On Happiness

Note: This post begins with an open letter to Tim Ferris.

Dear Tim,

I am a great, albeit reluctant, admirer of your podcast. I’m reluctant only because there are so many podcasts I want to listen to. And yet, when the time comes to choose, I generally pick yours. It’s addictively thought-provoking, plus on occasion you say things that somehow improve my life. I keep waiting for this to stop. (I’m far from your target demographic.) But no such luck.

Four days ago, in catch-up mode, I listened to your interview of Brené Brown. At minute 74 you asked her about the word “successful.” You both agreed that it’s a dangerous word (as do I), but then you said: “I think happiness is actually similar. That’s a scary, nebulous, dangerous term as well.” And she whole-heartedly agreed.

Each time I listen to this brief exchange, I do a sharp intake of breath — feeling a stab of dismay and concern. I admire both of you and you are quite different. To have two such disparate personas, both of whom I judge insightful, agreeing as strongly as you did says a lot.

Ordinarily I would just accept this and move on, lurking on the fringes. But not this time.

The word happiness may be the single most important word in my interior lexicon. I think of it as my lighthouse — the feeling I use to steer myself — especially through the perilous currents of life. For me, it’s the opposite of dangerous.

Why, I ask myself, did you call it scary and dangerous? (Nebulous I get.) I have two theories.

The first has to do with your basic definition of happiness. My guess is that your reactive (instant) definition of “happiness” is what I’d call “pleasure.” For me pleasure has an external, non-relational focus; it’s associated with things. It’s not inherently bad, but it has a slippery slope. Initially people experience pleasure as happiness, but then they slide into way too much of whatever the thing is.

So I wonder if you’re thinking of “happiness” as that clinging to things that once made you happy, but are all-too-easy to overdo? The obvious example is alcohol. In moderation it’s a great source of happiness. Overdo it, though, and it can ruin your life.

The crux is that you can do the same with anything. Generally speaking, coding websites makes me happy. But if I did it 12 hours/day every day I’d start to hate it and head into horrible mind-states. In any event, if that’s what you’re thinking of (what I’d call clinging to pleasure), I’d agree; that’s scary and dangerous.

A second possible reason for your calling “happiness” dangerous is the popularization (bastardization?) of the word that began somewhere around 2000. The first time I saw anything published about it was in 1998, with the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler’s book, The Art of Happiness. Not long after that, though, everywhere I turned there were books and articles about happiness — and a lot of it is what I’d call self-help tripe. Their book is first-rate. But much of this other stuff? Ugh. So perhaps it gives happiness a bad name with some people, including you?

It doesn’t with me. But I had already locked onto “happiness” as my lighthouse well before this epidemic of self-help “happy” pablum.

When I call happiness to mind, it’s as if a door opens with the possibility of my “best self” walking through. I see choices I might otherwise have missed. It’s usually just little things. But they add up. And sometimes it’s very big things. (In case it’s helpful, I’ve explained more about this below.)

I put these thoughts together and I’m fairly sure our difference on this word is a semantic thing. Words are just words. Fingers pointing at the moon and all that.

What is not clear to me is do you have a lighthouse like mine? Is there some simple feeling or concept or phrase you can point yourself towards that then often improves the quality of your life? I have the sense that you do — and you’ve probably spoken of it often. There’s a good chance it’s something from Stoicism. But I’ve missed whatever it is in the barrage of words and ideas.

So I have a request of you…. Would you be willing to tell me (perhaps on Twitter) whatever it is that is your lighthouse — that helps keep you on the wonderful, amazing track your life is clearly on?

Thank you so much for your podcast and keep up the great work.

Warm regards,
Anna Belle

How Happiness Became My Lighthouse

A lighthouse I created using a wonderful Tut+ tutorial
A lighthouse image I created using a first-rate Tuts+ tutorial.

I fixed on happiness as my beacon in 1997. That’s when my mother-in-law Win died — the same day as Princess Diana actually. The last few years of her life she suffered terribly from Alzheimer’s. It was a tragedy to watch this beautiful, vivacious, resourceful woman implode on herself.

For me, the hardest moment came when I ran into one of her dearest 40-plus-year friends at the grocery store. Eleanor told me Win would no longer talk to her. She said Win had shut herself off from her inner circle because she was ashamed, mistakenly believing her friends loved her for her intelligence. Of course this wasn’t so, but she was too far gone to see this.

A few weeks later I was talking to my friend Nancy about her mother who also had Alzheimer’s. Nancy talked about how happy her mother was, even though she no longer recognized much of anyone. I was flabbergasted and asked Nancy how could this possibly be? Nancy said it was simple. Her mother had always been a happy sort.

I don’t know why, but somehow the universe smiled on me in that moment. In 1997 I was in the very early stages of recovering from what could be called a horrible midlife crisis. I was, in a word, a wreck. Hearing about Nancy’s mother, I suddenly realized that if I wanted to be happy when I got old, I needed to start working on it right that moment. So that’s what I did. I paid attention to what made me happy and did that whenever I could.

How Happiness Works For Me

In 1997, and to this day, I experience happiness as a simple emotion. I just feel it in my body. Always I smile with no thought or effort; it just happens. And usually I relax and feel this quality of spaciousness and possibility. It’s as if my head clears.

For me it’s plebeian and down-to-earth — not hoi-ti-toi, stuck up, or special like I think “joy” can be. To oversimplify, the way it works in me is when I’m at one of those commonplace daily crossroads, I try to pause and consider what choice would make me happier.

That’s all. It’s no one thing. And it’s no big deal.

For example, three days ago I was close to ready to publish this post, but then noticed I was heading into some vaguely tense, driven mindstate. The idea of making applesauce while listening to podcasts popped into my head — and made me happy. And that was indeed the better choice for that hour.

What is a big deal is I’ve been making these tiny choices over and over and over again since 1997, and those itty-bitty choices mount up. Around 2002 I realized my happiness set-point was changing. I hadn’t looked for that to happen so quickly. I just wanted to be happier (or at least less unhappy) in the moment.

One of my happiness mainstays — a choice I made many evenings and weekends — was to code. (Hence the name of this site.) I spewed websites and blogs for a dozen or so years, including a private website where I could be as bad as I wanted to be. I remember a particularly cheesy way I learned JavaScript was to code an ornate dark blue image that on hover read “Mommy loves Web design.” It was a total embarrassment and it made me smile every time I moused over it.

I still code websites to make me happy. Or I make applesauce. Or I take a walk. Or I drink strong coffee. There are a million and more ways.

My other mainstay for happiness is when I can help others be happy too. Or whatever it is they think of it as. It probably all boils down to a strong sense that we are loved and loveable. But figuring that kind of stuff out is beyond my paygrade. I’m just a happy web diva after all.