Happiness and unhappiness come from ‘inside’
Like most people, I’ve felt angry, frustrated, and helpless at times – even hopeless – but such negative states of mind are rare at this point in my life. I had hoped to grow out of them altogether, but that was ego thinking. In fact they seem to be right around the corner, so this will be a bit of self-examination and reflection about happiness and unhappiness – what they entail, and whether we have any control over them.
This post is a personal reflection, different from most of my essays. I generally study, analyze and make critical judgments about macroeconomic, political and societal trends, and their interconnections. Thousands – maybe millions – of people do the same thing on various websites. If my ideas differ, I hope it’s in the degree to which I try to be philosophical, rather than opinionated, or self-promoting, or ‘expressing-myself-because-I-have-as-much-right-as-anyone-else’, or seeking to maximize ‘eyes on my site’ to make money, which is obvious with many blogs and the companies that ‘host’ them.
Over the years, with help from personal therapy, friends in the profession, and lots of study and teaching in comparative religions and history of philosophy, I’m convinced that most of our moods don’t result from what’s going on around us in the moment, but what’s inside, which has been there a long time – our habitual way of processing what’s happening outside. Moreover, the negative states usually come from lack of self-awareness, and a failure to understand and be objective, about ourselves and about what is ‘bothering us’.
I’m lucky to have been given this ‘revelation’, or principle; and when it seems appropriate, I try to share it with others. There are other helpful corollaries to this principle I’ll come back to, but I believe this is the overarching rule of mental health and happiness (and their opposites). I’ve tried to live by it, and what follows from it. Certainly these ideas weren’t discovered recently – nor in my lifetime. Like most important truths, they’ve been around ‘from the beginning’.
Buddhist thought, for example, teaches that unhappiness results from our tendency to think from ego, rather than think objectively about ourselves. Suppose I were to stumble into a rabbit hole in the field, and break an ankle. It’s very painful of course; that’s natural. It’s natural too, for anyone in this situation to ‘own‘ the pain, and think of it as hers. I might start yelling “Ow! Eeow! My leg hurts; it’s killing me! I can’t stop it! Sh*t! Somebody help me! It hurts so bad! Oh no! Please … ! Oh, Oww…!” What I’m doing is adding needless suffering – feelings of helplessness, frustration, confusion, denial, anger, etc. – to the pain which is there. Imagine instead trying to practice this kind of conversation with ourselves:
‘That ankle’s probably broken. Feels like it. Have to be careful not to injure it more by walking on it. Need something for support. Maybe I can hobble back to the house and get help. Oh, and next week’s meeting. I forgot. Have to put that off a while. This is going to take time. First, need to do something about the pain. Can’t say what’s involved in fixing the ankle. It’ll get better – shouldn’t expect miracles at my age – enough to keep going though. Lucky there’s a emergency room in town.”
In other words, it’s possible to think and talk to ourselves about the situation in the same way we might expect a doctor or a sensible friend to think and talk to us about it. You might say, ‘Sure, but it’s easy for the doctor to be objective; it’s not her pain’. That’s true, but it isn’t ‘my pain,’ or ‘your pain’ either, if we develop a new view of ‘reality’. Reality is not what we’ve habitually come to identify with – the world interpreted through the senses – the typical view that Buddhists and Hindhus might call illusory. This thinking isn’t an effort to escape the world, however. It only requires a different orientation, and learning other habits of thought. That isn’t easy, or natural.
Other thoughts about mental health I found useful
An Argentine friend, Hector Sabelli, MD, and his wife Linnea, used to host discussion groups in their Chicago home. Hector (now deceased) was a philosopher, and a psychiatrist , associated with Rush Medical Group in Chicago. He liked contradictions and creative opposition wherever he saw them. Unlike mainstream philosophers, he viewed the whole universe, not as a basically stable whole (centered on some unchanging ultimate reality), but as change itself – the ever-changing interplay of opposites – that he called the Union of Opposites, after the manner of the Greek Herakleitos, and the Chinese Taoists.
