There was a poem on my bedroom wall when I was a child. It was something like,
Happiness is like a butterfly;
The more you chase it, the more it will elude you.
But if you turn your attention to other things,
It will come and softly sit on your shoulder.
This theme has been coming up for me again and again in the past weeks: If you strive for something, you can’t reach it.
The other day at the gym, I listened to an interview about writing with Lynda Barry on To the Best of Our Knowledge. Barry teaches writing classes and was discussing with interviewer Steve Paulson the methods she encourages her students to employ. Every task she gives them is designed to silence their inner critic. She wants to get her students back to an attitude of playfulness about their writing. Paulson asked her, well, at some point, though, you want to produce something good, you want to be a successful writer, right? Barry said that, if she thinks about whether her writing is “good” or not, it’s after it’s finished. If you start out writing with the idea that it has to be good or that you want it to make you a success, you’ll not be able to get anywhere with it. But if you write playfully and for no purpose but that of creating, you may well find success. I think it was Anne Lamott who talked about this in Bird by Bird, the phenomenon in which a second novel is a lot longer coming than a first, simply because now you’ve got something to live up to and that desire to be good—or to be better—gets in the way of creativity.
When I first read and followed the activities in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I became annoyed because so little of it seemed to focus on actually working on projects. What on earth could a daily walk have to do with writing? Writing was one thing I absolutely couldn’t do while walking. And what was all of this about making collages and writing three pages a day that I’d never look at again? How would I have enough time to write if I did all of this stuff? At the time, I sort of took it on faith that the professor who recommended the book to me had done so for a reason, and I just trudged through the activities. But now, years later, I think I’m finally starting to understand the sneaking up on creativity that Cameron was trying to lead her readers to.
This has been showing up in reference to happiness, too. I saw it in a comment on Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project Facebook page. I read it in Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss, in which three groups were asked to listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The group given no instructions found the music more enjoyable than the group told to monitor their happiness while listening or the group told to “try to be happy.”
I stumbled upon it while perusing my friend Rebecca’s blog:
I did on [sic] the work once on “I should be happier”. In a nutshell, I realized that this belief actually moves me away from happiness because when I am not happy and I believe this thought, I judge myself, compare myself, feel broken, etc. I lose sight of all happiness I have when I believe that thought. Without the thought I am free to be happy or not, but free – and much more likely to be happy, because there is nothing to fight against, no guilt, etc.
Like I said, this is coming up for me everywhere now. When I first think of these things, the first thought that comes to my mind is, “Oh, crap. And here I am doing a Happiness Project.” But then I take a step back and a deep breath and remember that all I’m doing is trying to set the stage for a peaceful, meaningful, joyful life. I don’t tell myself, “I will be happy. I must be happy. I should be happy.” (Or at least I don’t set out to say these things. Sometimes they just kind of pop in there.) Happiness isn’t the goal; it’s a guiding principle by which I judge my actions and resolutions. I look at my life and see that there are many things that hinder my mood and my relationships, especially with my children. I’m grouchy when I’m tired. Well, let’s see what happens when I get more sleep. I feel annoyed and even fearful when I find myself wishing the moments away during the day. OK, so I’ll take a deep breath and be in the moment, and see how that changes things. I do hope that, by doing these things that are kind of tangential to happiness, I might just find myself feeling happier. But if not, I’m still eating healthier, sleeping more, yelling less, deepening relationships. These are things worth doing regardless of the size of the payoff in bliss.
I’m reminded of Isaiah 58:9-12 again-
If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking of wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.
If you do x, y, and z for the purpose of receiving good things in return, you’ll be disappointed. You do these things because they’re the right things to do, and if you do this work in that spirit, you just might get even better things in return than just a transient elevation of mood. I’m looking for something deeper and broader and longer lasting than my own happiness. I’m looking to “raise up the foundations of many generations” the only way I can: by working on the things I can reach.
At the beginning of this project, I found myself hung up on the idea that happiness results from virtuous action. I think I’m starting to understand this concept a little better. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl tells a story about working with his fellow concentration camp prisoners out in the bitter cold with inadequate clothing and no subcutaneous fat to help insulate them. They would look forward all morning to the time they would get to spend a few minutes warming themselves at a small stove. When the time came, their pleasure at this small amount of warmth was immense. They were practically joyful, even in the middle of such brutal and miserable circumstances. But there were guards who seemed to derive equal pleasure from denying the prisoners this comfort. Not only would they not let the prisoners warm themselves, sometimes they would knock over the stove and scatter the coals through the snow.
While virtuous action leads to happiness, someone who appears happy has not necessarily become so by engaging in virtuous action. It’s like how hard work can lead to material success, but material success isn’t always the result of hard work. The best bet appears to be focusing on the virtuous action rather than on the happiness. But what’s the difference, really between the two types of joy, that derived from an appreciation for the relief of suffering and that derived from the infliction of suffering? The sense I get is that the latter type involves a bitter core of experience. It’s not a joy originating from the soul, but one that lays on the surface, protecting the person experiencing it from opening themselves up and exposing their inner selves to the light. The former is a simple joy, but it’s an honest, transparent joy. Clearly, for Frankl it was also a sustaining joy.