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Happiness

by on March 31, 2022

Happiness

by Marco M. Pardi

The life of the intellect is the best and pleasantest for man, because the intellect more than anything else IS the man. Thus it will be the happiest life as well.” Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics 10.7

All comments are welcome and will receive a reply. All previous posts are open for comment.

Although I had heard this continually since childhood I was still a bit surprised when, in my mid-forties, I was told my staff of city, county state, and federal employees said my facial expression always looked “sad” or “unhappy” and it was affecting their morale. My response: “That’s the way my face hangs and I’m not getting plastic surgery.”

Among efforts at labeling human states, and even projected onto or detected in non-humans, happiness seems to come very close to leading the pack if it does not already do so. In the assignment I cited above I was the director of an epidemiology program addressing “Special Diseases”. We had a related component devoted to HIV/AIDS. The majority of our cases were connected to prostitution and I.V. needle sharing and other drug/alcohol usage. While some people automatically presume those are behaviors found only among low income, transient people our surveillance of public and private medical providers indicated otherwise. Therefore, I decided to venture into the domain of hospitals providing in-patient 28 day drug/alcohol treatment programs to assess and reach populations not commonly seen in pubic health settings. I specifically intended to offer free on-site confidential HIV testing, bracketed by pre and post test counseling and referral for services if needed. I obtained an on-site interview with the director of a major private hospital program.

Our meeting began in his office but soon included a tour of the facility. Everything was certainly “high end” and the staff were all well credentialed. Finally, we settled in the Group Therapy room. All the many chairs were faced toward one wall, as in a classroom. On that wall was a large poster chart with the heading How I Feel Now. Below that heading were columns of affective states such as: Tired; Sad; Confused; Hopeless; Lonely, and on and on for what were certainly more than fifty, all rather negative states. I was Put Off, but that wasn’t on the chart.

Perhaps the Director read my expression, or maybe he had been through this drill before. He explained that as group sessions began the therapist called for the group to study the list and pick a state they felt. Discussion would then ensue. I had assumed as much and was already thinking of my silent objections, which I would not voice. Questions like, What does “Now” mean?

Regular readers know I place very high value in Buddhist philosophy. In my view, which I share with others, Buddhism is not a religion, it is a means of self discovery in the sense of Ultimate Self and personal self all at once. As a tool it is like holding a child’s toy telescope in hand and when turned one way it opens to the macro universe and when turned the other it opens to the micro universe. Realization occurs when we become aware that we are a manifestation of At Onceness: the perception that macro and micro are separate and distinct is only a perception, a perspective emanating from how we hold the telescope. At any given moment what we perceive as an affective state contains its opposite; to exist, Up must contain Down, Here must contain There, Grief must contain Joy. An easy way to experience this reality is to SCUBA dive in salt water on a moonless night. Drop down about 100′ and set your BCD to hold your depth. With your light off so you don’t see your exhaust bubbles, roll around and then try to orient yourself to up and down. Yes, there’s that moment until you turn on your light and see which way your bubbles are going. Scary, isn’t it? Imagine being an astronaut in deep space.

Years ago, while examining my own experiences and pursuing my studies of how people dealt with theirs, especially the traumatic experiences, I concluded that many therapeutic models were structured toward an improper goal. They were designed to move a client from a disapproved state to an approved one, completely separating the two.

It has been said that a person cannot experience happiness unless and until they have experienced grief. This, then, tells me that to appreciate the measure of one we must be aware of the measure of the other. The Anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, in his seminal work Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge tells us that his informant, Don Juan, a Yaqui brujo, frequently reminded him that Death is always just over your left shoulder. In the same way, grievous experiences are always with us, forming the context from which we experience happiness. In contrast to the trite advice that It will get better I advised clients that it will NOT get better; They will get better at handling it. Heard the one about Forgive and Forget? Show of hands for those who think they have done either. I am not suggesting we walk around half aggrieved and half joyous. I am suggesting that we acknowledge and we own that part of our history which is as valid and contributory as any and every other part of our current reality. But doing so should not become a fixation. An example given to beginning students of Buddhist meditation is that of the monkey in the tree tops. Meditation is not a process of inducing coma. It is a process of seeing through both ends of the telescope at once, of seeing the infinite through the large and the small. As we open our minds in ALL directions we experience thoughts: Monkeys in the tree tops. The thoughts are there. The thoughts are memories, suppositions, conclusions, hopes, fears, and etc. But once we yield and chase the monkey the monkey turns and captures us; it becomes “the monkey on our back” as the old saying goes. Attempting to prevent that by banishing thought will not work, unless once has achieved senseless coma. In fact, “banishing thought” becomes just another monkey to chase, and we are off and running. Let the monkeys run. Recognize them in their context and let them go.

