Happiness Progress

21:06 Mon 14 Feb 2011
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Long-time readers of this blog will know that happiness is a recurring concern of my posts. Recently, I seem to have made some kind of significant step, or crossed some important line, towards happiness.

I’m not sure how to quantify it, but one of the things that’s interesting about it is that nothing dramatic seems to have changed in terms of my life circumstances to have prompted this change. I haven’t started taking medication (or self-medicating); I haven’t starting meditating; the factors in my life that make me unhappy are almost all still present (and those that aren’t changed after this shift, not before).

I’m anxious about writing this post: I’m worried that what I write will seem incomprehensible and frustrating when I lapse back into my former state; I’m superstitious about “tempting fate” in some way and losing this new sense by writing about it; I’m concerned that my writing about it will seem presumptuous and possibly self-congratulatory; and I’m fearful that I won’t be able to adequately describe it, something that seems more internally “wrong” somehow with this subject matter than other things I try to describe.

It started a few weeks ago, just before my birthday. I started to notice on the Friday, and definitely by Saturday 22 January. I felt happy “for no reason” on those days. This in itself wasn’t particularly unusual, and I’ve had periods like that before, but they have sadly tended to be quite brief, lasting a few days at most. Not that I’d lapse into depression after them, but the “glow” of things would tend to fade after that point.

I thought that would happen again this time, especially when I came down with a cold shortly afterwards. That’s been a typical—and extremely annoying—pattern, the sense of feeling like things were great followed rapidly by getting sick. This time, though, even though I got sick, I was still happy. I’m not even sure I fully noticed this at first. When I first really noticed it for sure was after a conversation with my friends Monika and Anil 11 days ago in which Monika was talking about a meta-study of studies about happiness and longevity, and how there seems to be fairly weighty evidence to suggest that the happier you are, the more likely you are to live longer.

My eloquent response to this at the time was, “well, I’m fucked”. I meant it seriously, even though I stated it while laughing, and my stance for some of the rest of the evening was hoping to find problems, exceptions, and/or loopholes in the studies, without much success. It was a fun night, despite its apparently doom-laden message about my lifespan, and I left in a good mood.

Later, I started wondering about my conception of myself as unhappy, on two fronts. The first was, well, that I felt pretty happy at the time; this is where I started to notice that I hadn’t really been unhappy since before my birthday. The second was questioning my former state of unhappiness.

I know that if you went back a year, or two, or probably ten, and asked my if I were a happy person, I would be quite likely to have answered “no”. This is a different question from “are you happy?”—while I think I would have often answered in the negative to that one as well, that answer would have been evidently dependent on circumstances, whereas the question about being a happy person wouldn’t have been. It’s certainly a question I’ve considered before, but for whatever reason this time I asked myself “what evidence do you have that you’re not a happy person?”

Along the way to attempting an answer, I realized that an awful lot of my friends, if they didn’t know my own answer to the question of whether or not Tadhg is a happy person, would have answered “yes”. Sure, plenty have seen me serious, unhappy, angst-ridden, and so on, but not the majority of the time. I think many would think me quick to smile and quick to laugh, and would recall that much of the time when in their presence I seemed happy, and hence would conclude that I likely was happy.

And the vast majority of the time they’d be right; I was happy in those instances. I like being around friends; in many respects I’m a highly social person; while there are always exceptions, I’m generally happy in social situations. So why the claim that I wasn’t a happy person?

In essence, what I basically decided is that I’d been erroneously privileging my moods in solitude over my moods in company. Why do this? If it were true that I’m sad alone and happy with people (not actually true, it’s a lot more complicated than that), isn’t the answer just as likely to be “I’m a happy person but I need to be around people”? In truth, I’m often happy on my own, and am someone who definitely needs time alone, mainly to do things like write and work on other projects. But time when working on projects isn’t time that I think of as “happy”—I either lose track of time when things are going well, so I’m in a flow state and happy but not aware of it, or I’m frustrated because of some obstacle I’m having trouble getting past, something I’m generally highly aware of.

So on the basis of that evidence, it seemed as if the majority of the time I was happy, but I felt the unhappy periods more keenly, and—perhaps—spent more time in both introspection and (attempted) self-definition while unhappy rather than happy, and hence associated unhappiness more with my “true self”. But there’s no solid reason to do so.

