Has there ever been a more sensual fruit? I am quite certain that the translators of old got it wrong—the ‘apple’ in the Garden of Eden was really a plump, juicy mango! Adam and Eve never had a chance against the perfection of this tree ripened burst of sweetness! Mangos make me happy. I see pots of simmering, spicy chutney in my future.
The rains have started again, as well. You’ve ‘crossed over’ here in Panama when after the dry season you are pining for a good old-fashioned monsoon—or, at least, a few hours of lovely, wet downpour in the afternoon. All that sunshine and breeze of summer—a bit of moisture, please!
I am watching my garden grow under the expanded covered greenhouse area. Seedlings set out in March and April (in strict accordance with the moon), are now growing…and growing. Even the artichokes! Muy emocionante!
I’ve been thinking about happiness lately. What sparked the train of thought was a casual encounter over some glasses of wine at a local hangout. Dianne and I were there on a Wednesday night, which is Western line dancing night, which we keep promising to learn, but don’t, and we were sharing a huge platter of fish and chips (that’s French fries for non-Aussies and Brits). Our friend Craig, the owner, makes them just the way we like—skins on, thick cut, not too greasy. Delicious dipped in ketchup and hot sauce! An older gentleman, a Brit, bought us a glass of wine, then moseyed over for a chat. After a minute or so, he fixed me with his pale blue eyes and asked, “Are you happy?”
I was taken aback. First it’s a very personal question. Second, well, second, I was shocked to realize that after a lifetime of chronic mild to severe depression, I am happy. Most of the time. Not always, even though the life I am living is exactly the one I have chosen and created for myself, but most of the time. So, why am I happy…most of the time? But not all? And what does it mean?
Why is it that some days we wake up and all day are carried along on a wave of warm, well-being for all the world? People in the market are friendly, the flowers on the roadside dance a colorful ballet, the cat is affectionate, the puppy is amusing, work is flowing, and all is well. Another day, the market feels oppressive and noisy, we don’t even notice the magenta sunset, the cat is a pain in the ass, the puppy is obnoxious, creative energy has evaporated and nothing, absolutely nothing, can elicit a smile. And, to outward appearances, nothing much is different between the one sort of day and the other. What’s up with that?
Science, medicine, psychology, religion, and philosophy all have varying answers. Science relegates happiness to a chemical stew of hormones and genetics. Psychology prompts us to ‘think positively’ and take anti-depressants. Religions encourage meditation, attending church, surrendering to a Higher Power. Jesus gave a recipe for happiness in his Beatitudes (You know: the whole lovely thing about Blessed are…). Buddha exhorted detachment from everything as the means to happiness—including detachment from the desire for happiness. Sports enthusiasts energetically practice tennis, golf, running, swimming, or what have you in pursuit of endorphins and their accompanying “happy buzz.” (Dark chocolate will do the same thing, but may make you fat). Even the sober-minded founders of the United States signed off on “the pursuit of happiness” as an “inalienable right.”
With so much attention given to it from all quarters, it must be important, right? So, why are so many people so unhappy? Why is depression at pandemic proportions? Anti-depressants are the most prescribed drug in the US, with drugs for high blood pressure running second. We’re talking over 100 million prescriptions each year for feel good drugs. Why?
Medical research is clear: chronic anger, worry and hostility are linked with heart disease (a broken heart?), high blood pressure (going to explode?), and an impaired immune system (just sick of it all?). According to Dr. Ronald Dworkin, a senior researcher at Hudson Institute and the author of Artificial Unhappiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class, “Doctors are now medicating unhappiness. Too many people take drugs when they really need to be making changes in their lives.” But, change is often hard and scary. Taking a pill is easy.
Most of us know clearly what unhappiness feels like: the grey, deadness of depression, the trapped hopelessness of living a life grown too small—and the fear that keeps us trapped there—, the sharp, breath-robbing stabs of acute emotional pain. Oh yeah. Been there, done all that.
The experience of happiness is dependent on our age, our life circumstances and our expectations. A child may equate happiness with the excitement of Christmas. A teenager with the flush of first infatuation—or the first driver’s license. An adult with, well the options are too various. A new sports car? The smile of an infant? A fat bank account? A pair of comfy shoes? A trip to Europe? Here’s something to do the next time you are bored (and unhappy?). Take a notebook out into the streets and ask random pedestrians to name the last thing or time that made them feel happy. Write the answer down. Food for thoughts…or a new blog entry.
Have you ever noticed that the more you “pursue” happiness—out there somewhere—the more elusive it becomes? Like chasing a blue morpho butterfly through the coffee fields, always just tantalizingly out of reach, now here, now there, but always just beyond grasp—unless you cheat and use a net…and then all you have is a trapped and damaged insect. (There’s perhaps more than one mangled metaphor buried in there. I leave you to tease it out.).
These days, I (more or less cheerfully) recognize how little control I have over so much that happens. I am far happier than when I sought to “fix” or manage everything and force myself to live a life grown far too small to hold my spirit. There is a great deal of trust required…like the line in Desiderata that goes, “Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” Letting go of attachment to outcome, flowing with the process, marveling at the unfolding mystery.
Happiness is not, I think, a peak experience. Rather it is a flowing along, a state of acceptance, a mindful and ever grateful attention to the present moment. Listening to the birds, planting in the garden, talking intimately with a good friend, engaging in meaningful work, enjoying a perfect mango (or glass of wine), all yield a feeling of contentment.
The poet and mystic Rumi says it thusly:
A moment of happiness,
you and I sitting on the verandah,
apparently two, but one in soul, you and I.
We feel the flowing water of life here,
you and I, with the garden’s beauty
and the birds singing.
The stars will be watching us,
and we will show them
what it is to be a thin crescent moon.
You and I un-Selfed, will be together,
indifferent to idle speculation, you and I.
The parrots of heaven will be cracking sugar
as we laugh together, you and I.
In one form upon this earth,
and in another form in a timeless sweet land.
I love the image this conjures. A perfectly ordinary, perfect moment of perfect happiness. Right here, right now. (Thank you, Ram Dass.).
That is the key, I think. On those days when the colors fade, the cat is a pain, the work doesn’t flow…those are the days when I have slipped away from the present, forgotten to look mindfully around with gratitude, attached myself to an outcome, resisted making a needed change, or fallen into fretting about the past or the future. The path back is simple, but it requires conscious letting go, conscious being. Happiness is active.