There was a time in my life when I believed that happiness was the absence of sadness, meaning that if I could just remove, avoid or run from those things that caused me stress, I would be happy, as if underneath all of life’s un-pleasantries, laid the buried treasure of contentment. I believe that mankind’s underlying motivation for every action is the desire to obtain happiness. Maslow’s famous pyramid hierarchy of needs that is taught in every Psychology 101 course describes man’s most basic needs beginning with food, shelter, and safety, progressing up towards love and self-actualization. However, the motivating factor for all of man’s needs is the burring, insatiable, never-to-be-denied search for happiness. When cultivated correctly, I believe this craving for happiness moves and progresses mankind from crudeness to greatness as Maslow describes. However, the pursuit of happiness is a dangerous wilderness where our desperation is taken advantage of, devoured by wolves (that appear as sheep) and our starvation is usually malnourished.
Happiness is one of the greatest paradoxes in life and many are unable to find it because they have never been taught the true definition of happiness, which causes them to not only look for it in all the wrong places, but to also not recognize it when they do happen to stumble over it. Happiness is a paradox because of the world’s current misconception about it and how it is achieved. Our world would have us believe that if we only lived in the right house, drove the right car, wore the right clothes, traveled to the right places, married the right person, we would for certain be happy. And that is the first part of the paradox; happiness is not inaction, it must be obtained much like shaving. No matter how well we did it today, we will need to do it all over again tomorrow. The second part of the paradox is that happiness is not easy; it takes a lot of work.
When my children were younger, I was continually amazed at how irritated they were while on vacation; a time when you would expect they would be very happy. The problem was they surmised that since they were on vacation, they didn’t and shouldn’t have to do anything, wrongly supposing that happiness was nothingness. Consequently, they were miserable on vacation. We have a running joke in our family that the reason we take our children on vacation is to “piss them off!”—mission accomplished. If happiness was nothingness, the most idle members of society would be the most happy but what we find is the exact opposite no matter if they be rich (those who have attained the stuff that is supposed to make us happy) or poor (those who have none of the happy attainments). The bottom line: happiness is a lot of work. We have to get off the couch, get on the bus and get busy—and that’s the tricky part, busy doing what? We need to be busy doing those things that bring true and lasting happiness.
Every boon and every evil in society is the result of men and women trying to obtain happiness. Student’s cheat on their tests so they can obtain the grade (and therefore be happy), professionals embezzle to obtain more money so they can buy more happy stuff, husbands and wives have affairs so they can fill the rush of happiness in the arms of someone new, thieves steal and murder for the same reason, the attainment of happiness. The problems in society are not the result of people not wanting or trying to be happy, it is that they know not where to find it. Contrary to popular opinion, the greatest motivator in advertising is not sex; it is the promise of happiness, mankind’s greatest desire. Sex is a powerful vehicle for happiness, which is why such themes are so prevalent in society; it’s quick, rather easy to obtain and so incredibly powerful (at least for a few minutes).
Since the beginning of modern society when the majority of mankind moved off the farms and into the cities, the prevalence of mood disorders has risen along with the drug economy—both legal and illegal, and the rise of the energy drink. Sadly, I am a participant in this new industry built upon our mutual unhappiness as I sit and write this blog with my can of Mountain Dew, consuming many more than I should every day. But what is most amazing to me is when I am outdoors on the weekends working in the yard, fishing or sailing, I consume much less and many days I don’t drink my caffeine at all—yet at the office, I can barely get through the day. The difference is, while I enjoy writing, I often sit longer than I should without a break, sometimes for 10 hours at a time without getting up except to pee (Mountain Dew)—something we humans were never meant to do and whenever we engage is those things we were not meant to do, it makes us sad, so hooray for drugs! Modern-day drugs like Montezuma’s ancient use of the coca bean in war, we are able to sit longer, push harder and fight like there is no freaking mañana—which is awesome really, but it has its price.
Happiness is a muscle and a skill, and when we fail to practice or exercise it, we lose it—which is why we also have so many drugs available to us that deliver what our bodies no longer provide. The body is amazingly efficient; it only spends resources and energy on the services that are demanded. We all know by painful experience that when we take a few weeks off our workout schedule that there will be hell to pay when we go back to the gym. I am amazed at how sore I am even after taking one week off. Our mental health works in much the same way; the body will only work as hard as it is absolutely required to work. When we drink our caffeine, take our depression meds, smoke our pot or shoot up, we are providing the body its insatiable need for happiness (quick and easy), and when the body doesn’t need to work, it won’t. What this means for our happy muscle is: the body will stop producing and will rely on the drug which over time of course, produces inability to be happy without it.
Sometimes despite all our careful cultivation, happiness is a phantom, drifting in and out of our lives, but this is normal. Sometimes we are just sad, but that doesn’t mean we are depressed nor does it mean we need more caffeine or meds. If you’ve been blue for longer than a few days, look around. What are you doing? Your body is trying to tell you something, trying to tell you to either stop doing something or start doing something. Whatever you’re doing, do something different even if it’s something as simple as eating at a new restaurant or talking to that person you see on the train every day. Let’s face it; sadness is pain, don’t ignore it no more than you would ignore a pain in your chest. The great thing about sadness is you don’t need a prescription from your doctor to make it better. Most of us spend our waking hours doing things that are not natural; staring into computer screens, sitting in long meetings, pretending we care, etc. and while we can’t change that, we can change what we do when were off the clock instead of going to the gym, sitting on the couch or staring at our phones. When you’re not making your living, make yourself happy.
Lately when I find myself in a slump and no matter what I write is just crap, I get up and do something different for a while. The gym is good, but I find it’s not the best jump-start for my happy muscle. I find real-life activity is best, just like wholefoods. Vitamins are good, but they don’t compare to wholefood sources in effectiveness, quality and absorption by the body. It’s as if our bodies know the difference between real work and a “workout” that tries to simulate what our ancestors did everyday on the farm. If you find yourself in a slump, go work in your yard (hard), help a friend with their yard, volunteer where physical excursion is required. You’ll not only be amazed at your feeling of happiness afterwards but also your sense of accomplishment—funny how those two things go together. Nothing quite compares to a long rest after a long period of work, but when all we do is rest without the work, we become sad—as the saying goes: resting is the hardest thing to do because you can’t stop to rest.
So, if you're sad, remember you're in in pain and pain is the body's way of alerting your conscious mind to stop doing what you're doing and do something different. For some reason, our modern world has taught us to ignore our emotional and mental needs, rationalizing that they are less important, less real, less worthy--I say, bullshit! Those needs are the most important because if you're sad and depressed, you can't do anything so get out there and do something that makes you happy. If you don't know what makes you happy, start testing and make sure that whatever it is, it's physical. It's they way we're made. We weren't weren't made to sit at computers, stare at a phone or produce something that is not physically tangible. Happiness isn't nothingness--we weren't meant to be idle.