04 August 2007

You Can Be Happy For Just Six Bucks

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Author Richard Carlson looks nothing like this dashing fellow, who is the
actor Richard Carlson. You may remember him from such classic films
as "Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3-D". It is rumored that when he died
in 1977, he willed his lower lip to Angelina Jolie.


By now you're well acquainted with my fascination for the whole self-help genre especially when it comes to anything with "happiness" in the title. So you won't find it surprising that when I found a new bookstore to frequent in my new neighborhood, I went straight to the self-help section and picked up a priced-to-move pre-owned copy of Richard Carlson's "You Can Be Happy No Matter What".

I always wonder what the story is behind books like that winding up in used bookstores. Is there someone out there who applied every lesson in this book and felt it was their duty to spread the joy? Or was there some disillusioned sourpuss who tied it to a rock, drove by and hucked it at the front door of the place with a note taped to it that read "This is total bullshit"? Either way, I'm glad for the fact that it wound up there and I only had to spend about six bucks on it. Thrift is something that makes me happy no matter what. (Except when it comes to kitchen appliances, apparently. Perhaps you'll get lucky and some disillusioned sourpuss will drive by and throw an AGA range at your front door with the same sort of note taped to it. -Ed.)

So here's my take on it. "You Can Be Happy..." is worth reading and there are some valuable lessons in it. Carlson presents one idea that is especially enlightening, and that is that thinking is a voluntary function. From a cognitive science perspective that's true, although it does not seem to be true in our subjective experience as we don't seem to question our thoughts much. They just seem to happen. But by the same token we all know that we can stop thinking about something if we try hard enough. I side with Carlson on this one. Drawing on the vast calico of piecemeal knowledge that I have retained as a cog sci enthusiast slash pseudo intellectual slash autodidact slash dilettante, I can't find anything to refute that point. I can tell you that emotional and thought patterns are both unique to the individual and habituated. But that doesn't make them autonomic or intransigent any more than, say, smoking is. We tend to experience our propensities as hardened facts of life. One look outside yourself will tell you that assumption just ain't true.

This is also akin to an idea that I first read in "The Art of Happiness" by HH The Dalai Lama. It is that pain is an inexorable fact of life that arises from being human and having a nervous system. However suffering on the other hand is an emotional choice that you make about your pain. I can't even begin to tell you how much that the idea of emotional choice has influenced my life. Who the hell knew there was such a thing? I mean, c'mon, don't your emotions just happen to you? (Short answer: nope. They're learned, practiced, repeated, and ingrained. They're almost anything but automatic.) Anyway, reading those two words juxtaposed was like hearing a note from a five hundred pound singing bowl. I nearly shat my zafu.

Anyway, before I go off on another scatological digression, let me get back to Carlson's book. He divides his approach into five principles: the principles of thought, mood, separate realities, feelings, and the present moment. I already mentioned the core of the "thought" principle. The "mood" principle is that our moods fluctuate and that in different moods we feel and react differently in response to the same stimulus. (That word always makes me think of the sensation you get when you stick a9 volt battery in your mouth. Mmm! Stimulus! -Ed.) "Separate realities" means that other people think and feel differently that you do. Before you dismiss this as a "duh" realization (which I did, wholeheartedly), make yourself aware of it the next time you find yourself thinking "Jesus Brain-Injured Christ, that is the most retarded thing I've ever heard" in response to some pearl of enlightenment that falls out of the mouth of one of your co-workers or the president or that one guy at the gas station who always calls you Carl. We tend to look at our own way of thinking as right and others' as wrong, whereas it's less rage inducing to think of those two things in terms of our way of thinking and their way of thinking without the good/bad qualifier.

Moving on, "feelings" states that our emotions work as a biofeedback mechanism that tells us how we're doing from a psychological standpoint. In other words if you feel shitty, you're doing shitty. And "the present moment" is learning to keep ourselves from being distracted by negative ruminations and projections, or anything that takes us out of the present moment for that matter.

Yeah, sure, to you and me this is mostly "duh". But speaking for myself, it's a really good reminder and can be a pretty good gauge of how well I can repeat this stuff versus how well I live it. Like the difference between the appraised and market value of my house, there is always going to be a gap. It is always good to be mindful of the gap.

So where does it fall short? In the same place where every self-help book falls short and that is in the edge cases. (The downfall is to assume that you're an edge case every time you don't agree with something. You see it in AA all the time. "Oh that doesn't apply to me because I'm a special case" is a favorite rationalization of the addicted. It's more constructive to really take a hard look at the ways in which these things really do apply to you.) The principle of separate realities is fine until you come across somebody who genuinely wants to do you harm. Then the picture becomes more complex. I doubt that anyone who put up with years of verbal and emotional abuse from their spouse would solve that problem simply by believing in that principle, although it might go a long way to lessening the effects of the abuse. In fact, it might even speed your departure from a harmful situation. "S/He thinks I'm a target for any abuse s/he cares to dish out, and s/he's welcome to her/his opinion. However, since it's just their opinion and not mine, I don't have to live with it. And putting up with this bullshit day in and day out is for the birds. I'm young. I still have my figure and all my own teeth. So fuck that thick necked chump, I'm out."

The little dog just crowed. It must be morning. Let me wrap up by just saying this. I agree that thinking is a voluntary function, and I think this book is totally worth the six bucks I spent on it if not more. It's an easy, fun read and, thanks to some disillusioned sourpuss, is on the shelf at your local used bookstore right now.