In other words, I’m a happy person. With occasional, maybe even frequent, down periods, but happy nonetheless.

(I must confess that it is both liberating and frightening to have just written that sentence.)

That’s one part of this shift I’m experiencing. The easier-to-describe, theoretical, and easier-to-explain part. Possibly, though, the less important part, despite its obvious importance.

The other part is tougher. I’m just happier. But in what way?

I haven’t achieved enlightenment. I’m not (unfortunately) experiencing the joys of the world every day as I move in it, or feeling at peace, or feeling as if I am one with everything. I still get frustrated, and anxious, and just as irate at bad drivers when I’m cycling. I still berate myself frequently. The things that caused me emotional pain before this shift still do so, and it seems like it’s about the same amount.

But there’s something else there. I’m more likely, when down, or in pain, or emotionally suffering (and in a couple of cases even when physically suffering), to smile. It seems to start off as a half-smile, then spreads. I’m not forcing myself to do it, either, although I would if necessary. It’s as if another streak has been added to my personality, to go along with the ones I have already (stubborn and smartass, for example), and it’s a happy streak. Or perhaps a “happiness resilience” streak. It feels like some kind of resilience, as much as (again) I feel stating that is tempting fate. As if before, if you took me when in a happy mood and caused me pain, my mood would react by sliding over to the down state and staying there, whereas now it slides over and then back.

This feels like a very small change, but one with major repercussions. The small thing of feeling like I have to smile, which seems to embody this resilience, appears to be enough to push me back into a happy state. It’s not that it dispels the other moods, but it exists alongside them, which is not something I recall experiencing much before.

It is unquestionably good for me, obviously enough, and it’s already had positive effects on me in terms of making progress on real in-the-world changes.

I’m afraid it will disappear, of course. I don’t know why it showed up, and I’m afraid that it’ll skitter off with as much explanation. But, I also think that while that would suck, in some respects it might not matter. The mere fact of having experienced this makes it clear that it’s possible, and hence shows me the way to it again. I have the sense that if it disappears I would be very determined to get it back.

I want to understand how it showed up in the first place, of course. That might not be possible with any degree of certainty. Maybe it’s just some random configuration of neurons, or maybe there was something in the water that week. But it’s also possible that it’s due to the work I’ve put in (and luck, of course, because there are no guarantees). Happiness has certainly been an important goal and project of mine for quite a long time; is it hubris to think that that work might have contributed to this change?

I strongly suspect that my “three routines” of morning pages, blog, and CrossFit are all essential; the morning pages help me with introspection, the blog with organizing my thoughts into public expression, and CrossFit with both short-term (endorphins) and long-term (far better general fitness) mental gains. I don’t keep a written gratitude journal but I do mentally review five things I’m grateful for every night. While I have very little time for positive thinking as it’s commonly understood, I have been trying (for years) to steer my thoughts a little better and to prevent myself from turning down unproductive dark paths. Having my writing and coding and “personal digital” environments set up more or less just as I want them, mostly ensuring a very smooth experience when I’m writing and working on personal projects, probably helps as well. Perhaps all these things finally weigh enough to tip the scales, and that tipping has led to the emergence of this resilient happiness.

Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and it’ll be gone; maybe there are cruel, irony-obsessed gods who will strip me of it as soon as I publish this piece. But even if I lose it, I’m already grateful that I ever had it at all, because even in a few weeks I feel it’s helped me to appreciate experience as a richer thing. I could have gone this entire life without ever having had that, and if it’s fleeting, that’s still a gift.

But I don’t think it is. And if it disappears, now that I’ve felt it, I’ll fight hard and long and ruthlessly to get it back.

3 Responses to “Happiness Progress”

  1. helen Says:

    This post has made me very happy for days. x

  2. Tadhg Says:

    Great to hear that! You’ll probably be glad to hear that it’s stuck around so far.

  3. jeffliveshere Says:

    I’m sorry I somehow missed this post the first time around. Sometimes I wonder if it takes some of us longer to enjoy life than others, and that it has more to do with time spent just being alive than anything else. Not that the habits you’re cultivating aren’t expediting things–it’s likely that they are. Of course, I say this as a paxil-devotee, so take it with a grain of salt. ;)

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