In psychotherapy, Hector’s goal was to balance opposing forces in a patient’s life, especially the biological, social and psychic (or inner). He advocated a more humane approach to minds and health, that would not reduce them to ‘facts’ of ‘hard science’ about chemicals, cell structures and exact measurements. Instead, he appealed to more variable ‘laws’ about social relations, personal attitudes, historical changes, cultural differences, etc – the work of so-called ‘soft sciences’. He often said the best way to understand life, as well as humans, would be as a physician – not a physicist. A physician’s perspective should emphasize taking every patient as a whole, including her uniqueness. He quipped that psychiatrists should try to expand minds, not be “shrinks”.
Jonathan Lear, at U. Chicago, offered other insights, during his classes in the ‘Philosophy of Freud’. Lear is a psychoanalyst, philosopher, publisher in the Oxford Aristotelian Society, and writer of books about happiness. He’s one of the handful of really great teachers I’ve been lucky to know. I think the best teachers have a deserved reputation for their professional excellence; but in addition, I find they are open, modest, approachable, and genuinely concerned for their students’ benefit. Lesser teachers seem more concerned with their status than with their students’ development. But I don’t suggest teachers should be ‘buddies’ to students, or try to win ‘Rate My Teacher’ polls. That’s the marketing approach to education.
Personal therapy at several difficult times added to my beliefs about happiness, especially with Richard – a very smart and effective talk therapist about my age, with a PhD in psychology. He showed how most patients try to manipulate therapists, to avoid seeing and facing themselves clearly. I started many discussions, which were generally pointless diversions. Richard knew it, and never lost track of the business at hand.
I’m not a mental health professional, but I’m comfortable repeating and commenting on what I learned about happiness, and it’s requisites; and to reflect on what I failed to learn well enough. As said above, it involves knowing ourselves objectively, so we can let go of a false sense of who we are. It would be ideal if we could forget ourselves, and live directly, without feeling compelled either to belittle or aggrandize ourselves. Paradoxically, that self-forgetting requires (as I said above) paying really close attention to ourselves, at times, so we can understand, and let go of, beliefs, recipes and behaviors that may have worked for us as young people, but hamper us as adults. And in the process, we may also have to let go of what our parents taught us (or we think they taught us), if it no longer makes sense.
Typically, the mental and behavioral ‘coping mechanisms’ we learned early in life rest on patterns of associations – connections between painful feelings (guilt, shame, worthlessness, fear, loneliness, insecurity, self-hating, etc.) and some deeply moving words or actions of others – a parent or important loved one. Often the latter are forgotten, but their consequences remain. At the time, we interpreted these experiences (whether or not correctly) to imply we were bad, evil, unlovable, not up to par, etc.
No doubt the lists of particular causes and effects may differ, but the outcomes are similar, it seems to me. Similar enough, at least, that an experienced therapist will have seen the pattern many times, and can hold a mirror up to us, until we begin to recognize and understand what we internalized. Psychoanalytic traditions have given very helpful insights about these ‘associations’. And no, it’s not all about sex.
The counselor doesn’t need to be smarter than we, nor must she be able to give us ‘good advice’ or solutions to our problems, like “Stop taking on more work than you can handle”. Clients often expect advice – even demand it. But that’s really a distraction, like asking what time it is, or looking anxiously towards the door, which we use to divert our attention from ourselves and the honest work to be done.
Advice about what we should try to do or be to feel happier misses the point. The therapist isn’t there to inform, though she may have informative – even impressive – ideas, or be a good conversationalist. Her job is to help us see, understand and accept that we ourselves are the main source of unhappiness – not ‘the world’ – so that we can make the needed internal changes. These problems don’t have solutions, as math or engineering problems do. But they can be resolved, or better, will dissolve, if we see and work on them.
