Blah

That doesn’t count, does it?

Advertisements

What is Happiness?

I had a discussion recently with a neighbor of mine who just happens to be a tenured professor of Philosophy at a college nearby.  He is taking an interest in defining and measuring happiness.  He says that there was a point, in the 1800’s sometime, when psychology and philosophy split, and happiness became the domain of psychology, even though, he feels, and philosophers in general feel, he said, that they have been getting it wrong.

To make it worse, it’s not just psychology that gets it wrong, because the guidance out there comes often from those wanting to make it a business, hacks, if you will, who write for the self help hashtag in the virtual bookstore.

The problem is, he told me, that our measures of happiness are subjective. “How happy are you, in a range of 1 to 5,” we ask, and people say. Then we study these people to determine what it takes for people to self describe as happy. We know only how happy they think they are. But how do we know that they even know what happiness is, or have ever been happy, or whether they equate happiness with what they have been told should make them happy? They may even be motivated to lie, if necessary, to avoid feeling guilty or ungrateful, because their families aren’t enough, or because they have a privilege that is denied to others. 

The philosophy professor wants to devise a better way to measure and define happiness. What if there were certain things that we could identify that make people happy? And then we could measure how happy they should be based on whether they have those things, and at least have some way to test what they think against reality.

This resonates with me. I don’t feel like I’ve really been happy since I was a toddler. Now I’ve had my moments, sometimes I think I can imagine what it’s like to be happy, or understand another person’s happiness, or believe I’m on the way, and that’s enough to share in it, to feel it, enough to know what it is. So I’m not unhappy 100% of the time, just more often than not. And I’ve always considered my unhappiness to be situational. In other words, I don’t believe, for the most part, that it is physiological, something that pills could solve, or diet, or even exercise. I believe that there is something about my life that I wish were different, that disappoints me.

That said, when I stop taking my thyroid medication, I can become convinced that my life actually sucks even worse than I previously thought, like I have uncloaked another layer of denial, and that things would have to be different, to change how I feel. And then I take my meds again, and suddenly I’m back to my normal level of unhappiness. So maybe it can be both.

But this idea that there can be certain things that make us happy, that if we want to have happiness, we should strive for those, whatever they are, is an idea that makes sense to me. Is it freedom? That misunderstood abstract idea that people so often confuse with power or safety, and so few of us have it, even, yes, in the US of A, slaves as we are to debt, or expectations, or discrimination or worse.   

Or do we derive happiness from understanding, knowledge, achievement. Is it from a sense of pride in ourselves? Is it because we do good?

Does it require us to be good people? My neighbor posits, a recent change in his thinking, he tells me, that you do not need to be good, and he is somewhat convincing, though people who devote their lives to service, like Jimmy Carter, and MLK, Jr. have argued that service is its own reward, and the key to happiness. Even George Washington had a quote equating service to happiness (happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected). The list of great people that make this claim is endless. I had started to believe in this, and regret, even, that I hadn’t seen it earlier. When I was young, and following the instincts typical of one to whom it was all new, I concluded, in my first run at the issue, that the purpose of life was to have fun. And I believed fervently in Thomas Jefferson’s right to “pursue happiness.” What I thought was ironic, however, and what I believed at the time, was that to devote myself to that cause, I would have to abdicate my own pursuit of happiness. I could be a musician, for example, which I thought would make me happy, or I could be an activist for the rights of others, but then I could not be a musician (or whatever) and I would not be as happy.

According to George Washington, the two were not mutually exclusive.

My neighbor, however, points out that some people are very happy, and not at all good people. Maybe they are proud of themselves for things they have achieved that do none any good but themselves or the few. They may believe that it’s fair, because that’s the game, and whoever wins has earned it.  They may even believe that they are doing good for the world, but be wrong. They could be happy in the knowledge of their own achievement, and greatness, and measure their worth in their own way.  

Examples:  

A Christian missionary believes he is helping a savage by converting him to be a believer in Christ.

A rich man believes he is making the world a better place by providing a product that advances the human race, even though he may take advantage of the poor to do it.

White supremacists who would rid the world of an inferior infestation that threatens those of us, that they believe, matter more. They can be happy in their sense of righteousness.

