Happiness is More than a Feeling

Have you heard of the drug Wellbutrin? It’s prescribed primarily for people diagnosed with “major depressive disorder” or “seasonal affective disorder.”

Sometimes the people prescribed Wellbutrin have recently suffered the death of a loved one. The American Psychiatric Association’s handbook used to strongly caution against doing so. The “bereavement exclusion,” as it was known, pointed to grief as a natural process in the face of traumatic loss. Even as we had developed mood-boosting pills for just about everything else, grief was such a powerful and known agony it remained a special case to be wary about handling with antidepressants.

But in the most recent APA handbook, the bereavement exclusion was controversially removed. The line between grief and major depression has been blurred. Mourning the loss of a loved one for more than two weeks is now considered a potential mental health risk. Considered abnormal.

We live in a happy-obsessed culture. There are an increasing number of official disorders and ready-made fixes for those disorders. There’s little room left for normal moments of unhappiness–even grief. Take a pill and cheer up already. Happiness maintenance has become a whole industry. And a lot of businesses are making great profits from the millions of Americans who aren’t feeling happy.

If we stop and think for a minute, though, do we even know what it means to be happy? If I asked you to describe happiness, what does it entail?

When does it happen? Why does it happen? Can we make ourselves happy? If so, how? Is a pill a good way to support happiness?

Can we make ourselves happy all the time? Should we?

Is happiness a bodily sensation? Is it a state of being?

Is happiness maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain? Is it the feeling that happens when you eat delicious food, hear awesome music, watch hilarious comedy, have heavenly sex, consume perception-altering substances, and see Instagrammable sights? Is it having a lot of money, popularity, or power?

So many questions and so little clarity. We say happy or happiness like we’re all talking about the same thing. But are we?

Pharmaceutical companies operate with a definite sense of what they think happiness is: pleasurable brain chemistry. For them, sadness and other painful detours from happiness are simply a “neurochemical problem.” You have to get the brain chemistry right again–perhaps with a pill that they conveniently make.

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with pleasurable bodily sensation. There are some pretty great feelings from the food, the music, the comedy, the sex, the alcohol or caffeine, the views. But they always fade. You take the last bite. The final joke is told. The buzz wears off. The vacation ends. The body cools off after sex.

We even adjust to and can become bored by certain pleasures in a process called hedonic adaptation. Sometimes when you’ve had a hit of this and level out, you either need a bigger hit or a different kind of hit to achieve the same level the original pleasure gave you. This is what’s behind the vicious cycle of addiction.

Even if we could constantly find new ways to experience nearly seamless pleasure, the reality is that sometimes things just aren’t OK. No amount of retail therapy, alcohol, ice cream, sex, or whatever else we ingest or participate in can cover the hurt, confusion, and loss of self.

We experience and are meant to experience hundreds of different emotions. They’re our push-notification system for life. Not all of our experiences are positive and awesome and exhilarating. Pixar’s Inside Out nailed this truth. Sometimes joy is laced with sadness. Sometimes fear and anger need their moment. It’s not healthy to aspire to be feeling good feels all the time.

If we do aspire to that, we’re quite likely to overeat, have one-dimensional relationships, have a difficult time overcoming loss and struggle, aspire for more money without ever feeling like we have enough, equate worth with stuff rather than relationships, and worse.

That’s not what being human is about.

I believe that happiness is about wholeness. And I’m in good company. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers used the word eudaimonia, which is often translated as “happiness.” But he wasn’t talking about pleasant brain chemistry. He was talking about flourishing. About being an integrated, growing, maturing, thoughtful person. A state of being rather than a state of mind.

It’s about exercising and challenging your human capacities. About being fully human–as far as it is possible for you. It’s about finding a lasting groove rather than momentary self-gratification. Being engaged in the process of living like you’re headed somewhere. Pushing the limits of your intelligence, emotional depth, creativity, physical strength, kindness, love, and everything else that makes you you. “…To do all the characteristically human things well and from the right motives,” as Anthony Gottlieb describes it in The Dream of Reason. You see the world and yourself in the world, and there’s a powerful synergy and intelligibility.

Some days are awesome. Some days are shitty. But no matter what today feels like, we have to figure out how we’re going to be fully human in it. To flourish in it.

There is no flourishing pill. There are times when we need to grieve. To work through the hurt and brokenness. Or to work through confusion. Or to remind ourselves that we still can. These, and a million other life experiences, are “characteristically human things” to do as well as we can.

True happiness is far more than pleasurable sensation. It’s about lifelong flourishing. True happiness is a life well lived.

Embrace or Erase

I don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over by the police because that’s yet to happen to me as a driver. I especially do not know what it’s like to be pulled over as a Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, or person of any other race because that will never happen to me as a white man.

I’ve never had a talk with family about how I might be profiled, and how it’s essential to do everything exactly the right way (or better) so that I’m not persecuted or violated because that doesn’t happen to people with white privilege. I’ve been spit on a few times, and threatened with violence of various kinds, but I think that was more to do with people who were not of sound mind than expressing hatred for who I am. Those incidents were minor in comparison to what many Americans who are not white men experience. I can’t even begin to imagine what some people have gone through and continue to endure. We need more people to be able to tell their stories openly, and for their stories to be genuinely heard and addressed.

As much as I want to believe with President Obama that “we’re not as divided as we seem,” it’s nearly impossible to understate the tension–apparent or real–throughout the United States. Black men murdered during routine police calls, and officers gunned down are not isolated, one-off occurrences–they’re symptomatic of broader, embedded ways of thinking and acting.

