DIY Happiness

 

 

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Three thousand years and hard-won lessons of the past century continue to steer us in the right direction. Fewer people live in poverty. Women win more rights and leadership roles. Through science and political compromise, we continue to make headway into a better world.

However, while our technologies and practices change, we ask many of the same age-old questions:

What does it mean to be an upstanding citizen?

How can we achieve optimum health?

What is the secret to happiness?

The famous writer Johan Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “He who cannot draw from three thousand years is living hand to mouth.” I don’t want to live hand to mouth. I want to know what our forebears can tell us about happiness. Thucydides, born in 460 BC, said, “The secret to happiness is freedom. The secret to freedom is courage.”

This isn’t how I usually think of happiness – linked to freedom and courage. Instead, I like to think happiness is securing a good job and pursuing meaningful hobbies and having fun with friends. This is the stuff of happiness. But perhaps in my privileged place in history, clad in this privileged white American skin, helped along so frequently by my privileged gender, armored with a privileged boarding school and university education – perhaps I need to step back. I need to step back and consider Thucydides’ words divorced from my rich inheritance.

Is the secret to happiness freedom? To find out, I could ask a person forced to convert to a foreign religion, one imprisoned or enslaved, anyone made to conform. I could ask someone whose power, individuality, or self-determination have been hijacked. I think they would speak on the merits of freedom. They have. Their names are Alexander Hamilton. Susan B. Anthony. Ghandi. Frederick Douglass. Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela. Harvey Milk. Aung San Suu Kyi. Malala Yousafzai.

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I should also consider the opposite: can one be happy without the power to act, think, or speak as one wishes? No, I think Thucydides was on to something. If one cannot be happy without freedom, freedom is indeed a necessary ingredient.

Yet is the secret to freedom courage? So often we win freedom through battles of the body. The Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Emancipation Proclamation – these were founded on courage, and they pave the way for freedom to flourish. But beyond the political realm, there is another type of freedom. It’s more subtle and better suited to a discussion of happiness inside our civilized society. It too requires bold commitment and bravery.

I speak of a freedom of mind, a freedom of sexual identity, a freedom to be confident and comfortable in one’s skin, with one’s quirks, perhaps against the grain of social norms (but within the bounds of decency). Embracing one’s individuality demands courage because stepping from the crowd singles us out. There we are, alone and vulnerable to the judgments of others who can be cruel and dangerous.

Once I stand alone, though, two things become obvious. First, every person is equally unique. We’re milling in a crowd of vast similarities and crucial differences. As I discover and accept my idiosyncrasies, the veil drops. If I’m not like my brother or like my father or like my neighbor in substantial ways, they too are different from one another.

Second, the judgments of narrow minds will not destroy me. Inevitably, someone will criticize me for not being more outgoing or being too serious or valuing evidence over sentiment; but if I’m true to myself, if I remember Thucydides and am courageous, these blows will remind me of the path on which I stand.

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Happiness does come with freedom, and freedom can often be won with courage – courage of the body or of the mind. Our physical and political rights are meant to be protected by a just state. We guard it with our votes and our courts and perhaps with our lives. The mind – that is to be protected and cultivated through recognition of an individual’s worth.

I am not meant to be like you. I am meant to be me.

And you are meant to be the beautiful, precious you.

In that truth, I see a road to happiness. I will no longer grasp at excuses for myself. I will appreciate my introversion and my inexplicable love of the movie Pride and Prejudice and my need to write and speak, even into an abyss if I must.

As for you: I promise to value your mind, your strengths, and your interests that in their best expressions only add to the wealth of our species. 2,500 year ago Thucydides suggested happiness blooms from freedom and freedom blooms from courage. It’s an insight ahead of its time: self-actualization is a feat of bravery. Here’s to courage – mine, yours, ours.

 

(Originally published in the Moab Sun News.)

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Deathbed Regrets

“The trouble is, you think you have time.” –Buddha

On their deathbeds, people often have the same regrets. It’s a wonder, because we vary wildly in interest and religion, in political opinion and leisure activities, in earnings and luck. Yet at the end, when looking back, we are united.

The witto ones enjoying a hike near Teluride, CO.

The witto ones enjoying a hike near Teluride, CO.

What do people wish they had done with their time here on Earth? Here’s a hint: they don’t wish they had made more money.

In her article, How To Buy Happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky reports people on the brink of death wish they had spent more time “connecting with friends, nurturing intimate relationships, socializing at parties, consuming art, music, and literature, learning new languages and skills, honing talents, and volunteering at our neighborhood hospital, church, or animal shelter.”

Most of these things require little or no money. Of course, money can help us fit more of these activities into our day-to-day lives. But money and expensive purchases aren’t the ticket to real well-being.

IMG_2693“In wealthier nations, where almost everyone has a basic safety net, increases in wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness,” Dr. Martin Seligman states In Authentic Happiness. “In the United States, the very poor are lower in happiness, but once a person is just barely comfortable, added money adds little or no happiness. Even the fabulously rich—the Forbes 100, with an average net worth of over $125 million dollars—are only slightly happier than the average American.”

make-money-roadsign_480People who neglect other aspects of life for money tend to be less satisfied with their lives, but you won’t see these findings portrayed in popular media or explicitly added to the curriculum at school. Consumerism has become synonymous with the American Dream. More and more education seems to be about this “Race to the Top,” an overzealous Cold War mentality that just won’t die, that pits the world’s sixteen-year-olds against each other in an absurd battle to see which nation’s children have mastered skills relevant to only one domain: economics.

Don’t get me wrong. Education prepares many to graduate into productive and lucrative jobs. A healthy income may fulfill basic needs – even provide considerable pleasure (like gourmet food, lavish furnishings, purchase power) – but income generation alone neglects a huge part of what it means to be human.

Lisa finding flow on the Colorado River.

Lisa finding flow on the Colorado River.

What can moneymaking neglect? According to psychologists, two other parts of life are often overlooked: engagement and meaning. Engagement is about using your unique talents to accomplish tasks or overcome challenges, like navigating a tricky jeep route or playing your favorite sport. Getting lost in this experience is called “flow,” which creates happiness and gratification.

A meaningful life is one connected to a greater movement, something like our community, school district, a club, or church. Joining something bigger than ourselves allows happiness to transcend the limits of one, especially when we use our unique talents to help others.

IMG_4431Some realize too late that money isn’t enough, that they’ve devoted too much of their precious time to getting ahead. They want to go back for a favorite hobby with a friend, quality time with their spouse, laughing with their kids, helping at the food bank, meeting new people. As individuals living in a wealthy nation, most of us have opportunities to enrich and balance our lives not only with wealth but with engagement and meaning too.

944287_10151675750293035_253895901_nAlready we’re a step ahead; we live in Moab, flow capital of the United States, where vacationers seek to make memories. I, for one, expect I could earn more money elsewhere. I could save more for retirement. I could live in a bigger house. However, you and I know intuitively that more and bigger isn’t necessarily better. That’s why we choose to be here and leave the opulence to others.

For we are rich in other ways.

IMG_4407We are rich in vistas. In rivers and trails and red rock towers. We live here for the public lands and silent spaces, for likeminded people. Tucked into this desert canyon, we are part of a community fueled by adventure and grounded in an understanding only recently described by science but known in every human heart, that experience outweighs possessions.

IMG_4230Every day this beautiful place reminds me of a wonderful idea. So do my mountain biking neighbors. And the kind people and businesses of Moab. Even the tourists who seek excitement in our pristine region of cliffs and wild canyons…

It is possible to live without regrets.

 

 

 

(Originally published in the Moab Sun News.)

 

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