#107: How (Not) to Be Unhappy

There are many ways to be unhappy. For more, I recommend you read Paul Watzlawick’s excellent book The Situation Is Hopeless But Not Serious (The Pursuit of Unhappiness), still relevant after all these years. For example:

A man wants to hang a painting. He has the nail, but not the hammer. Therefore it occurs to him to go over to the neighbor and ask him to lend him his hammer.
But at this point, doubt sets in. What if he doesn’t want to lend me the hammer? Yesterday he barely spoke to me. Maybe he was in a hurry. Or, perhaps, he holds something against me. But why? I didn’t do anything to him.
If he would ask me to lend him something, I would, at once. How can he refuse to lend me his hammer? People like him make other people’s life miserable. Worst, he thinks that i need him because he has a hammer. This has got to stop!
And suddenly the guy runs to the neighbor’s door, rings, and before letting him say anything, he screams: “You can keep your hammer, you bastard!”

(Watzlawick, Paul. The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious: (the Pursuit of Unhappiness). United States, Norton, 1993. page 39)

That’s it! That’s what we do! Ain’t it grand? No, seriously. Sometimes, we can’t seem to help ourselves seeing the worst in people and in situations. It is certainly easier, and sometimes, it is mandated.

But there is a difference between unhappiness on the one side, and on the other, carefulness, mindfulness, realism, or fear. These are not all the same things. If I know a certain danger exists, denying that danger would not be making me happy, on the contrary. If I realize the seriousness of a situation, I am preparing myself to react appropriately, and thus minimize unhappiness. If I am mindful of my own or other people’s limitations, I am setting up realistic expectations rather than expecting an unfulfillable fairy-tale. If I am careful, I care about making the right decision.

Unhappiness and happiness may probably be described as outcomes of false expectations and of a flawed attitude towards life. If you expect everything to fail, that may be realistic sometimes, but you lose hope. If you expect everything to work out, you may be eternally hopeful, but such a pollyannish attitude sets you up for failure more easily than you would have hoped.

As we are living in a time where challenges about – a still persisting global pandemic, the crises following the necessary strategies for pandemic abatement, as well as climate change and extreme weather events, refugee crises, political crises, terrorism, domestic troubles, economic crises, maybe even an asteroid with higher likelihood of hitting our planet than we might be comfortable with; all of these certainly can very well contribute to a sense of doom. How, in all honesty, could we possibly be happy in all this?

If we focus on all of these, on the abundance of dangers and threats, we are pursuing unhappiness. Looking at history can be healing. Despite everything, our problems are manageable. Pandemic? Get vaccinated, wear the mask, distance, be hygienic, etc. Climate change? More difficult, but we can all do our part to protect nature, pollute less, consume differently, and be open to technological solutions old and new. Politics? Get involved. Asteroid? Sorry, can’t help you there.

Some problems can be fixed, others can’t be, but we can never stop searching for solutions. That may not make us happy, but at least, we can avoid being unhappy. Because this is important also: There are never just two options. Between unhappiness and happiness, there is the possibility of a neutral stance of acceptance of things as they are, and trying to make the best of it. You may not be happy, but you can choose not to be very unhappy at least.

#106: How to Be Happy

One of the oldest problems of humanity seems to be centered around the question of how to be happy.

This is certainly understandable: So many things stand in our way, so many challenges await us in life, so many things are not as they should be. Wherever we look, there is misery, tragedy, injustice, illness, death, pain, suffering, etc.

We are born in pain, build a life, succeed more or less with what we are trying to do in life, cannot possibly achieve everything, have to make compromises, nothing is working out as planned, and even if it does for a brief moment, we are growing older, losing friends and family, facing a future of death and diminishing faculties, till we ourselves are dead. Whatever awaits us beyond death hinges on faith, which in most cases is wishful thinking. We cannot know what follows death, and for all we know, it will follow similar trajectories of life but be happier – or be so different from what we have known that we cannot even comprehend it. Most likely though, life itself is special, and especially depressing.

This is one way to see things. All of it is true. Is it helpful? Yes! Accept the negative for what it is: the reality of living in an imperfect world. Our task is to make meaning in meaninglessness, make sense in senselessness, to be happy even if we could not possibly be happy.

Happiness is not a goal you can reach once everything is working out as intended. It is the attitude you bring to an unpredictable world, and to the people around you. It is the light you nurture inside, the feeling you need to maintain to accept life for what it is, and to make it bearable.

Happiness is the realization that in spite of everything, this is how it is, and you can either be miserable or happy. In the face of extreme adversity, humans have made a great invention: Gallows Humor. Discover the absurdity in life, the impossibility to have it all, and the realization that in the larger scheme of things, we matter far less than we like to think, and our little lives are significant only to us and the people around us in our time and space.

There is levity in this, and mental space to see our life as a gift – as a window on a specific point in time and space. The mark we leave may be big or small, but at least we are given the chance to make it, to live it, to see what it’s all about. The very insignificance of everything highlights, ironically, the significance for us to ourselves.

Happiness, then, is a combination of acceptance, humility, absurdist amusement, and the celebration of the little things in life that do bring us pleasure, and of the people we meet on our voyage.

How can we be happy? By deciding to simply be happy, come what may. Que será, será.

#15: Happiness

I have struggled all my life with some form of sense of mortality and the definite sense of an ending. That is, I guess, due to a Catholic upbringing, in which the theme of death is permeating everything, albeit counterpointed with resurrection. I have not always been able to reap the benefit of an unwavering faith that G-d will take care of me just as I wish; because I do not want to presume to know what G-d might want, or to even dare ask G-d to intercede on my behalf. (I use the Jewish spelling of G-d to indicate that we cannot know what “God” actually is).

Life thus consists in hope, but not certainty, that things may well turn out well, but also in the awareness of the struggle that things do not just magically fall into place.

There is also the medieval “Wheel of Fortune” idea, so popularized by the Carmina Burana, which tells the tale that our lives will be favored by the fates some days, and other days not, and that high and low, rich and poor, will suffer from Fortune’s wheel. Breaking the wheel – the utopian notion that was Daenerys’ hope in Game of Thrones – is impossible:

However, hope may lie in realizing and feasting on the punctuated moments of happiness. Akhnaten did have a good little run, as depicted in Philip Glass’ Opera. At the height of his power, he invents monotheism (pace Freud, S. (1939). Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays), and enjoys his triumphant moments as the founder of a revised Egyptian religion, whose traces will probably survive as one of its followers, Moses, carries it with him when fleeing oppression in Egypt.

Yet joy does not last, and as Akhnaten’s realm falls, his happiness comes to an end. But it was real – in the years that he indeed was the new founder of his religion:

Just because the past is difficult, the future unseen, and the present stuck in the uncomfortable middle, this should not prevent us from enjoying the happiness we can make in the meantime. It is hard, excruciatingly hard, but possible, every day, to carve out a moment of transcendence, of divinity, of spirituality, of utter joy, of ecstasy, and of shameless undiluted humanity. Whatever darkness may have befallen you today, cast it out for a few moments, and remember, this is your life, and you control your reaction to it, so that, in the end, with hope, you can have peace.

I guess this was a very strangely Catholic post. Oh well. It’s Easter, why not have some hope!