Success in this work takes a perceptive, practiced and empathic therapist. But she can’t do it alone – i.e. with a client who is passive and waiting to be cured. (I prefer the term ‘client’ to the term ‘patient’. The root meaning of patient is passive; a passive client won’t find a happy outcome.) A ‘self-medicating’ person who takes drugs to escape mental pain, is passive. She’s waiting for the drugs to do the work for her. But drugs can’t make anyone self-aware; they only bring forgetfulness.
If we can learn how we make ourselves unhappy, we can begin to practice not doing that, and open ourselves to a happier approach instead. This doesn’t mean we’re looking for ecstasy, or waiting to be overcome with joy; but relative peace and contentment are certainly within our grasp. Our practice requires staying engaged in the world, as I’ll discuss below. Can we get rid of everything that makes us unhappy? That sounds unreasonable, but it is conceivable. Remember, although many things are beyond our control, how we react to them we can control, as we’ve been discussing.
This is an ancient philosophical idea – long before modern psychology or mental health ‘science’. We’re not responsible for what lies beyond our control, like death, sickness, weather, people’s misdeeds that impact us, or what others think about us. (That is such a major concern for Americans today!). We can control our worries. In fact, if we could get rid of every worrisome thought, that would include the fear of death, as well as the disappointment that happiness can’t last ‘forever’. So happiness – defined as getting rid of needless worries – can be complete, regardless of the length of any life. And while we’re alive, we can minimize the effects of uncontrollable events by prudent thinking, finding a few good friends, and simplifying our lives. We certainly don’t need to join the rat-race! All these relevant ideas about happiness can be found in the Letter to Menoeceus by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who also lived in chaotic times.
The biggest factor in the ‘practice of happiness’ is other people.
The ‘objectivity’ I’ve been discussing here is not enough. We can’t ‘get happy’ alone; we need other people. That doesn’t mean others can make us happy, though. No one can do that. Besides, if we believe they could, then they could also make us unhappy. As Sartre famously said, through one of the characters in his play No Exit: “Hell is other people”.
I won’t get into Sartre’s Existentialism here, except to say that he emphasized the (absolute) foundational value of subjectivity. The ‘problem’ with other people, comes from his belief that every person is primarily a subject, which can’t be discovered, analyzed or known objectively, even by the person herself – much less experienced by another. To every subject, every other person necessarily appears as an object, or thing. We unavoidably objectify others, which is an affront to their true unique selfhood – i.e. who they truly are as individuals. They do the same to us. It’s a conflict without a resolution. I think it’s an extreme view, but fascinating, and very influential. Sartre became almost a cult hero for French students in the mid-20th C.
Leaving existentialism aside, it remains true that we need others in the practice of happiness. It’s a social thing. It involves our behavior to other people – not just a private act of will. If someone intends to find happiness, she will do something to bring it about – not just wish for it. Doing something involves caring, which The Dalai Lama calls being compassionate. That is where other people come in. He put it this way:
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; and if you want yourself to be happy, practice compassion with yourself (Introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition of the Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness – A Handbook For Living, 2009)
I would go farther, and say that we should want others to be happy, just as we naturally do want ourselves to be happy. So we need to practice compassion, or do good, for others, as well as for ourselves. I think this is the gist of the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would want done to you” (Matthew 7:12). Perhaps a more manageable task is its negative form, sometimes called the Silver Rule: “Don’t do to others what you would not want done to you”. Some religious traditions call good deeds ‘charity’ (caritas). I like the term ‘compassion’ instead, because it involves a heartfelt commitment to another’s happiness – not just a behavior that might be empty, or even hypocritical.
The Art of Happiness was published in 1998 – co-authored by the Dalai Lama and his psychiatrist friend, Howard Cutler, MD. Cutler says that happiness is a matter of ‘scientific fact’ – i.e. that there are measurable aspects, observable by brain-scan technology, which confirm what his Buddhist philosopher friend and collaborator (“His Holiness”) had long been saying. I disagree with the ‘naturalism’ of much that Cutler contributes to the book’s ideas about happiness. He seems to suggest it is reducible to brain states, and/or to observable behaviors. But compassion is primarily something mental – an attitude, neither organic nor observable – although it must be acted out to be meaningful. No doubt it manifests organic effects too, just as good and bad mental states have observable effects on our bodily health.
