Coming at Happiness Sideways

Coming at Happiness Sideways



“I just want to be happy”. This is a fairly common refrain I hear from frustrated clients. And fair enough. Who doesn’t? I woke up this morning, feeling, well, not happy. And I wish somebody could have waved a magic wand and make unhappiness disappear. But happiness is a tricky thing. You set out to find it and more often than not it eludes our grasp.

It’s notoriously difficult to positively define. We know what it isn’t though. It isn’t this shitty feeling that nothing is okay with me or my life. There’s no song in your heart and no spring in your step. Let’s just agree that it sucks. And move on.

It does, however, make great click bait for anybody who wants to make a little cash promising to deliver it. How To Be Happy, an eight-week course on the secrets of truly happy people. Hell, if there’s a secret to it, I want to know.

Both Plato and Aristotle agreed that happiness (“eudaimonia” for you Greek scholars) is a by-product of something else, namely, cultivating the virtues.

I take their cue and humbly offer that the virtue we need to cultivate is love. There is never more happiness than when a newborn and a resourced mother connect with each other for the first time. There’s a hormonal surge of adrenalin mixed with oxytocin. Love, beyond the infant/mother bond, takes many forms, all of them involve finding ways to be in relationship with an other, whether that other is nature, a human being, a pet, G_d. It doesn’t much matter. It’s about forming a relational habit of intimate connection with everything.

Dostoyevski wrote a very inspiring poem about forming relationships with everything:

“Love all God’s creation,
both the whole and every grain of sand.
Love every leaf, every ray of light.
Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing.
If thou love each thing thou wilt perceive the mystery of God in all;
and when once thou perceive this,
thou wilt thenceforward grow every day to a fuller understanding of it:
until thou come at last to love the whole world
with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal.”

Okay, but the problem is when you’re unhappy how the hell do you get the gumption to actually pull your head out of your butt and make the effort to connect? And, we might as well name the elephant in the planet.

Daily during this pandemic we’re being told to disconnect, distance, and treat every other human that’s not in our bubble as a death threat. WTF? I didn’t make the rules. But it just reinforces my point that I’m about to make below.

You gotta do something.

And the first thing to do is to snap out of the fog of passivity that is being engendered worldwide by these policies. (We’ll see below that these policies are reinforcing early trauma.)

You need a state change experience.  In the old movies, there were those scenes when a soldier was losing it and the world-weary old sergeant would slap the soldier’s face and say, “snap out of it son, we need you”.

Ask your partner or a friend to give you a refreshing smack. No, don’t. But a dunk in cold water will do it. Or focusing really intently on a mundane task or activity. Colouring in a colouring book is effective. (Just bought myself an adult colouring book). A stiff drink can also do it, but not a great idea as a default, nor in my opinion is smoking a spliff. Just too addictive. Get addicted to something good. Getting your heart rate up works wonders. It’s a kind of bio and mind-hack to reset your default to unhappiness.

Okay, the fog is lifting. Back to Dostoyevski’s poem. First thing to notice is that he wrote in the active voice. You gotta do something. You’re not waiting around hoping for happiness to bite you in the ass. Go out and love everything. Don’t wait for happiness to magically appear and then hang your head when it doesn’t.

This is an important point, more important than we realize when it comes to mental health. One of my favourite literary critics and lay philosophers is the late Colin Wilson. He spent a lifetime developing his own psychology. One of his core tenets came from reading the father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl.

Husserl believed that consciousness was active. It’s main job is not to passively receive signals from the world out there. It’s not there primarily to be acted upon. Rather, it’s an arrow that we’re meant to shoot toward the world, with intention, clarity and focus. This results in a participative consciousness rather than a passive one. A participative consciousness creates the world you want to live in. Wilson deplored the teachings of the French existentialists with their gloom and doom philosophies, and their conclusion that there was nothing to be done but suffer the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. That, claimed Wilson, is why they were so goddamned depressed (and depressing).

So, back to this morning waking up feeling crappy. I decided to run a little experiment. I would spend the day sending loving awareness out to everyone and everything. Granted, the sample size of this experiment was a little thin. One man, one day. But I gotta say, it was a little startling to feel my mood shift. I could feel myself going out from myself. I refused to indulge my pathetic feelings, and harnessed love for the world, my wife, my dog, the ocean, the kids playing their music too loud and drinking too much, the guy begging who gave me shit for being such a cheapskate.

The next morning, making a cup of tea, I decided I would practice with this morning ritual. I took in the tea leaves, a rare black tea from Korea, cultivated by the same family for two hundred years. I gave thanks for the growers. Then I formed a relationship with the cup—made on Denman Island by a world renowned potter, Gordon Hutchens, who alchemically glazes his works of art with wood fire. I held him in my awareness with gratitude, and then thought of all the wood that goes into keeping the fires going. Then upon tasting the tea, I realized I was tasting the soil of the region, and thought about how Earth is continually feeding and nourishing us, and then I realized that without the sun, this taste would not be possible. Before long, and here I’m talking minutes, literally, I was in relationship with the whole universe. It took 14 billion year to make my cup of tea.

While I was doing this it was impossible to be indulging my shitty mood. Things shifted surprisingly quickly.

Sounds too good to be true, I know.  But I actually felt re-energized as well. I was doing something by loving everything, including this life I’ve been given. And honestly, it wasn’t that hard.

So, why does it never occur to us to love everything, connect, be in active, conscious relationship with everything that is before us at any given moment?

I believe it’s trauma. Trauma makes us time travel, back to the mental and emotional space from which those French existentialists concluded that there was nothing to be done.

When we are mistreated too early, too often, with too much intensity, we learn (unconsciously) that others (in the form of those who were supposed to love us) are sources of pain and hurt. Reality hurts. Block it out. And there really was nothing to be done—then.  We didn’t have the resources to do anything about it but to submit. Thus, a passive consciousness forms.

And we close our hearts, and live unknowingly in a state of disconnection. This becomes a habit. At some point, this feeling of alienation, of not belonging, catches up to us, in the form of depression or anxiety.

So we have to learn to be time travellers in the other direction, out of the past and into the present. Remember that arrow of consciousness? Let it rip, send it out into the world and connect—with everything. It’s not going to hurt you. The world did, once, back then, in the form of those who were supposed to protect you. But it’s not happening now. And if it is, don’t tolerate it. Become Cupids for the sake of your happiness.

And just as importantly, let the world, the Sun, the stars, Earth, nature, other humans love you. Let yourself be upheld by the world. When we got hurt, we learned to not let anything or anybody penetrate us. A sunset may leave us unmoved. To truly open to the sun would require us to open our hearts, and the floodgates of grief and loneliness would open up. For all the missed connections. The days without gratitude. The lovelessness that shut us down to begin with.

Let it be so.  Grief is the royal road back to life, back to love, and maybe even back to…happiness.

My 12 week course, Live Your Own Life, supports you rediscover happiness. ​​​​​​​

Bruce Sanguin Psychotherapist

Written by Bruce Sanguin

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