First of all: a million and one thank yous to all of you who have supported our campaign by donating, spreading the word and sending prayers and love. I don't really have words for how grateful I am for it all. It makes me so happy to know that so many sweet good people stand behind our dreams and hopes for our future. Know that I hold the same for you all. Thank. You.
These last few months, I've actually been thinking a lot about happiness, how elusive it can be, not as a whole, but the feeling of it; how hard to define, how fickle and unpredictable. How it can be absent in the most obvious moments we should feel it, and how sometimes it makes its appearance in the unlikeliest of situations.
How some people seem born happy, with positive attitudes and open arms, while others wear their permanently bruised hearts on their sleeves and knit their brow in fury as a default.
I've certainly been a little bit of both in my own life; a naturally sunny person, who's been worn down by outside forces. For the last ten years, I've been working on the more positive side of my personality, but I do feel that I've grown to be a more anxious, more melancholy and certainly less open than my original countenance.
Maybe it's because of this, but I'm often surprised by my own happiness, the way it comes and goes unannounced. What small things evoke it.
Often the things I think should make me happy, don't. Big life events, adventures, excitement… I frequently find myself setting up potential future happiness around concrete life goals; "when I do this", "when I get that". From new books, to garden spaces, to learning something, to traveling, to successes, I often center my hopes for joy and fulfillment around one heavenly body of expectation, only to discover when I reach it, that though I may be richer in skills, experiences, or even material goods, any happiness I achieved in the process was, at best, fleeting.
I'm not alone in this. Most research into happiness shows that beyond basic needs of food, shelter, and companionship, people in general achieve happiness through slow build-up, that happiness comprises not of concrete events, or possessions, or even relationships, but something less tangible.
There are two kinds of "happiness" in my mind. The actual experience, and the kind that is there even when we ignore it. The latter doesn't necessarily always manifest as a feeling, but in the long-term builds a happy life. In other words, we may be happy, but not constantly experience happiness.
Human-relationships, partnership, friendship, community, are all important building-blocks of this tangible, more constant happiness. People living in tight-knit, mycelial communities with many connections of various strengths, seem to have more room for happiness and interestingly, this communal feeling encourages people to do things selflessly, one key way to promote lasting contentment and joy. That the feeling of belonging, to a place and to a people, even under the worst of circumstances, creates a framework onto which we weave ourselves in and which catches us when we're feeling down.
According to much of "happiness research" there are certain concrete habits and experiences that help create that sustain the flow of endorphins, as well as build long-term effects in the brain, that are consistent throughout most populations. Exercise produces and promotes happiness in most folks, as does meditation, and the experience of "flow", the sense of doing something well and fluidly, in one's work, or other endeavors.
What's interesting about these happiness-inducing behaviors, is that they often have little to do with the material realm, possessions, inter-personal relations, feelings, or in fact, the self itself, the entity which experiences happiness. In fact they often involve the temporary suspension, or even momentary erasure of "self". A point when we seize being a psychological-physiological-social-entities (as one definition of human selfhood goes) and simply…well, be.
It is telling of the power of meditation that our happiness often appears when we are "not thinking of anything", that it resides in being "present in the moment" (a phrase ruined with overuse by so many self-help books and mommy-blog blurbs), something that's grown increasingly elusive and difficult in our society.
It's also fascinating how much we as a society seem to struggle with trying to be happy. For people, who by and large, have everything, we are also remarkably unhappy. In a world that's constantly tuned in and turned on (all puns are the product of your own mind here;) and busyness has replaced hard work as a value, it can be overwhelming to even think about reaching this state of "mindless" being.
The more one practices happiness inducing behaviors, the more often one feels the emotion of it, which in my mind is, bigger, more all encompassing, than other emotions. The feelings of grief, or anger, or hate, are not an antidote to anything, but love and happiness can unmake all of them.
For myself, I'm discovering that that while I don't have a lot of power over the things that make me stressed out, bummed, exhausted, sad, I have some say in what the final outcome of those feelings is; whether I'm able to shrug them off and keep moving, or whether I choose to dwell on my unhappiness. What I've found is that I'm almost always able to shake off a bad, or a blue mood by moving my body, going outside, or emptying my mind in meditation. There are days and weeks though, when those feelings get the better of me The time spent sitting still seems, to my busy mind, time wasted, even though I know better.
Last week, I came home from a particularly long day, at the end of stretch of long days and nights to find this enigmatic note on the kitchen table.
I dropped my bags, adding them to the mess of the kitchen, leaving behind dishes and laundry and groceries to be put away and followed its instructions.
Outside, in the gentle afternoon sunlight, it occurred to me that this was probably the moment when the plum trees were at the peak of their bloom. That I had almost missed it, because i was to busy to go stand in my own backyard. I walked slowly. The air smelled of blossoms and sunlight and all around it birds were calling each other, in an absurdly melodious and beautiful cacophony.
As I approached the biggest of the plum trees, I could hear it hum, as though an invisible breeze was moving through it. Straining my eyes against the sun, focusing on one of the lower branches, there it was. Suddenly and inexplicably, the world fell away, with all its chores and complications. I was alone with hundreds, maybe thousands of honeybees, drinking in the first nectar of the spring. The whole tree was alive with moving, dancing, sugar-drunk bees.
Now, how do I explain this, something that you can't really put into words? That sense of having the world reduced to the simplest of terms, so simple that they are in fact beyond words. I'm sure you've had experiences like that, looking at the ocean, a small child, the perfect fruit you grew, a good sentence you wrote, a bird landing close enough to touch, something you built, the night sky, when the world contracts and expands all at once, with you standing in it's center, seeing, hearing everything, yet forgetting that you are a separate body, an independent nervous system from it. Moments of transcendence.
I don't know how much time passed, but after a while I turned, walked back in, put the groceries away, did my chores. Though the experience had passed, the feeling of joy and contentment remained, for the rest of the day.
This sense of belonging, of time suspended, of the self shifting away and becoming part of the landscape, is happiness. When you loose yourself to a task completely, when after trying long and hard, you suddenly find yourself effortlessly doing what was difficult or tedious before.
When you suddenly look around you and realize that you're content to be where you are, doing what you're doing, or see some small detail that reminds you that you're part of a bigger whole. Moments when small simple things, suddenly fill you with a joy much bigger than they seemingly ought to.
The reason why they can sometimes be hard to catch, is that they are often infinitely small in all the hubbub of our lives, that we barely have time to notice them. Since I first started thinking about this, I've haphazardly been keeping track of that which makes me truly happy and the notes I have seem almost insignificant: the moment right before falling asleep, finding a small, hidden place in the trees, reading my book while everyone else sleeps, a room full of people silently working on art projects, mixing the perfect color, being able to correctly recite a favorite legend, a cat curled up on the inside of my knee, the perfect chain of stitches coming off my needle, that Julie bought me a currant from the plant sale, seeing the sun light up an eagle's wings...
There are bigger sources of happiness of course: our love, our health, having food on the table, having a roof over our heads, having friends and family who love us, but it seems to me that they exist to make room for these smaller joys, that the like the devil, the divine is truly in the details...
Each day, I try to remember to notice at least one of them and when it appears stand still enough to hold it for a brief while.
What is your happiness?