19 August 2004

The Secret To Lifelong Happiness Revealed Once And For All! (Or Something Like That.)

This is your brain on Zen Posted by Hello


Here's something that I thought it might be worthwhile to pass along. I had a few realizations about happiness and quality of life, sort of like that realization that I told you about a couple months ago – the one about how most of the time, there's nothing going on. Remember that one? Okay. So. I'm going to record here, if for no other reason than my own edification (and to create a "backup" copy of my thoughts), a few observations that I've had in the last couple of weeks regarding happiness.

When I was reading about emotions and what they are and how they work and why we have them, I came across Paul Ekman's explanation of hatred. Hatred, he says, is not an emotion. Rather it is better described as an "emotional attitude". It is too long–standing and inflexible to be an emotion. It would be better described, I think, as something akin to delusion. A person who is truly delusional, in other words a person who has a definable delusional disorder, is suffering from a crystallization of logic regarding a certain subject or person. The logic is perfectly circular, seamless, and self–supporting, and furthermore does not stand up to logical scrutiny from the outside. It is a maladaption of the basic function of emotion, which is to limit for a useful time period the type of reasoning a person does. A delusional person has taken that process and frozen it in time, as it were. In that way, hatred is akin to delusion because it has a lot of the same characteristics. The emotions and actions generated become completely disproportionate to the situation, and at the same time, become the only emotional choice available to the individual.

Now if you were to take this notion and stand it on its head, you'd get happiness. Happiness has no logical connection to environmental circumstances, and doesn't have to have any apparent proximal cause. However, where happiness and hatred diverge is that the latter is an extreme narrowing of heuristics and the former is a vast broadening of heuristics (hence the description of happiness as a feeling of "expansiveness" or "elevation"). To wit, there is a greater number of heuristic choices available to a person whose prevailing emotional attitude is happiness than to a person who is not. The net effect? Happiness seems to be the wiser evolutionary choice because happy people are better equipped to adapt and respond to any situation.

I have to make clear that I am talking about the emotional attitude called happiness and not the emotion called happiness. They're two different things, just like anger and hatred are related but are not the same. The pleasant–but–transient emotion that we experience from a proximal event is what we call happiness, but the thing that Buddhists call happiness is a permanent emotional attitude which has no refractory period and no apparent connection to either distal or proximal events. One is a wave, the other is the level of the ocean. When people go about asking "how can I be happier?" what they're really saying most of the time is "how can I experience more moments of joy?" There's certainly nothing wrong with the pursuit of joyful moments, but one has to realize that the defining characteristic of a moment is that it eventually ends. If you've set yourself up so that you have to do this or that thing to experience a joyful moment, and your goal is to be more joyful, then you have a lot of work cut out for yourself. You have to keep re–obtaining the reagent that "makes" you happy. An extreme and obvious example of this is drug addiction, but people do it with all sorts of things – love, money, fame, attention, whatever.

So in a nutshell, here's what I've learned. Hatred is a type of delusion. Happiness is an unchanging emotional attitude that you either have naturally (if you're lucky) or that you can develop. Thus, there's nothing you can do to "make" yourself be a happy person. You only believe that if you have the emotion of happiness confused with the state of being called happiness.

So all of this ruminating on happiness in the past few days led to a compulsion to write down all the important lessons that I've learned thus far in my life. I set out to list 20 things and so far I have 14 written down. Hopefully I'll have 20 things some day. Here's the list so far:

20 - no, wait - 14 Things I've Learned

1. Atheism beats the hell out of a codependent relationship with and invisible friend.
2. My life has a purpose that is greater than my immediate needs. When I am aware of this purpose, it becomes the backdrop and motivation for all my actions.
3. Pain is an unavoidable fact of human existence; suffering, on the other hand, is an emotional choice that I make about my pain.
4. "Death concerns neither the living nor the dead; the former it is not, and the latter are no more." –Epicurus
5. "You can't do anything about anything that you can't do anything about, so don’t spend any time worrying about it." –Epictetus
6. The hard stuff is never as hard as you think it will be. What's hard about the hard stuff is getting around to starting it.
7. Slacking is not nearly as fulfilling as you think it will be; work is way more rewarding than it sounds.
8. Nothing that you're taught is useful until you learn and assimilate it on your own.
9. Arguing never solves anything.
10. When I finally realized how much hatred there was in me, I no longer wondered why there was war.
11. My tastes are always subject to change, therefore my definition of myself is too.
12. I have skills that I don't even know about yet.
13. Doing a little bit of something about an issue is way better than feeling overwhelmed by the immensity of it and doing nothing at all.
14. Most of the time there's nothing happening.

And now, speaking of happiness and unhappiness and the like, I have to go back to stewing about why Toolhouse hasn't responded to my counter offer yet.

Cheers, and give my best to Marie,

1 comment:

Greg said...

Here's a possible 15th "Things I've Learned" item drawn from my own small epiphany:

15. James Brown is THE SHIT. This assertion can be tested by mouthing the lyrics to "Sex Machine" while considering the near-term effect of borrowing a trillion dollars a day from the Chinese.

To paraphrase the Sufi poet Rumi "What care I for this? What care I for that? I am dancing at the feet of the Funkmeister - all is bliss, all is bliss."

I have every confidence that when the Chinese grok in fullness the ascendant grease of the Funky One, our National Karmic Debt will be forever settled.