism can die. What was once allegorical fiction for me, now becomes reality (many people have become disillusioned with life, even one of my favourite authors, Jules Verne, did, and wrote more pessimistic tales like Master of the World - a sequel to Robur the Conqueror. Even Captain Nemo, evil as he seems, is a flawed character who acts from the pain of tragedy "Captain Nemo was terrible to hear; he was still more terrible to see. His face was deadly pale, with a spasm at his heart. For an instant it must have ceased to beat. His pupils were fearfully contracted. He did not speak, he roared ... I turned to Captain Nemo. That terrible avenger, a perfect archangel of hatred, was still looking. When all was over, he turned to his room, opened the door, and entered. I followed him with my eyes. On the end wall beneath his heroes, I saw the portrait of a woman, still young, and two little children. Captain Nemo looked at them for some moments, stretched his arms towards them, and, kneeling down, burst into deep sobs.", but has Jules Verne written the story towards the end of his life, Captain Nemo may have well been just plain bad. Of course, similar tales of tragedy and dreadful vengeance can be had from The Count of Monte Cristo - a whole book in fact).

I struggle against it, but too often it seems the salt has lost its flavour and mankind is no more noble and conscientious than an alligator. My favourite movie (Forbidden Planet) puts it in dialogue like this:

JJ Adams: The Krell forgot one deadly danger ... their own subconscious hate and lust for destruction.

Dr. Morbius: (dawning realization – read quietly with long pauses after each period ) The beast. The mindless primitive. Even the Krell must have evolved from that beginning.

JJ Adams: And so those mindless beasts of the subconscious had access to a machine that could never be shut down. The secret devil of every soul on the planet all set free at once to loot and maim and take revenge and kill!

Dr. Morbiud: And now this too? Harm my own daughter?

JJ Adams: But now she's defying you, Morbius and even in you, the loving father, there still exists the mindless primitive more enraged and more inflamed with each new frustration. So now you're whistling up your monster again to punish her for her disloyalty and disobedience!

I suspect the despondency was brought about by a lack of sleep. For a while, I had been moonlighting, trying to get something off the ground by working evenings. Lack of sleep takes it toll. Day after day, year after year, it wears on you. It was probably a significant contributing factor. I am not aware of depression in my family. However, I do not doubt that a large part of that period was organic in nature (the lack of sleep); the inability to fully recover; it is when I formed my idea that most people seem to live precariously on the edge between sanity and madness (since that is where I felt I was). Of course, maybe it was seasonal, but what could August have to do with it? Shortening days? Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) really doesn't kick in until the days are much shorter. Besides, my worst months tended to be at the September, October.

The sabbatical allowed me room to breath, to rest - as one who is injured must do.

Of course, it could all have been that classical mid-life crisis. Which would be odd for me, since I do not recall going through teenage angst (I believe it was something invented by psychologists - I still do actually, and there is research to indicate that our institutionalized culture creates it, since it is not present in societies where youth are an integral part of society, instead of being shut up for 5 years in high school, where they have no role modeling or responsibilites and consequently end up feeding off themselves - have you noticed the tendency to lock students in, like criminals? But, I can veer on another tangent another day.)

We will see what happens with my current ideas. The publishing house idea is a way to get broad trademark protection from the USPTO. I also have to rework my application for the Canadian Government as well.

A principal problem with me is that I don't have the singular passion that seems to drive so many successful people. On the other hand, I could probably do more if I would act more quickly, but I grew up in a cautious home (so I have no model there) and years of working have only made me more prone to planning instead of doing. That is one thing I am noticing, that I spend too much time preparing and laying the groundwork, when I should really just be doing it. I am working on that.

I have to chase up on some leads on modern philosophical articles on free will. Apparently the crux of their arguments is that we confuse choice with free will: choice is a very real thing, free will is not (dogs, parrots, fleas, amoebas, humans all choose, but none have free will).

Last quote from Forbidden Planet: My evil self is at that door, and I have no power to stop it!

(if any of this makes no sense, my apologies)

b said...

richard...well, there may be patterns of predictability in humans but one can always look at humanity from one perspective and completely disregard aspects of a more idealistic perspective. yes, history seemingly repeats itself...war, greed, power, control. this is a very ugly aspect of humanity but not necessarily the only or dominant aspect.

for much of my graduate career, my research focused heavily on injustice. so, i found myself feeling so heavy with the realization that the history i was taught was a sham...that the real history of america and the world was steeped in oppression. even more alarming was the realization that this oppression was ever-present today. housing discrimination, placement of drugs and guns in impoverished areas, big business, the slant of media, etc...all were aspects that i had not been full aware of. and it burdened my heart tremendously. i saw the very worst in humanity. and in doing so, i only felt more and more hopeless for the future.

