Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Choosing Happiness Deux

Sometimes writing a blog is like playing basketball on a beach. You toss the ball down not knowing where or if it will bounce back. When I emerged from work to read the comments on yesterday's blog, Choosing Happiness, I felt as though I'd walked into the Boston Garden. Joy, Iris, Mister Will, thank you!

Yesterday, I put forth the following assertions regarding happiness (note: for the purpose of this discussion, we're using happiness as a proxy for all "positive" emotion and unhappiness for "negative" emotion.)
  1. You can choose to be truly and sincerely happy at any time and in any situation.
  2. If you can choose to be happy, then anyone can choose to be happy.
  3. Being able to choose to be happy is not a requirement to be happy.
  4. However, there are times when being happy can be advantageous.
  5. One can correlate biochemical states with emotional states. However, that doesn't mean that biochemistry causes emotion. The causal influence flows in both directions.
  6. Since you can influence your emotions through direct manipulation of biochemistry and your biochemistry by changing your emotions, it's not particularly important where you start. Whatever works for you.
Mandatory Happiness?
Joy commented saying:
I find at times that I get frustrated that some people insist on their right to be unhappy; so I get unhappy about other people insisting on being unhappy...
I believe that Joy's sentiment is one we've all experienced. Chronically unhappy people tend to be downers, perhaps not initially, but certainly over time. Many relationships are built on commiseration as partners and friends share their addiction to downers.

Commiseration is a strong bond, but it fails when one of the participants starts to get happy. Then the happy person is faced with an apparent trilema: maintain the relationship through continued commiseration, drag the unhappy person into happiness, or scale back on the relationship (perhaps completely) . Not wanting to endure the side-effects of continued exposure to misery and not wanting to end the relationship leaves one choice: make the other person happy! Knowing that one can choose to be happy exacerbates this.

Although only you can choose to make you happy, you can certainly do a lot to influence another's choices. However, your influence is compromised when you start to judge the influencee's unhappiness as "bad". Whenever we start talking about "rights" we know that judgements are in play. You wouldn't talk about someone's right to stand or someone's right to breathe or someone's right to think (OK, some people might). However, the only time we talk about someone's right to do something is when there's something questionable about it.

The main point is that neither unhappiness nor happiness is mandatory.

The Aesthetics of Happiness
Regarding Joy's comment, Iris said:
For me it is not so much that I do unhappiness because of other people's unhappiness, but I clearly do avoidance around those people. I was just thinking this morning about one person that I clearly have been avoiding. I told myself during my run that I should get over this stubborn behavior. My happiness could be an inspiration to this person!

I think it is my belief that it could take a long time for this person to choose happiness that has me keep my distance. I tell myself that I'd rather spend time on other people instead... Hmm... it all goes back again to what we want to spend our time on...
Iris, touches on an interesting question: what is the difference between preference and unhappiness?

There are lots of people who I would place in the category of energy sponge; their moods and attitudes tend to soak up all the energy in the room. Unhappiness is super absorbant.

There are clearly practical aspects of working alongside people who are energy sponges, especially if they get unhappy about decisions made by the group or they resist changes or they drag their feet and complain while completing tasks. Energy sponges also tend to consume a lot of time. So, you could choose to avoid them simply for practical reasons and do so without ever becoming unhappy about it.

Alternatively, you might avoid them as a matter of aesthetics as you would avoid a can of dark gray paint when you're painting your day bright yellow. Again, without ever getting unhappy about it.

Or, you could get all unhappy about another person's unhappiness. In my personal experience, this happens when I feel somehow responsible to do something about it. For me, it's not someone's unhappiness that makes me unhappy, it's my feeling obliged to "make" him happy that leads to my unhappiness. Of course, feeling obliged is also a choice.

Too Much Obliged
In response to Iris, Joy said:
But then sometimes the person is in the unhappy mood and I feel the tension because they want me to buy into their unhappy beliefs and I want them to let go of the unhappy beliefs. Sometimes it works just to agree on disagreeing. Other times, I leave or change my plans, but often I start by being annoyed.
We are often so uncomfortable around unhappiness in others, that we end up using annoyance to motivate ourselves to address it. The tension and discomfort we derive from obligation is exacerbated when we not only feel obliged to help the unhappy person become happy, but also want everyone involved to be happy in the midst of her unhappiness.

On a large corporate conference call, one of the participants in a remote location kind of lost her cool and blew up. There was a long silence and then another participant forged ahead as though nothing had happened. I interrupted her and suggested that we not move ahead until we address the concerns voiced by the first person. The call became more than silent; it was as though all sound were being sucked out of the phone system.

I addressed the first woman saying, "Beth, it's clear that you're quite concerned about this matter. Perhaps a large conference call isn't the best forum to address your concerns. Could we talk about this later with a smaller group of people whom you think should be involved?"

Silence. And then Beth responded saying, "Thank you. That would be great."

It's amazing how uncomfortable we can make ourselves around the unhappiness of others, trying to ignore the elephant in the room as it were. However, in our paradigm, discomfort, tension and annoyance are also choices.

When Exactly?
Mister Will brought up another really great question: when is happiness a choice and when is it not? He wrote:
For me, choosing happiness is often about making the choice NOT TO CONTINUE WITH UNHAPPINESS (or depression), and I'm sure we could have a lively discussion on how (or whether) to differentiate between the two.

Again speaking solely for myself, situations and events can be catalysts for the onset of unhappiness/depression, and the onset does indeed seem beyond my control. I might accurately report that, from a feeling/perception perspective, I FIND MYSELF DEPRESSED in response to situations or events, and that initial "finding" never feels like a choice.

The power of choice comes in the decision to give over and indulge in the feelings (wallow?), or take steps I know will change my state of mind despite the situation or event that precipitated it. And damn if I don't sometimes choose a good wallow. Over the years, though, and with the help of conversations like these, I have become acutely aware that, whatever the genesis of the feeling, continuation and yes, wallowing, is a choice - and that has considerably shortened those periods of intense unhappiness that at one time seemed totally beyond my control.
Thanks Mister WIll!

I believe that we can always choose happiness, but there's an important prerequisite: awareness. You know, like if a choice falls in the forest and no one's around to make it...

Sometimes unhappiness (sadness, depression, fear) creeps up on us slowly and like frogs missing the opportunity to leap from a pot of water slowly heating to a boil we miss the opportunity to choose happiness. Sometimes our awareness is only triggered after the fact (when we're cooked), and then we can choose to either wallow or wade out.

At other times, the sensory overload of circumstances overwhelms us sweeping us so quickly into unhappiness that we completely miss any opportunity to choose otherwise. Someone leaps out of a dark alley off an empty street late at night; you get scared. Wait, you said there'd be a choice, but I missed it!

And then sometimes, we simply ignore the choice presented us like an alcoholic who after circling the block ten times "suddenly" finds himself sitting in the bar. The choices were being made as he circled the block, not when he "decided" to walk through the doorway.

The important thing is to distinguish the fact of choice and the awareness of choice. Practically speaking, not seeing a choice is as good as not having one. So becoming good at choosing happiness depends on improving awareness of when and where the choices lie.

The first step in developing awareness is assumption; if you assume that you can choose to be happy at any time and in any situation, then you're much more likely to see the opportunities to do so than if you assume otherwise.

Thanks guys for such thought provoking comments! Tomorrow we'll shift from what into how.

Happy Tuesday,
Teflon

1 comment:

  1. I'm looking forward to the how.
    - and how to deal with situations like the phoneconference if she had not been content with dealing with the unhappiness later.

    ReplyDelete

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