Many of us are uncomfortable and even outright aggressive when we encounter difference, conflict, paradox, and contradiction as we cross paths with other people. Instead of allowing those instances to be an opportunity for deeper learning and greater humanity, we try and eliminate the tension in whatever way we can. Avoidance, belittling, ignoring, striking, disparaging, and more. By doing so, we dehumanizing ourselves and others.

In short, we erase instead of embrace.

As we bump into the lives of our fellow humans, we always have a choice. We can choose to learn from others, expanding our understanding and appreciation of the complexity and interconnectedness of all people. Or, we can choose to close up and try to shut down, minimize, and erase them–even to the most violent and complete erasure: murder.

Difference challenges us. For many, different means strange, repulsive, vulgar, or inferior. But different simply is different. We each have a history and identity that makes us distinct from any other human on the planet.

When we’re confronted by difference in other people, we are always at the crossroads of embrace or erase.

When you encounter someone who is of a different race, gender, religion, or another identifier, what if you saw that difference as an opportunity to grow in understanding and humanity?

They’re human and you’re human–just in different ways.

We’re hindered and shaped, of course, by history. Every previous act colors the present and how we perceive others. This is especially true if we perceive someone to be part of a group or the kind of person that’s a threat to us. White America perpetrated at least two original sins: the genocide and oppression of countless Native American tribes, and the incomprehensible horrors of Black slavery (there is also some overlap between the two). Those are just two broad sweeps of history among millions of other acts of inhumanity over the last few hundred years that have informed and patterned the present. Erasure has become structural and infiltrated all levels of American society. Blacks, Native Americans, women, people who are mentally ill, and others are still unequal and unjustly treated today. Not just by an ignorant asshole or two, but by the machinery of modern American society: economy, criminal justice, media framing and representation, healthcare, education, and the rest.

Acts of violence–citizen to policeman, policeman to citizen, or between anyone else–perpetuate and exacerbate distrust, and reduce the potential for embrace in future encounters.

For safety, we separate into ingroups and outgroups: us and them. If someone is us, we’ll start out more trusting. They’re less of a threat because they’re more like me. If someone is them, we’re wary from the get-go. This person is not really like me, so I need to be on guard.

To break through the history and the structural dehumanization, we will each have to be patient and attentive. We will have to lower our guard a bit and let difference, paradox, and conflict wash over us until our understanding is opened up and increased. We will have to get into the gritty realness of each other’s pain, oppression, uniqueness, experience, hopes, and fears. There will need to be some deep listening, owning up, apologizing, forgiveness, advocacy, and activism.

As such openness spreads through more and more individuals in one-on-one encounters, it will begin to permeate society at large. Not instantly, deterministically, or completely. But we need a steady, intentional movement of replacing structural erase with structural embrace. Neighborhoods to cities to states to the country as a whole (including social media and the rest of cyberspace).

That’s not to say it’s easy for anyone. It takes a tremendous amount of willpower to overcome experience, history, and what’s comfortable. Avoidance, belittling, violence–erase–are easier. Maybe even safer for you, though certainly not for the people you erase.

Embrace is our only hope, however difficult in practice, of moving toward a society that is more fully alive and flourishing. We each, ourselves, want a society where we feel safe, are able to openly be who we are, and receive respect from the rest of the community. That kind of society will never arrive without including, understanding, and empowering–without embracing–everyone we’ve deemed to be other. We’re all in this together.

 

How to Adult: Be Yourself

Being human is a funny thing. We are all full of both the incredible and the peculiar. For all the great qualities you were born with and have developed, there seems to be just as many you’re not altogether comfortable with.

If you haven’t figured it out already, most people you encounter have an opinion of you, and they’re not often the most generous editorials. Sometimes it seems the closer someone is to you the deeper the wounds are that they can cut.

But, of course, you probably don’t need other people’s critiques to feel unsure of yourself. Sometimes the look in the mirror after you wake up can leave you with a feeling of really? before you even encounter another person. At 31, I know I’m not exactly glowing with youth anymore, but does my day really have to start at the disadvantage of dark bags under my eyes and the constant reappearance of boogers? Be honest, when you see someone with gold in the mine, your impression of their IQ drops by about 50%. I think that about myself when I see it in the mirror.

It can be hard and weird and uncomfortable to be you–whether other people are making you unsure of yourself or you are. The thing is, though, we’re all in the same position. Any person who looks like they have it all together has something different or strange or displeasing if you go below the surface. Maybe they smell funny if you get close enough. Maybe they like ketchup on macaroni and cheese (seriously, that’s disgusting). Maybe they struggle through some kind of speech or learning impediment.

As human beings, incredible and peculiar, we have to learn to manage the good and the undesirable. How do you do that?

First, like what you like. If your ultimate dance jam is a N’Sync song from back in the day, own it. When people ask you about your favorite music, don’t reach for something that’s popular and safe.

If you really do think ketchup is great on mac & cheese, see a doctor about your taste buds squeeze a mountain of Heinz on top of your noodles while you grin at those around you staring.

Second, and more importantly, be gracious. Be gracious to yourself. There will be days of your life–when you’re old like me, if not already–when your body does weird things. Days when you made a horrible decision, said the wrong thing, or didn’t accomplish what you thought you could. It happens to everyone. Try to learn to laugh at it as absurdity instead of allowing the feeling to overtake you that you must be the weirdest/dumbest/lamest person in the world.

As you feel more confident liking what you like, and are able to be more forgiving of yourself, it’s quite possible that you’ll feel a greater sense of liking and being gracious to who other people are too. It’s called empathy, and the world needs more of it. People are endlessly fascinating if you give them the space to be them without judgment. You may even find yourselves in a comfortable enough place to laugh at each other’s weirdness, which is fantastic.

As long as we’re around, all of us are going to have to deal with the awesome and the unwelcome that comes with being human. Like what you like, be gracious–be yourself.