29 December 2006

I'm Going To Write My Own Goddamn Book On Happiness

Is this woman really happy, or is she just
being stabbed in the ass by a vengeful Turk?
You be the judge!


You know me well enough to know that there are two things in this world that I eat with abandon. One is cheese. The other is self-help books. I became intrigued by the whole self-help genre when I heard about how many billions and gazillions of dollars people spend on that stuff each year. Self-help is the top category by a country mile. They've got everything from books on smoking cessation to websites about dynamite sex for septuagenarians. (Warning: sex and high explosives do not mix, especially if you're old and you have that shaky-old-guy-thing going on. -Ed.) So I thought to myself, hey, what's up with this stuff and why do people buy so much of it? Well I found out after reading everything from the venerable Think And Grow Rich to Change Your Life With St. John's Wort that the single point of all these books is - wait for it - happiness. Period. That's all they're talking about. They're all advocating different ways to make yourself happier. (Or happy at all if you're talking about books on suicide prevention. -Ed.) You could make "How To Be Happy" the title of every single piece of media in the category, and make the current title the subtitle. Like this - "How To Be Happy by not drinking so goddamn much." "How To Be Happy by squirreling away a jillion dollars." "How To Be Happy by losing 38 pounds." "How To Be Happy by smoking an ounce of Jesus every day."

So I found a book simply titled "Happiness" by a fellow named Mathieu Ricard and put it on advance order. It came with endorsements from practically all of my favorite self-help authors, like Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence), Martin Seligman (Authentic Happiness), and Jon Kabat-Zinn (Wherever You Go, There You Are). But in the meantime, I started doing that very simple happiness experiment that I told you about in a previous letter, the one where all you do is before you go to bed each night write down three things that made you happy that day. The effects have been amazing, but I'll tell you more about that in a minute.

Lo and behold, the book shows up seemingly out of nowhere (as I had forgotten that I advance ordered it). And I got about one and a half chapters into it when I suddenly hit my threshhold for self-help books. Something just clicked. I mean, I don't want to sound dismissive of self-help books certainly, as there's a lot of good in them. The thing that made me finally say (internally, thankfully), "OH for the LOVE of PETER DINKLAGE!" was that chapter 2 was all about the Buddhist idea of reality. Look, I'm already a Buddhist, and just thinking about that stuff makes me feel like my ears are screwed on too tight and I'm just about to start peaking on 'shrooms. I can't understand how a non-Buddhist would ever make it past the first three paragraphs.

I mean isn't there a single book out there that goes, "Here's how to be happy. You don't have to understand or adopt an Eastern philosophy. You don't have to be a PhD. You can smoke or not, we don't care. We're not going to beat around the bush. We're going to go straight to the fuse box and touch the freakin' wires. Ready? Here we go." There has to be a completely secular, non-philosophical sort of mechanic's guide to happiness. Call it "Happiness for Shmoes" or whatever. But c'mon, enough with all the method and dogma. Words are a precious resource. They should be rationed. So to all you guys in the self-help business, just shut up and get to the point already before you eat up all the words in existence. "To be happy, just do A) followed by B). The End." Good enough for me.

Why do I believe that it's that simple? The only way to show is you is to have you do it. So here you go. Get a journal - a wirebound notebook or whatever - and a pen and put them on your nightstand. Every night before you go to bed, write down three things that made you happy that day, and what it was about it that made you happy, even if you can't explain it well. No less than three. And they don't have to be complex. I note when I saw a really great sunset, or if I made a particularly bitchen cup of coffee that morning. Little things. Nothing is too small.

But no fucking around! You must do it every night, night after night, without fail. If you choke and fall asleep too quickly one night, do it first thing in the morning. But regularity is key.

I can tell you from experience that this will not make your problems go away. What you will notice, aside from the fact that you will start having a solid night's sleep every night, is that you start reframing your diffculties. You will not see them as less severe or bothersome, but instead will see them against a backdrop of expansive possibilities and options. This will go a long way to reduce your desire to choke the living shit out of the guy who drives the street cleaner past your window at 3:30AM every Saturday.

One of the forefathers of our country - I think it was the guy with the wig - wrote about happiness (or the pursuit thereof) as being a birthright of humanity. I mean look, when you get right down to it, what is our only pursuit in life? Happiness. Life is a means to experience happiness. Liberty is supposed to beget happiness. Either the job you have or the one you want is the thing that'll make you happy. Either the relationship you have or the one you want - your body, diet, wardrobe, car, hair, batting average, four-foot blown-glass multichambered bong - all routes we embark on hoping for that same end: happiness.

Look, we'll talk about this more. I know you're going to hit me with a ton of questions, like about what definition I'm giving for happiness. Or like what a grumpy old fucker like me could possibly know about happiness? Or if I'm so goddamn happy, why did I give a complimentary pressed ham to that guy who stole my parking spot? The answer to these questions and more will come in short order. In the meantime, just put down that tuba, grab a journal and a pen and hit the hay. You have some writing to do.




Gregory I. Wilson said...

The subject area of "happiness" deserves its own blog, and you're just the man to do it. Humanity awaits.

In his excellent treatise on music and neurology - Your Brain on Music - Daniel J. Levitin posits that the aquisition of new skill sets (playing the tuba, for example) requires the individual to consciously practice a given methodology for roughly 10,000 hours. Does the "10,000 hour rule" apply in this case, or is "happiness" a primary, natural and preexistent state of mind that simply emerges when other states-of-mind (those that produce "unhappiness") are observed through mindful practice and detachment? Perhaps what you are suggesting is a method for observing and detaching from all states-of-mind that do not produce happiness in every moment. Journaling would seem to be a practical and familiar Western alternative to the Eastern practice of meditative detachment. I can well imagine that it would require 10,000 hours before the conscious observation and practice of happiness would become reflexive.

I found my well-worn copy of the Max Schlossberg Daily Drills and Technical Studies for the Tuba the other day while cleaning out the garage. Thumbing through it, I came across a faded inscription that I had penciled in the margins of a particularly difficult passage thirty-six years ago - "Don't think about cheeseburgers, the weather, tomorrow or anything else. Think about the music."

And so it has become. In the moment - and there never seems to be enough of them - I disappear and there is only the music. I go there now as often as possible, but getting there for the first time took 10,000 hours. Let's get started, shall we?

Thaddeus Gunn said...

Irontastically, 10,000 is a significant number in Tibetan Buddhism. There's a little joke that goes "How many Tibetans Buddhists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Only one, but he has to do it 10,000 times." There is a prophecy from a certain Buddhist sect (I can't remember which) that states that peace will prevail 300 years from now when 10,000 Boddhisattvas reside on Earth.

"For as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, until then may I too abide, to dispel the misery in the world."