Most people are unhappy ‘for good reason’
From what I see around me in the streets, from what family, friends and acquaintances tell and show me, from what I hear and see via popular media sources of people’s words and actions, not to mention non-anecdotal evidence from ‘reputable’ sources about trends in various groups in the USA, I judge that few people have learned the helpful lessons I was given over the years. They appear generally unhappy – i.e. bored, suspicious, distracted, fatigued, dissatisfied, annoyed, etc. – and seem clueless about where happiness comes from, or how it might be achieved. There are countless ways to support this claim, but I like this short description of reality in Time, by an outsider – British observer, Ruth Whippman. Her main point is that people have unrealistic expectations, that can’t be met.
It’s not surprising to read that most Americans stand lower on the 2017 World Happiness Report than they did 10 years ago, as well as relative to other countries. On some indexes and by other polls, they’re even less happy than they were 30 years ago. I’m very skeptical about what we can learn from such reports, since it’s difficult to define happiness in observable facts, or know what indexes can measure it. Even so, concepts like income, job security, optimism, family structure, health, environmental conditions, social and financial inequality, education, trust of government, incidence of drug use, stress levels, suicide rates, and how Americans rank with other nations, do put some substance into the analyses.
Keeping this is mind, I think most people are unhappy ‘for good reasons’. The reasons consist of all the ‘ills of society’ that I’ve been examining for many years – a few of which I can summarize here.
One ‘ill’ I’ve focused on for decades involves how various media characterize and present events and issues to their audiences. Here’s a talk I gave on the topic of TV watching that was published in 1988 in Vital Speeches of the Day. I think the most popular and influential media are themselves a major ill of our society. They are instrumental in ‘what’s wrong’ with America (and other nations) – increasingly ‘part of the problem, not part of the solution’. Whatever the format – radio, television, film, video, print newspapers and journals (or their online versions), blogs, various ‘social media’, and even old fashioned hard-copy books (typically also available online) – their primary activity is marketing, their approach is entertainment, and their goal is money.
This money-making trend in media was well underway before the development of the Internet, as described in Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. It has only intensified since everything is now available ‘online’. The messages found in mainstream media make people self-concerned, fearful and neurotic about their ‘image’ and how they compare to others. In fact, Americans’ obsession with screen watching has become a dangerous addiction in itself, which Adam Alter describes in his recent book, Irresistible.
I’ve watched for years the growing conflict between TV producers who make kids’ shows, and sell ads, and concerned citizens who want to eliminate advertising from the content, as public children’s shows are intended to do. The producers are winning. Sadly, even some publicly funded shows have started the move to commercial control of content, like the classic Sesame Street.
Especially since the Reagan era, arguments for protecting children from manipulative advertising have been trumped by arguments for ‘free speech’ – which means in practice permission to control kids’ thinking about products, and through them, their parent’s purchases. Here’s a recent discussion of this trend in marketing to children. In TV programming, up til now, there was a compromise, made by the FTC in 1990, which separated content and ads. In online programming the UK only last year banned junk food ads aimed (directly or indirectly) at children. In America there are effectively no limits, although current litigation in the Federal Trade Commission may have some influence.
In the culture of financialization, which has taken off in the last 50 years, the poeople most successful at money making are those who can persuade others, not only to buy what they sell, but especially to put off immediate payment of purchases by use of credit and loans. This ‘generosity’ of easy credit encourages debt to grow in the lives of most people, while a small number of financiers at the top of the debt pyramid who ‘own’ the debt – the “One Percent” – can control those who have taken it on, whether through ignorance, foolishness, or of necessity.