Is it certainty that makes us happy?  And how happy? I like to think that there a limit to how happy someone can be depending on how the happiness is achieved? Is there a greater happiness that comes from inclusion than can ever come from exclusion?

I don’t know!

But these are important questions. Because I think that happiness is the only thing any of us really want. Those of us who have empathy who care about the world, who want it to be a better place are unhappy to the extent it isn’t. They are made happy to see a small promise of Utopia in their lives and in the lives of others. But the bottom line is, it is ultimately their desire above all else to find happiness that motivates them. And it is failure in this regard that discourages them. And hopelessness, when they believe that what they want is too hard, which makes them give in to despair.

I personally believe that the way we find our calling, is to do what makes us feel good, ultimately, and in the long run, even if we don’t understand why it makes us feel good. I think this will lead us to our way of contributing to the hive, to what is, if there can be such a thing, our purpose. And it will make us happy. Sounds easy, but if it were, everyone would be doing it. Doing what will make you feel good, isn’t easy. 

That’s what I believe, but the professor’s question is, “is what makes people happy  different for everyone, or can we find some common thread, and measure, or ascertain how happy people are based on what their lives are like?”

I want to know the answer. I want to know and I am interested in taking this knowledge to the team I manage at work, to see it can help to fully engage and inspire them achieve their potential, in and outside of work. The professor is interested in that, and it is why he first engaged me in this topic to enlist my aid with an experiment, but first, I must admit, I want to be happy. I want to learn more about it. 

Because I have not done what I say we should. I have spent my life making decisions that were not based on what will make me feel good, and at this point, I feel like I have constructed walls, rules, habits, whatever you want to call them, that limit me. I don’t have the choices I had when I was young. And yet, I am writing this. I could be anywhere right now. I could do anything. I can still choose to spend time doing what I want, even despite the fact that I have obligations. I waste a lot of time.

I’ll tell you, I think I do know what will make me happy. I think the main reason I am not is that I’ve been inhibited and unmotivated. I lack faith, and I lack will. I have not believed in my heart, what I’m telling you today. 

I want knowledge and understanding, but I’ve never particularly liked to read. I’ve been shy about talking to people. There are things that make me feel a sense of achievement, a sense of pride. But I don’t do them. I wanted it to be easy, I expected talent to lead the way. I don’t even want to exercise on a regular basis, though I feel good after I do it. I don’t want to read, though I feel good having absorbed the contents of a book. I don’t want to pay attention to horrible things that are happening in the world, because it’s depressing, but how can I understand people, or change anyone’s mind, if I don’t know them.

I want to change someone’s mind. That would make me so happy.

I know more than a few who believe that it is unrealistic to think you can change anyone’s mind. And true, change is so slow that it’s not surprising that people give up on each other. But if we can’t change minds, then we are simply doomed. 

But people can change, it happens all the time. Great leaders inspire others to do their part. They don’t do it all themselves. Anyone who believes anything at all, good or bad, has gotten there in part by learning something. People can be taught. To believe otherwise seems reasonable, but it’s wrong.

I start with me.

The Brutal Truth

It is an effort to write these days, and I am not good with effort.

I have never been good with effort. It’s why I didn’t become an actor or a drummer or a writer (in that order). It’s why I couldn’t effectively do all three. It’s why I switched my major from lit to math. It’s why I left Bard College.  It’s why I quit the band I was in because I was overwhelmed with the prospect of doing more than one thing at a time.

It’s why I still don’t speak Spanish, or any other language. 

It’s why I settled for a career in accounting (quitting math too). Accounting takes an effort, but not more than I can muster as long as I’m getting paid for it, and when it’s the only thing I do well.

But this is what I need to remember.  “The nuts always win.”

This is when you’re playing cards and you tell yourself that in order to win, you have to have the best possible hand.

Now, maybe sometimes you decide to take a chance on the 2nd or 3rd best possible hand, or maybe less if you feel like bullshitting your way through a situation, but the goal, the path to success, is to expect the best.

Our goal should always be to have everything we want. We don’t have to figure out what our limit is, it is our limit. We can’t go beyond it.

