Sometimes, when I think of happiness, I think of that cartoon character, Droopy:
Here we see that after some very hard work, Droopy is rewarded and finds temporary happiness in that reward. Much of Western Civilization has been trained to think that if we give ourselves more, to earn it, to get it, to keep it, that thing, whatever it is, will make us happy. Consider the following statements:
That makes me happy.
I feel happy when that happens.
The first example is happiness in the passive voice. In the passive voice, we’re saying that something else outside of us makes us happy. Something else outside of us is required for our happiness. Someone or something else is responsible for our happiness. And sometimes we wait for a long time for that “something else” outside of ourselves to make us happy.
In the second example, we see happiness in the active voice. In the second example, we are making a choice to be happy with what we see. In the active voice, we are taking notice, acknowledging, something or someone outside of ourselves, but we are making a decision about happiness. We are finding a reason to be happy.
By chance, I found this video on YouTube by The Atlantic:
The video, America’s Dopamine Fueled Shopping Addiction, does a very good job of talking about the unsustainable shopping habits of most Americans. But what really caught my eye about the video was the word “dopamine” in the title. I know what this is about, but I go the other direction. I have buyer’s remorse nearly every time I buy something. So I sorta hate shopping.
I don’t like walking around in malls looking for something to buy. I don’t think of shopping as a sport, or as a form of exercise or recreation. When I want to buy something, I know exactly what I want before I even set foot into the mall. So I let my wife do most of the shopping. She’s pretty good at finding deals and getting the stuff we need.
As a general rule though, I don’t set foot into any place that sells anything, unless I know what I want to buy and how much I’m willing to spend. I know the pain of buying things on impulse. I know the inconvenience and even embarrassment of returning something I bought. I really dislike returning stuff that I bought, so I’m very careful about what I buy. I know that the act of buying something isn’t what makes me happy.
And if I do buy something, I make sure that I use it thoroughly. Ping pong table? I’ll play every chance I can if I can get someone to play. Big screen TV? We have two and we use them a little bit every day. I once made a TV last about 20 years. Clothing? Meh. I have enough clothes and they wear well because we take good care of them and I don’t go cheap when I buy them.
The Atlantic video above says on average we buy 66 garments a year. Holy Toledo. I might buy a few pieces a year to wear and that’s it. Well, I’m a guy, but still. If you shop well, it doesn’t really take that much clothing to keep up appearances, even if you’re a woman. Fashion has more to with CEO compensation than with who we really are. How many articles of clothing does it take to make someone happy?
The American shopping addiction is just evidence of this notion we have that if we get more, shove more into our faces, onto our bodies, travel more, do more, surround ourselves with more, more, more! we’ll be happy. Just like Droopy. If we’re passive about happiness, we have to do more to stimulate those senses.
When we’re passive about our happiness, we assume that someone else has the answer, so we have to get more and do more to meet the standard for happiness set by someone else. The rock band Styx figured this out and explained it with their song, Grand Illusion, released in 1977. What we have now, they could see it coming so long ago.
Active happiness is something else. To be happy, I notice what I have and I make a decision to be happy with what I have. I let this day be enough. I let this room be enough. I allow myself to be enough. And those decisions allow me to have a very low baseline for happiness. I think some might even call that baseline, contentment.
My happiness isn’t dependent on other people, places or things. I don’t have to make others unhappy (or happy) to be happy. I don’t have to live large to be happy. I don’t have to go somewhere else to be happy. I only have to be. I only have to accept everything exactly the way it is right now, to be happy. I accept everything right now, without reservation, to be happy.
This isn’t to say that if I see room for improvement in my life, that I shouldn’t do it. On the contrary, I accept things as they are to have a starting point from as a foundation for happiness, so that I can do those other things. I can honestly say that right here, right now, I have everything I need. I have enough air, water, food, shelter, clothing and so on, to just be happy. I’m not ascetic or a minimalist, but I allow myself to have enough and decide to let that be enough.
I said earlier that I have a very low baseline for happiness. What that gives me is resilience. There have been a few times in my life when I was technically homeless. I had that “nowhere to go” feeling. But even then, I found something to be grateful for, something to be happy about. Resilience allows us to be happy even in the face of adversity. Resilience makes obstacles in life look like a challenge rather than an upsetting inconvenience. Resilience makes lemonade out those disappointing lemons in life.
So I have to wonder about those who are very well off, yet still need to engage in a life of crime, even petty crime. I remember how Wynona Ryder was caught shoplifting, and I don’t think she did it for lack of money as a well known and successful actress at the time. I think about Bernie Madoff and his ponzi scheme, why do that and keep it going when you have money?
I have even wondered why rich kids engage in crime, too. I mean, why would prep school kids do a crime? Some might say it’s a case of “Affluenza”, of just being bored or idle. But there are plenty of rich kids who face boredom and still find something productive to do.
Then I look to the results (so far) of the Mueller investigations, where I see men of great wealth and power, people who are set for life and would never have to work again if they chose not to, yet they still engaged in crime and were indicted or convicted thereof. I’ve seen story after story in the financial news section of the paper, of wealthy men engaging in bribery, extortion, insider trading and on and on. These are people who are multi-millionaires, who would seem to have no need for more money based on their passive income alone. White collar crime seems a paradox.
But what if white collar crime, like any other crime is a result of a lack of acceptance? To me this is proof that getting everything you want isn’t happiness. White collar criminals, prep school criminals, and the like, don’t commit crime for survival. They commit crime for the high, but the high is a distraction from their reality, their apparent deficit in life. They commit such crimes because even though they are surrounded in abundance, they cannot take stock of their life and let what they have be enough. They are being passive about happiness, expecting something “out there” to make them happy.
This is why I think that foundation for happiness is a skill, a capacity and a decision. Happiness requires an active voice. Happiness requires the skill of discernment, of noticing what we have and accepting all of it as the gift that it is. I have found that even when I was poor, I was still able to find a reason to be happy, and it wan’t really that hard to do. But my happiness had to start from somewhere, and that point in time and space, was acceptance. And that acceptance led me to resilience so that even with a setback, I could still return to that place of happiness, contentment, and even some joy, by making a decision to be happy.