I need not prove these ideas here; they are increasingly well known by those who are not controlled by popular, corporate media. An excellent summary of these trends is Michael Hudson’s recent book, J is for Junk Economics (2017). His bio and many of the themes he deals with are at his website. Another more focused study of financialization is by Scottish economist John Kay (2015) – Other People’s Money – which concentrates on changes in banking, and the damage to the real economy its emphasis on investment brings, here and world wide. Kay discusses the same issues in this 2015 video (25 min presentation; 25 min Q&A).
Public health is another area negatively affected by financialization. The health of large parts of the population has not significantly improved in decades, and in some respects is worse (e.g. in the epidemic problems of obesity, unhealthy food sources and diet, and drug use); and overall, health care is more costly for everyone. Don’t think the cost is due to expensive technological improvements in medical procedures and products. In other industries, the cost of new technologies comes down over time. The ‘medical industry’ too is under the control of financiers, who look on health, not as a public good, but as a financial opportunity. The evolution of health care as business is well documented in Elisabeth Rosenthal’s book An American Illness (2017) – not yet in paperback. The introduction and a lengthy ‘preview’ of the book can be found by pushing the “Look Inside” button at this site.
Finally, the list of issues I regularly think about must certainly include education. Schools – both public and private – have become financialized too, which I’ve watched develop over a long teaching career. Rather than informing and educating, they are now becoming ‘job training’ factories for the students, and money-making businesses for the management. Teachers are primarily employees, whose diminishing respect in communities results from their perceived role as ‘labor’, rather than professionals, cheapened by negative publicity encouraged by ‘management’ and the politicians and financial supporters who benefit from lower wage costs, in the name of cost-effectiveness. Students are referred to as ‘customers’. The highest market ratings go to schools and teachers who are best at ‘customer satisfaction’.
Interestingly, when I did a Google search for “Financialization of education”, every entry dealt with higher ed. Not a word about public (or private) K thru 12 schooling, with one exception: Life in Schools (2015), by Canadian teacher and critic Peter McLaren. It’s radical, and provocative. My experience and study confirm the author’s claims, whether or not I agree with his proposals. The 6th edition gives an even stronger indictment of public schooling than previous editions. (To get McLaren’s general critique, scroll through the Contents, Forewords and Preface, to Part I – “Class Dismissed” – and read the first few pages of this selection .
This is my summary of some of the ‘modern ills’ I regularly study, and my judgments about them, in broad brush terms. Most of my writing consists of generalities, supported with documentation and reasoning. But they are generalities. For that reason, a reader can hear them – even understand them – without being emotionally disturbed by them. That’s because taking the ‘big picture’ viewpoint often allows us to ‘rise above’ things, and think in a rarefied atmosphere that seems abstract, theoretical, and somehow removed from reality.
We can read about, and understand, what’s going on down there (in the streets and the countryside), but may comfortably think, ‘These ills don’t apply to me’, even when they do. I point this out, because I too, although convinced these idea which I study and report are true, can remain ‘objective’ about them, and not be personally depressed by what they show. Personal emotional involvement is something altogether different, which I’ve been generally able to avoid. This worries me. Maybe I should be depressed.
Every effective news reporter knows the need for emotion-laden examples, in trying to move people. Saying that over 5000 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean in 2016 (which is true) doesn’t have nearly the impact of a story about a single drowned child, especially if it’s illustrated with a photo. But let me suggest, it isn’t the particulars, or instances, that make the generalities live. It’s the feelings they can bring to the viewer, but that happens only if the facts relate to something she has experienced personally, or involve someone important to her.
People live their lives personally – even when they think in general terms. That holds for me too. I must remember it, and act on it, if I would live a real life, not a life in the clouds.
Backsliding to Unhappiness.
As said above, my work and default thinking style involve close consideration of the ‘ills‘ of our society (which are many and great) – e.g. inequality, injustice, corruption, deception, blue-collar crime, fraud, myth-making, ignorance, drug abuse, violence and hatred – but my ‘philosophic’ perspective has protected me from the suffering that seems so common today, until recently.