But we should pursue everything we want to have. The more we try, the more we achieve.

We should do it because we are happy when we have achieved something, even if we are not happy when we are working towards it. We are not happy when we don’t try, so we might as well try. We’d just be doing something, instead of nothing, while we are unhappy. Something, at least, can lead to that miracle of all miracles.  

Happiness.

Do you ever find that you say to yourself, “how wonderful life is?”

“I’m glad to be alive.”

“Never in my wildest dreams….”

I don’t.

Sometimes I avoid bread to be happy. I could eat right, exercise, lose weight, compensate in many ways for the fact that I am not proud of myself, and it may work to some degree, I may have moments where I feel good. But when I achieve things, if I were to achieve anything, I can eat bread, and I still feel good about myself, even if I feel physically sick. There is no substitute for doing

I don’t believe that I’m the only one who has accepted that being “so happy” is just an unrealistic fairy tale. But why? Because it’s impossible? 

It takes effort. It takes effort whether you’ve eaten bread or not (or whatever is your habitual nemesis). 

To be happy, we have to achieve our potential. Except we think of potential as something we don’t have to achieve, never guaranteed, a long shot. We give ourselves excuses, let ourselves off the hook. Kids are loaded with it, of course, and we know how few realize theirs as adults. We have no reasonable expectation, I tell myself now, that we achieve our dreams.

Bullshit.

Our potential is what we can do, it is, by definition, what is within our abilities. We have an obligation to ourselves, and to society and to God, if you believe in God (I don’t, really), to fulfill it. What we shouldn’t hold ourselves accountable to do, is that which is beyond our abilities. But if we don’t do what we can, that’s a sin, if there ever was sin, a crime, at least, maybe the birth parent of all crime. 

If you do everything you can do, that you dream of doing, that should be done, you will be proud of yourself and you will be happy.

I haven’t proven this theory, mind you.

I have a family. I work and make decent money. I have friends. I meet the standard for success. If I tell people that I consider myself a failure, they argue with me. Most people pretend at least to be happy with as much. If we aren’t satisfied, and say so, then oftentimes people feign as if they do not understand why you are so ungrateful, or at least you fear that this will be their reaction. At best, they don’t know how to help you, so you keep it to yourself. But there is nothing wrong with expecting to be the best you can be. And those of us who enjoy the luxury of being able to complain about not being happy, we have an obligation to challenge ourselves and lead. It is not ungrateful to want more. We owe it to society to expect more from life, and to give what we can give, because we are in the position to do so.

It is failure to settle. There’s no shame in it. No one wants to fail. It’s not about judgement. But that’s just the brutal truth.

Keep In Touch

We always said that. We wrote it in our Jr high school yearbooks in 1979, and in our high school yearbooks in 1982. Sometimes there was a phone number beside it that I never called. Maybe we believed we would, but we soon came to know that we just did that to avoid the big goodbye. We would never see these people again.

That’s not the way it is anymore. Because social media. This generation keeps in touch. It’s easier than it used to be. Only the Luddites lose touch. And the privacy hawks, who like to live off the grid, or at least pretend they are, by shunning facebook. I have nothing against those people. I respect them. I miss them.  Because most of us are back in touch with each other again, even those of us who had accepted that we were never going to be keeping in touch. Social media has allowed us to find each other. If you ask me whatever happened to Dan Cherubin, for example, I can tell you that he died. I know, because though I hadn’t seen him in 33 years, ever since I left Bard College, I heard from him as recently as last week. He was going back into the hospital for a post op infection and now this vibrant, friendly, loving, funny, influential friend of everyone he ever met (well, maybe not those neo-fascists) is gone. It was only a year ago he made the dramatic decision to leave NYC, gave up his rent controlled apartment (that’s not easy), and learned to drive (he’s not the only native New Yorker I know who never got a driver’s license) so he could take a job in Connecticut.  I know these things about him. Then he got cancer, but “the little fucker,” he called it, was removed, and the prognosis sounded good. Thank God for health insurance. That’s what Dan said.