For over a month we’ve been watching Donald Trump’s mentor, Vladimir Putin, invade and devastate Ukraine. Every day and every night we see video footage of villages and whole cities, mostly civilian targets, destroyed. Those people that survive are fleeing with what they can carry in numbers not seen since WWII. As a parent and grandparent I am very deeply affected by what I see on the faces of all the people, adults and children alike. Perhaps more to the point, I am a child of war myself and, though far too young to actively “remember” the trauma, I lived with the familial effects well into my teen-age years.

I find myself watching cable news for updates, deeply aware that this is not a video game or a Super Bowl. This is horrible trauma being impressed upon people in ways we will not fully understand for years to come. Even if the attacks stopped today, what would the more than 3 ½ million refugees return to? Who will rebuild the homeland and will it be done such that later generations will wonder Did something happen here? In the 1960’s I was a guest in the home of a German physician who had been a military doctor in Hitler’s Werhmacht and a proud member of the NAZI party. Since he had shown me an elaborate album of photos I asked him about WWII. Each of us spoke only a few words of the other’s language and had no other in common. Yet, he managed to say “You wouldn’t understand”. Well, no, I think I would not have understood if he had tried to hand me a justification for what was done.

I have no doubt that every reader of this piece has a memory stored file of experiences spanning a broad spectrum from tragic to joyous. And, no, I don’t think we find many people, if any, who truly understand. But we go through our daily lives almost always without a sign, a “tell” as gamblers put it. Because daily life is a superficially neutral state. A person walking constantly about in apparent “happiness” is as suspect as one in apparently constant grief. Something is off center.

Readers of my column know I have a fairly extensive list of subjects I carry on about, sometimes in ways some people find unpleasant. I confess: I hope to disturb people into action. Let’s take a lesson from The Time Machine and remember that the blissful Eloi were eaten by the not so blissful Morlocks. Happiness can be pleasant, even productive, if experienced and understood in a context of justified cost.

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15 Comments
  1. Ray Rivers permalink

    Thanks Marco – insightful as always – Being linked in various ways to those victims of Putin’s outrage, I feel their pain as if if I were there too – which I might be, were I only a bit younger to serve in their foreign brigade. It’s not to revenge but to shelter and protect. It is a sad chapter we are living through and we in the west are complicit in this gross violation of human rights, the most fundamental being the right to life. We all failed the fledgling peaceful democracy called Ukraine.

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  2. Thank you, Ray. A couple of older guys like ourselves would be excellent snipers. I can imagine your feelings, knowing all you have done for Ukraine in the past and your connections to the people and culture.

    My brother in law told us the Russian woman living across the street from him hung out a huge Russian flag on her porch. I told him I would send an email to the Ukrainian President informing him I would pay the transportation for the soldier who told the Russian naval ship to “go f##k yourself” if he would stand on my brother in law’s lawn and shout that at the woman.

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  3. Mike Stamm permalink

    I wonder more about those of us who feel that we should be feeling grief, sometimes…but don’t. In the past 8 years I have lost both parents and two very good, longstanding friends…and I haven’t felt much of anything.

    This morning my wife–who is a devout Catholic, unlike me, I’m not anything, devout or otherwise–was talking about the Second Coming and how in its aftermath there would be a new world, one of nothing but peace and happiness, with no pain or suffering. And I thought–but did not say–that such a place, such a state of existence, is impossible. Happiness and sorrow or grief are only possible in contrast with their opposites. Just as Good cannot exist without Evil. So the conventional descriptions of Heaven and Hell cannot exist.

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    • Thank you, Mike. Some people seem to realize that grief over the deceased is more for themselves. Apparently you are such, able to put things in perspective and context. Your wife’s position being a belief is unlikely to yield to logic.

      I would like to ask Putin a simple question: Za chto? What for?