Why did I find myself lately backsliding into unhappy mind states? And how, if at all, did some other experiences, and the reflections they stimulated, change those negative, debilitating states of mind for the better? Was it a conscious or subconscious effort on my part? Or the return to a default habit of mind? Or serendipity? Or providence?
There are many factors that might have been ‘triggers’ to start bringing me ‘down’. What they all share is personal feelings, rather than a general ideas. For instance, thinking ‘I should do something about the woes I see besetting our country’ is depressing, because it feels impossible. My habit is to learn about problems, then write or talk about them, and ideally offer some helpful ideas. But I know most people don’t like serious reading, nor do they want to discuss or even think about such issues. They’re used to looking for relief, or diversion – not understanding. No one likes ‘bad news’, when it involves them. They may find interest – even entertainment – in seeing other people’s disasters, but thinking critically about them, understanding trends, realizing their relevance to themselves, and acting on them is not entertaining. It’s hard to think well. It’s ‘boring’. Besides, they’re too busy already to add these critiques to their plate. A vicious circle.
Can I correct these ills directly? I can vote for changes, periodically, but that’s insignificant, and hardly an occupation. Besides, I’m convinced that voting is a diversion and masquerade, in the form of public entertainment and fascination with ritual. Elections are ‘rigged’, not by Russian intervention, but by the corrupting influence of money. I used to argue with students, suggesting that if they spent time and energy enough to know which candidates to choose (assuming any of them), their ‘enlightened’ vote would be entirely negated by the deluge of ordinary ‘unenlightened’ votes. It’s not worth the effort it would take. That’s pure rational ‘cost-benefit analysis’. Even so, I vote.
I can’t find a meaningful part-time teaching role. I’ve tried. And being retired from teaching, I no longer have the ‘captive audience’ I was sometimes able to motivate, and help to learn about the big forces in their lives. And political activism is out for me at this time, because it takes more stamina, energy and pugnacious character than I have.
Recent health issues and age-related wear and tear hinder travel plans. I was fortunate to explore and learn about other cultures and people, which can be better known from experience than by hearsay or research alone. Knowing this adds feelings of frustration and uselessness to the sense of impotence to correct these ‘ills’.
Trying to repair malfunctions of an aging frame often feel like wasted effort. Moreover, in trying to improve current ‘dis-eases’ (which I needn’t list), I experience personally some of the ill effects of the financialization in medicine – another of the ‘ills’ I study – the illness of healthcare (about which much is being written), including Elizabeth Rosenthal’s new book to which I referred above: An American Illness.
These frustrations are manageable sources of frustration. Complaints, mainly. But seeing loved ones suffer from the same societal ‘ills’ I write about puts emotional flesh on the dry bones of my philosophical ‘understanding’. It’s painful to see my children – especially the younger ones and their young friends whom I know – share the same financial problems of the majority of young people today, including those allegedly in the ‘middle class’. They’re often on the edge of crisis, and ‘on edge’ from the stress that position brings, and the potential shame. These strong ties invite feelings of guilt, for not having helped them better to see and prepare for the pitfalls ahead, or given them better opportunities, or encouraged better habits. Nor can I get them out of trouble at this time.
A final personal experience had me dealing with anger, which I’d thought to have put away long ago. It even stirred a desire to punish someone, against the prodding of my ‘better angels’. In a neighborhood coffee shop I frequent, I was surprised to see a man I’d seen and talked to briefly some years ago, in a different coffee shop, who had disappeared from the neighborhood. (At the time, I had judged he was a scammer.) This time he told me his name (Richard), underscoring the ‘Rich’ part, and proudly listing some of his accomplishments in making money. He added that his nickname, ‘Dick‘, says a lot about his reputation, and his habit of imposing his will on others, pushing himself into their conversations, and using his skills of persuasion to make them do things he wanted. But he claimed it was always “in their best interests” to hear him. (These were his words, and the line he pursued with me, after I said his disregard for people’s freedom is immoral). He is 73. His aggressive style has, by his own account, alienated him from his family, and brought on his divorce 20 years ago – but that hadn’t affected his sex life, he added quickly.