I know a handful of people who have died, who I grew up with. Dennis, Veronica, Adam… Dan. Every time it happens, I think about weather I liked them, and how I wish I had made an effort to know them better, to see them more (or at all). Except for facebook, I can only think of them in my mind as the young children I last saw, last heard their voices, their laughs. It seems even more tragic to me, as if they never got the chance to grow up. But they lived. There were a couple who went earlier, but Dan did have a much fuller life than I know. There is comfort in that, for me, that he had a chance after I knew him, when we were mostly potential, and that he became something, and by all accounts grew into a good man.  And yet, I know that may not be enough for those who were still in his life and knew better how much more he had to offer.

We’re in our 50s. Old enough to have had a full life. As old as the age at which our great grandparents regularly died. Lucky to have gotten even this far, I suppose.

Did he do what he was supposed to do? Was he supposed to do anything? Did he influence people enough? He had an effect on me, a small influence, which I will remember. I knew him once. I can hear his laugh. I feel his warmth of spirit. And all I can say now is, Dan…  keep in touch. 

To be human

I drum

To feel human

After work

 

I write

For the reason

That I drum

 

It’s not to be

A part of something

I have that

 

It’s not

To remember

But to forget

 

The office drama

Does not define

The day

 

I can prove

To myself

That I am more

 

That even Jimmy

The Jimmy

Could be more

 

I was staring into space today

Deep in thought

About killing him

 

About team building

In tents overnight

In the company parking lot

 

It could be for charity

With alcohol

On my birthday

Going Home

Going home, to the apartment my parents still live in which I grew up, in New York City, in Chelsea, always feels like worlds colliding for me. The person I was vs the person I am vs the person I thought I’d be.

The New York that isn’t like New York anymore, just like I’m not like I was anymore.

My parents were out of town so I took six of my friends there. I did this a couple of years ago with two friends. Both times I learned to appreciate something new about the city.

It’s not easy hosting six other people, when they consider you the tour guide, and of course I haven’t lived there in twenty-five years. Then they don’t want to do what I suggest because they have their own ideas, and they all have different ideas, then we do what they want and they ask me all kinds of questions.

“I don’t know, this was your idea.”

It wasn’t like I was getting paid. So at times I thought it might have been more fun if we had been on neutral ground.

Some of the things they wanted to do, I didn’t want to do. Some of the things I wanted to do, they didn’t. I pushed them into something that turned out great. They did things I wanted that weren’t as good as I expected. They pushed me into things that I didn’t want to do that also turned out great.

Like citibikes.

When I was growing up, there were no bike lanes in the city. I used to ride my bike in the streets, like bike messengers, right in the middle of the road, to avoid double parked cars, and pretty much matched the speed of traffic. It was hairy, and I wouldn’t have taken a bunch of tourists on such a ride.

My family was not for Mayor Bloomberg’s push to take away car lanes and create bike lanes. We said, “this isn’t Europe, we can’t retrofit NYC, there already isn’t enough room for cars,” etc.

But my friends had done the bike thing in other cities, and they wanted to do it here, so, ok, whatever.

It turned out pretty damned easy and pretty damned good. I’m converted. And as far as cars are concerned, you really shouldn’t drive in New York anyway. So, as we say in New York, “fuck ’em.” 

One of my guests did get yelled at. “Watch out, citibike.” Part of the experience.

Also, I grew up in Manhattan. People who grow up in Brooklyn know Manhattan. People who grew up in Manhattan don’t know Brooklyn.  Goes for the other boroughs too.

Brooklyn, like Manhattan, isn’t what it used to be, but I don’t really know what it used to be, so we went to Brooklyn.  Walked the Brooklyn Bridge, found a good pub, picked up some more citibikes and even rode to Adam Yauch Park to pay my respects to the late founder of the Beastie boys, who I knew, and jammed with, even though I never particularly liked the Beastie Boys.

I love Brooklyn. 

Gotta move forward, I guess.

But still, lots of memories. It’s almost as if I didn’t want to be myself then, I wanted to move away, pretend I was someone else. And when I go back I’m sometimes mad that things have changed, and I wonder what happened to New York. I wonder what happened to me.

You know what I discovered? The best way to find out is to show others where you came from.