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  4. Julie permalink

    I really enjoyed that Marco, I feel you have captured into words my feelings around “happiness “. I feel as humans we are generally complicated and emotions are multilayered as you described so well, particularly as we grow older and have more life experiences. This experience, for me anyway, gives me a much broader perspective, more understanding and compassion than what I had when I was younger. Developing those qualities over my life, I feel makes me a better person and I feel happier every year I grow older. I am finding life so much richer and happier as I grow older. Thank you for such a beautiful perspective put into words ❤

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  5. Thank you, Julie. Your comments hit home with me. Although I was always, even in childhood, a friend to the disabled and the “foreigner”, the majority of my years could be described as mostly self absorbed and even cold blooded. In the past few years I have been surprised at my empathy, as if it’s coming from a place I didn’t know about. I think at least some of it comes from being a parent and grandparent. I can still “do the job” if it is needed, but it’s as if I’ve grown an additional side to me.

    Long ago I found that the hardest thing to forget is something I’m trying to forget.

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  6. Dana permalink

    Marco, I can empathize with the comments about your facial expressions (or lack thereof?).

    My experience is different, but we all have varying situations. Over the years when trying to be myself (not socially masking/camouflaging), I’ve had some pretty shocking, hurtful and confusing feedback and comments. These ranged from, “My family thinks you’re stand-offish” (from a former romantic partner) to being called “bitchy” when I was simply being quiet, or deep in thought, or didn’t have a smile plastered on my face every moment.

    My default setting is kind of joyful, especially in the morning. This does not mean I am filled with glee all the time. Those who are connected to me intimately know otherwise. In reality, I nearly always wake with anxiety when I know I’ll be handling unexpected situations with a diverse group of strangers. It isn’t optimal for me, but I typically get through it by focusing on the meaningful connections.

    When assisting the public with various needs and issues, some of us are forced to appear “happy.” This applies even when deeply grieving or dealing with major life change and more. Bills have to be paid somehow. Over the years I often felt I couldn’t “win.” If I’m mostly quiet, which is best for me. It’s often mistakenly assumed that something is wrong. If I’m energetic, fun, entertaining, some people seem to feed off this. But there are also comments such as, “Are you ALWAYS this happy?” Uh, are you always this concerned with other people’s moods?

    Since social situations can confuse me, I rarely know if I’m getting on someone’s nerves, or if they’re enjoying the song and dance (some of my methods for maintaining a cheerful mood). I mostly do it all for me, so I can survive and navigate the challenging world of public scrutiny.

    Are there truly so-called “negative” emotions? In recent years I’ve learned to avoid the notion of “positive” or “negative” thoughts and feelings. I have decided to permit and even try to be transparent about moods. Of course this has its limits. We should be able to say, “I’m feeling gloomy, sad, lonely, angry, irritated, envious….. et al.” The idea that we must always “think positively” is weird to me. What does that even mean? It feels akin to the FLDS (polygamist cult) reminder to “keep sweet.” How odd does that sound? In that particular cult the command is mostly directed at women and girls.

    Human thoughts and moods are not binary, any more than human gender is. I prefer to allow and accept the entire range not only for myself, but also for others. Doing so might inspire meaningful conversation, evoke empathy, and help improve overall mental health. These are critical discussions, and thank you for inspiring thought about them.

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    • Thank you, Dana. As always, your analysis is insightful and rings true in many ways. Your wealth and depth of experience has brought you into a place of inner peace, even though at times there are still internal struggles. I think that is one of the most confusing adaptations in the minds of others; many people suffer from the inability to understand that the person they are looking at is at inner peace.

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      • Dana permalink

        Thanks Marco. When you have time, could you provide a more detailed explanation of what you mean in this closing statement?

        “Happiness can be pleasant, even productive, if experienced and understood in a context of justified cost.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, Dana. In writing that statement I was considering how we “balance the books”. For example, every non-human companion I have had has been a rescue. In addition to my own happiness at having them with me, I knew I would derive much happiness from providing them with a safe, loving home. Yet, I knew that, normally, I would outlive them. Having been through the deep and profound sadness of having to help them “cross over”, I’ve known each and every time what I would go through when the time came. Yet, I do it, and will do it until I am no longer able. I see that in one way as a justified cost. In another way I see the experience as one which, though very painful, helps me to develop myself so as to better care for the next rescue.

          We do the same with partners, with or without the formal bond of marriage. We enter into a deep and happy relationship knowing that unless the unlikely happens and we perish together, the “’til death do us part” almost always applies to one going and one remaining behind. Yet, in our silent bereavement, we ask ourselves, Would we do it again? For many of us the answer is Yes.

          As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent, when they are not.”