I wanted to be ‘objective’ so we talked further. Dick’s words almost convinced me that he was merely strange and annoying in the extreme. However, the next day I watched and heard (at the far end of the counter) his conversation with an acquaintance of mine. I tried to intervene: “Don’t impose yourself on her”. He stopped me, saying this was an “appointment”. I apologized and left, embarrassed and angry. Later, I emailed her about their ‘appointment’ as he had called it. She was relieved, because she had tried to reach me, but lost my number. She went on to say Dick had caught her at a very vulnerable moment, when she was breaking up with a boyfriend, and convinced her to consult with him before she kept her scheduled visit with a professional therapist the next day. So her meeting with him was planned. Apparently he ‘sells himself’ (literally), taking pay for any advice and ‘life coaching’ he persuades people to accept. My friend observed that Dick is smart, charismatic and “charming”. She agreed he’s a predator, who “ought to put his skills to better use”. I would go farther than that. In fact I did.
When I reported all this to the coffee shop manager, who had gotten complaints about Dick, it confirmed his suspicions. Dick was barred from the premises, and other allied shops in the neighborhood. But that didn’t stop my angry feelings and desire for vengeance. Should I post his photo here? …
In these ways my generalizations about social ills got personalized with feeling, and brought me out of a safe philosophical perspective into the harsh realm of unhappy emotion. In the same period I’ve had good experiences too, but they’re not so emotionally moving. Why is that? How do you ‘weigh’ the emotional content of an experience, whether positive or negative? It’s very subjective. Here are a couple examples.
A family of friends insisted on buying online both books I published, even though I wanted to give them away. They sent me a photo with their bright smiles, holding the books for me to see. Thoughtful and sweet! That was a big lift.
Another acquaintance started a frank and open conversation, sharing problems caused by his upbringing in Lebanon (where the norm is to show feelings openly, among family and friends). The encounter was gratifying. He also quizzed me about why I am reserved. That was uncomfortable, especially since I’ve turned down his several offers to make me a good Middle-Eastern meal, and have a social get together. So he gave me more opportunities for valuable self-awareness and criticism.
Now and then, against the norm, strangers will show a positive spirit, returning a smile or a greeting in passing, or exchanging cheerful comments while waiting for the light to change. That brings a smile. I get a lift too to see someone putting litter in trash cans. Occasionally I even see a particularly conscientious person walking down the sidewalk, looking for litter to clean up! My mother would have been proud of these folks. She did the same. And I do too, most of the time, except when I’m crabby. If I were to throw trash on the sidewalk, which is getting to be the norm in our neighborhood, it would feel disrespectful to my mother (or her memory).
These then are experiences that have shown me the importance of getting emotionally involved, as well as the value of trying to maintain objectivity. The philosophical viewpoint may insulate me from many unhappy feelings, but the distant view isn’t enough to bring happiness. Indeed, it might bring carelessness, which will make happiness impossible. I’m sure of that.
Whatever may be the true cause of these changes, both for the better, and for the worse, I’ve come to know first hand that understanding happiness isn’t enough to bring happiness. Neither will being objective about misery keep it at bay. Practice is vital. If my old lessons about happiness have become only habits of thought, without ‘doing’ what is helpful, and refusing to do what is harmful, I won’t get through new bad times, any better than my family, friends and acquaintances, or the rest of the population in America.
In the end, this is my belief. We all have bad mental states, and every person is needy of compassion, regardless of how happy and fortunate she may appear. Ultimately, compassion is available to us from sources that aren’t in nature. In fact, all mental states, whether positive or negative, are conditions of our inner character – i.e. our spirit. We’re essentially spiritual beings, even while alive ‘in the world’. Whether these mental states are good or bad depends on our choice to do or not do what we think we should. That’s a very real, free and practical choice for every person – you and me. It’s not an imaginative fantasy about some conceptual ethereal disembodied will-o-the-wisp, the way that doubters might like to style any talk about spirit.