but there is another side to this....potential. history may be dark and full of evil but if people did not collectively stand up for injustice, think how much worse off we might be. sure, slavery in the u.s. was not abolished on purely altruistic motive. the industrial north was a more viable form of economy and that factor was huge. but nevertheless, there were altruistic forces there too. look at organizations out there now like those that support fair trade coffee. that might seem like a trivial endeavor on the grand scheme of things, but it came from the beautiful aspect of humanity not that evil one. and what a difference that surely has made in people's lives. maybe it doesn't reach every south american farmer/worker, but it reaches some and a seemingly small level endeavor can make a considerable difference.

i relate wholeheartedly with your tendency to be someone who spends way too much time preparing and not enough doing. for so long, i've beaten myself up over this fact. i will research and research but never fully realize any means of disseminating that information practically. and i am so hard on myself for this fact. but as of late, i am starting to ease up on myself. i am not a predominat doer. but there are plenty of people out there that are. and as independent as i am, i have come to realize that in life, we are not supposed to do it all on our own. we each have unique skills and we are supposed to merge those skills collectively with others to fully achieve our aims. i think you've alluded to this before, if not explicitly, but we live among others and not in total isolation for a reason.

i have a good friend who is incredibly talented at making so many beautiful things...covered boxes, knitted items, etc. she is creative at making these items and i adore them. so, i had all these ideas about how she could sell them and start a business. but i'm not aggressive and neither is she. so, ultimately, i wasn't able to help her realize her potential. and i was so upset with myself about this for some time, as i felt inadequate and knew that it wasn't the goods themselves, as they really are beyond great.

but instead of trying to be what i'm not, i have decided to focus more on channeling what i am and putting myself in a positive place in which i can find others who complement my abilities. believe me, my sister is very much the opposite of me. she is so much a doer, very type a personality. and she marvels at my ideas, my ability to research, and the way in which i perceive things. she will absolutely go out there and make something happen, but she is not easily capable of conceiving ideas.

yes, i agree, we shouldn't stop challenging ourselves. but i fear that we beat ourselves up more than anything. in working on these seeming weaknesses, i think we often really spend most of our time punishing ourselves, rather than making strides.

you obviously have a talent, richard. your ideas and thoughts on your blog clearly demonstrate such. i know many people who would read your blog and feel greatly humbled by your intelligence and ideas. just because you are not equally adept at putting those ideas into motion, that doesn't lessen your greatness whatsoever. yes, there are some people who seem to be able to do generate ideas and plans, then execute them. but no one does this entirely on their own. i've interviewed successful people and no one reaches success entirely on their own. they meet other people who belive in them and support them tremendously. for every musician, actor, ceo, etc....there are tons of people making it happen. even writers are inspired by others tremendously. of course hemingway wrote from his own experience but his interactions with others made it possible. and he obviously read other authors who undeniably left an imprint.

no man is an island. (in fact, see my post today with the full origin of this quotation). if my evil self is truly at the door and i feel i have no power to stop it, i need to call upon those people who truly inspire me at that very moment and in doing so, WE have the power to stop it. i may not have the power alone but certainly an army of supporters (humanity/friends/inspiring figures) does.

Richard said...

Thanks for the nice complement.

Seeing the same patterns of injustice being repeated over and over again is very disheartening - which is what causes me to question free will.

In the past, I was very much on the personal accountability side of things. If your evil self was at the door, then it was your responsibility to stop it. Full stop.

I only brought that quote up, because it is a very powerful scene in the movie (and I was already quoting from the movie anyway), so it evokes a lot more in me than just reading the dry words (it is the climax where the villain's evil catches up with him, justice is served and everyone else lives happily ever after).

It is not a question of aggression, it is a question of marketing. Thomas Edison hated marketing and complained about it. Orson Welles hated begging for money to make his movies. Even people who did not need to market because they had patrons (like DaVinci or Michaelangelo) were not free to pursue their interests, they had to do their masters' bidding.

On the one hand, it would be nice to do what we love and not worry about money, but the truth is, we would likely starve. I have problems asking people for money ("Sure, I would be happy to help you paint your house for $15 per hour plus lunch.")

As well, doing is not always enough. At some point you get tired of doing, practicing, preparing without any clear way of remuneration (or at least livelihood). This is likely less of an issue if you write, because you can store tons of writing on your computer. But it does become an issue if you paint (how many paintings are you going to store?), or do woodworking (how many dining room sets are you going to build?).

The simple answer is to "just go and do it".

Life is not a meritocracy. While there may be instances when things just fall into your lap and all the pieces fall into place and life just clicks - this tends to occur in a fairly narrow context.

It is hard to move from waiting for epiphany to taking action. Slowly, I am getting there. The main problem is that the universe is not cooperative and many years of experience have taught me it is better to be cautious in relying on others (hope to address this more in my comment on No Man is an Island – or, maybe I will veer in some totally different direction).

As Mother of Invention sings in her song From the Soul Within

Maybe what we’re searching for
Is at our doorstep all along
But time alone can make us see
Where we were going wrong
For what was missing from our lives
We tried so hard to win
Comes not from travels outward bound
But from the soul within.