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  7. jkent33 permalink

    As I read your blog I kept thinking in a totally different prospective. I have this forever look on my face most of the time; that when I’m out and about, I’m grinning at people in a sort of forever fixed appearance. It can change when something out of my control takes over my thoughts. Like everyone who admits to the truth people can and always will disappoint us. The quicker we accept that the happier we appear and feel.

    I associate another word with happiness I’ve developed from years of being out in the public with my career. I primarily dealt in the mechanical engineering field but even in that field it required exchanging dialogue with decision-makers. Meaning, I had to make someone happy. I quickly learned not everybody registers that feeling across a level playing field. Its not enough for us to be happy to be fulfilled. We must also be “satisficed”! So a vital component to being happy is also being in a state of satisfaction. In a nutshell, the goal is to be happy and satisficed at the same time.

    Each part of life is of course set up over time. If we stay with something long enough, we generally accept it; by being happy and satisfied, where we are for extended periods of time. Think how in the 50s going forward, we got it in our heads that we needed to change or we suffered from the seven-year-itch. Marilyn Monroe starred it a movie by the same title, that it in a way gave us license to stray from our partners. That dichotomy between happiness and satisfaction plays a big role in our health both mental and physical. Lack of happiness/satisfaction opens the door to a myriad of diseases that grows by degrees to lead the way for life threating conditions. Strokes, alcoholism, cancers and other autoimmune disorders leading to an early grave.

    There are safer ways to approach being happier leading to satisfaction. I like to do something physical with my body that irons out the wrinkles. I have a pretty well equipped home gym that provides me with relief from the things that interfere with my happiness and satisfaction. Everything done in moderation will bring about happiness and satisfaction. I developed a taste for a dram or so of Italian Primitivo wines imbibed in moderation; along with a modicum of Sativa pot called Green Crack, soothes my soul erasing any thing that impedes my happiness and satisfaction.

    It must be working because my BP was 130/78 this afternoon and except for some Synthroid for my thyroid my vitals are spot on for my age of 75. My mental health matches my physical health. I’m very happy to be alive living in an extraordinarily nice comfortable home with modest means to live a life that has given me the freedom to make 99% of my decisions on my own. Being pragmatic, I accept it is build on sand because one disaster brings it all crushing around our ankles. But I got here at this juncture on my own and can always scratch out another place to hang my hat if it comes to that. The people currently living in Ukraine face the inevitable we all should be concerned about because nothing is forever. Their reasons for being happy differ from ours but in order to survive we must all carry the same courage.

    There are thousands of platitudes we hear everyday that promises happiness and joy, but none are as meaningful and the drum beat we make in our hearts!

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    • Thank you, Jerry. Your infusion of the concept Satisfaction reminds me of the Buddhist saying: “When you love what you have you will have what you love.”

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  8. Here I am at last, but still without any idea what to say. Your offering, once I found the calm necessary to read it, was excellent. It reminded me of the conversations we used to share so very many years ago. I’ve long thought of my life as a wholistic experience, with good and bad balancing each other. I rarely feel either joy or sorrow, usually landing somewhere emotionally in the middle.

    A friend once scolded me to “smile”, claiming that others were asking what he had done to me to make me angry/sad. I refuted his claim, as I was feeling neither at the time, and doubted severely that anyone had paid enough attention to me to notice, or would ask him the question if they had. I guess I just have “resting bitch face”, but it’s more effort than it’s worth to wear the mask that would change the visage.

    Your description of the mental facility brought with it memories of my own experience in such a place. My “doctor” (briefly seen each morning) would ask how we felt, then try to somehow alter it to a state of being more amenable to him. On one particularly angry morning, he refused to hear what I had to say, telling me instead how I should go about changing my state of emotion. “Do you want to leave here trained or untrained?” he asked, to which I responded by barking like a seal. My group therapy was a much better experience, and while not perfect in its execution, holds a good deal of credit for my “recovery”.

    I’m not sure what any of this has to do with your offering. I eschew the concept of happiness in favor of the equally elusive state of Zen. I prefer silence to sound, solitude to social interaction, and the search for an inner truth to any established form of “tradition”. Thank you for being a part of my life, and for teaching me how (not what) to think. I have no doubt that your lessons have helped me through some of the rougher parts of my existence, and lead to some of the happier ones.

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    • Thank you so much, Rose. I often think there is a justifiable dread of falling into the hands of “mental health professionals”. Too often they are working from a preordained concept of a healthy state and seek to force every multi-faceted individual into it.

      Our conversations were never one sided. I learned much from you which helped to bring me through the decades it has taken me to get here.

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