Tuesday, September 16, 2014
"Fine": Why We Avoid Too Much Happiness
I'm writing a novel as a side project, and I've been noticing something that every veteran fiction writer already knows. The story is only interesting when there's struggle, strife, conflict. When the main character feels creative, joyful, and whole -- SHE'S SO BORING. I'm bored with her happiness, and I'm the writer! My novel's future readers would never get to the second page of joy before abandoning the book. But if the main character were always miserable, that would be boring too. The rule is, the character has to go up and down, keeping an average mood below medium, punctuated by short stints of debatable happiness.
I notice the same thing in my conversations with acquaintances at work. The two correct answers to the question "How are you doing?" are either: 1) "fine," but said with a bored or cynical look, or 2) "horrible...let me tell you about my short-term slightly difficult situation with my landlord." Having recovered from a family health crisis with flying colors, I've discovered that the correct answer is never, "Wow, I am just giving thanks for life every day! I feel like I won the lottery! Life is a precious gift, you know?" People just back away when you're that happy.
Two questions emerge from these observations. First, why are we like this? Second, what can we do to start expressing happiness safely?
Why do we feel happiness is boring? Anyone who has experienced happiness knows it's anything but boring. It's an exhilarating state of appreciation and presence. It feels like you're connected to everything, including the subtler aspects of the universe, whatever they are. Certainly you feel more connected to yourself, and more connected to others. There's nothing boring about it. So I don't buy the idea that we actually feel that happiness is boring.
I've got a different explanation -- we are scared of happiness. We say it's boring because we want to back away from it, out of fear. Once happiness comes, we're afraid it'll go. The realization that once we find happiness, we will eventually lose it, seems somehow worse than the continued day-to-day trudgery of a luke-warm life. Better to stick with what we already know than risk the comfort of sameness in search of variety.
Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks of the Hendricks Institute teach about this fear. They call it the "Upper Limit Problem" -- the habit of creating an upper limit for the happiness and pleasure one can receive in one's life. It manifests in relationships (their area of expertise), but also in every aspect of daily life: work, home, play.
You might find yourself objecting, "Look, we can't all be happy all the time!" Well, maybe we can, we don't know. I'm just sure we haven't tried. Of course, there are circumstances that can make it very hard to be happy. It's important to recognize that these painful circumstances can actually work to bring us together, to help create bonds that didn't exist before the pain. These bonds, by the way, can lead to happiness. A recent study in Psychological Science supports this idea. This article explains how students who were asked to fish around for balls in an ice-cold water bucket and to maintain wall squats for a long period of time felt more solidarity with the other participants who were asked to do the same difficult and painful tasks than did students who did gentler versions of the tasks. Misery loves company; and maybe company loves misery.
So to keep our connections, maybe we become focused on "maintaining" rather than thriving. If everyone else is suffering, suffering with them is the kind thing to do, it seems. Perhaps this is the case, at least in the US, because it's what most people are doing. This is not the case everywhere; variations in individual emotional expression seems more common in some cultures than others. Regardless, if it's the case that we're all trying to avoid being separated out of our communities, then in order for happiness to rule the day, we'd all need to express it at once.
So in answer to the "how can we express happiness safely?" question, perhaps the answer is this: slowly but surely, amp up your responses to your work mates and your friends when they ask how you are.
Day 1: "I feel pretty good. Got lots of sleep last night."
Day 2: "Wow, I'm loving my husband these days. He's just a beautiful person."
Day 3: "Some days are rough, but today feels exciting! I'm grateful to be alive. You look happy, too! Are you?"
I'm going to try this experiment the rest of the week. If you feel like trying it too, please let me know how it goes!