Monday, June 24, 2013

The Happiness Trap

            I was raised in a family whose guiding myths included themes of competitiveness, athleticism, hard work, and academics. In 1969, I was introduced to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I quit basketball, let my hair grow long, and bought the requisite jeans and work shirts of the counter culture. After about a year and a half, my mother who was quite worried by my behavioral and stylistic changes, asked me during one of my holiday visits, “Bradley, are you happy?” I took her question seriously as I took all matters seriously during that era and found it hard to answer. In a way, the question became a Zen koan for me. I discovered as I contemplated it, that I did not measure my life in terms of a happiness quotient. I was living through the highest highs and the lowest lows. The revelation for me at this time was that the proper question would have been, “Is your life meaningful?” I found that if I circled my life in terms of happiness and sadness, then satisfaction and dissatisfaction bounced through me daily like a rubber ball. Whereas, when my life was framed more inclusively in terms of meaningfulness, there arose greater acceptance and contentment.  
           People often desire to be happy and I always get a little uneasy when I hear people wanting happiness because it’s a surefire way not to get it.

           As some of you know, I am an astrologer. I mention this because from the point of view of astrology, we Americans have a Sagittarian outlook on the world. What this means is that our perspective on matters is imbued with the ideas of expansion, of the wide open spaces, of westward ho, of “give me land, lots of land under starry skies above, don’t fence me in,” of endless growth, of freedom, of a brighter future, of a favored relation with God as in the notions of the New Jerusalem and John Winthrop’s “City upon the Hill.” This thinking is characteristic of the American imagination.

            It is a primary feature of the American Dream that a person can start with little and end up with much, going from rags to riches. We have been indoctrinated with the belief that anyone can grow up to become President, that we are all potentially living an Horatio Alger story, that prosperity and success lay just around the corner. 

            In his 1931 book, Epic of America, James Truslow Adams wrote:
“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability and achievement.” And so we have happiness peddlers, snake oil salesman, get rich quick schemes and trouble, right here in River City.

            Deep in the heart of the American psyche hangs a pall of happiness that obscures our relation to life. It is woven into our country’s founding and is understood as having been endowed by our Creator as an unalienable right. We find it in our Declaration of Independence: the right to Life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. We have taken these words into our hearts, and we experience the inevitable outcome of this declaration, which is a perpetual dissatisfaction through an endless seeking for happiness. 

           As the late political columnist Max Lerner observed, “America is a happiness society… The underlying strivings may be toward success, acquisitiveness, or power, toward prestige or security. But what validates these strivings for the American is the idea that he has a natural right to happiness.”

          Happiness over the centuries seems to have become an entitlement for us in the same manner that if some unhappy misfortune befalls me then somebody better pay up, make it right, whether I’m spilling hot coffee on my lap at McDonald’s, or I’m the pedestrian hit by a car suing Google for unsafe directions, or I’m the man carrying a gun into a bar, being wounded in a shooting, then suing the bar for not searching me when I entered the place, or I’m holding the fast food industry liable for my obesity, or the families who held 25 film studios and video game makers responsible for the Columbine shootings. Somebody owes me dammit! Where’s my piece of the pie?

            In the 19th century, French social critic, DeTocqueville noted in his travels round our country, “In America, I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords; it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures.”

            What we fail to recognize is that it is in the very search for happiness itself that the cause of our discontent can be found. This line of thinking always places fulfillment in the future. We want more, we want bigger, we want better. We want new and improved. We want it all and we want it now as the song lyric goes and the advertising industry tells us that we can have it. We yearn to be all that we can be. We want the quick fix, the fast buck, the newest version, the latest edition, the most recent upgrade as if settling for less or for second best somehow rubs against the grain of the American way. Give me that iPad, iPhone, Kindle, and 3D television.

            We have been breast fed the milk of happiness and we consume it with gusto. In this day and age, some still believe that there are no limits to growth, to resources, to problem solving the obstacles in our path. In America, we are taught if we just apply ourselves, we can achieve anything.  With the zeal of true believers, we seek to rid our lives of all that hinders, blocks, and frustrates our quest. We desire perfect marriages, happy children, rewarding parenting, great sex, rich spirituality, harmonious emotions, conflict resolution, successful endeavors, a joyous inner child, glowing physical and psychological health, and of course, the great prize, wholeness.

            As an observer and member of the mental health industry, I’ve witnessed psychological health become twisted in impossible directions. With the help of positive affirmations, ten simple ways to change my life program, brief psychotherapy, solution focused counseling, or positive therapy that keeps me on the sunny side of life, I can continue to grasp for the brass ring, the one I deserve. The product of these interventions is intended to be a better person, symptom free and well adjusted to the demands of daily living. But why is it I want to rid myself so quickly of depression, worry, disappointment, and failure? Where is my patience to tolerate the uncertainties and ambiguities in living while they sort themselves through? What’s with my need to control and direct every aspect of my life? Where is my faith?

            Is it possible that in brief approaches to people that the result is more likely to be superficial and short lasting? Is the quality of the outcome similar to Wonder bread and Bud Light, momentarily filling and satisfying but in the end leaving me wanting more? Is there anything to be gained by home baked bread, garden grown tomatoes, hand crafted beers, or relaxed meandering therapies? Wouldn’t I prefer something that is lovingly and caringly crafted over and against the mass produced product? 

            It has been argued that the defining purpose of the ancient Chinese text, the Tao Te Ching is to endeavor to bring into focus and sustain a productive disposition “that allows for the fullest appreciation of those specific things and events that constitute one’s field of experience.” In fact the title could be translated as “Making This Life Significant.” Is it possible that this optimizing of experience is discovered in the savoring and enjoyment available from something that takes time to prepare, ripen, and mature?  

            But let’s face it; I want the sunny side of life without having to experience its shadowy night and I want it now and forever. I want to ascend to the heavens without the requisite descent to hell. I believe we are a lopsidedly developed people limping toward a paradise that recedes into the distance with every step to bring it closer.

            It is this attitude of grasping for things other than what I have, be it enlightenment or stuff, and wanting to be other than who I am in this very moment that shapes my world into a commodity for my private use. A world imagined as commodity has thingness, but no soul. This attitude promotes the desire to explore the world seeking oil, gas, riches untold at the expense of environmental and human degradation. There are no tree spirits in our culture, only lumber, no water nymphs, only hydro resources, no mister pig or missus cow, simply pork and beef, and recalling St. Francis, no brother sun nor sister moon. The world is reduced to a thing and we are alone in the universe, friendless with no allies, humanity against the world. The American imagination seems to have little room for an animated and intimate world seeing this ensouled view as simply anthropomorphic.

           Is it possible to break free of this happiness trap? Let me reach back into classical mythology for a moment. In Greek mythology, there is a significant contrast between Zeus, King of the Gods, known for his dalliances, never satisfied with his current state of relational affairs, constantly seeking new fields to plow where the grass seems greener, and his father, Kronos, who abolishes creativity, annuls the past, and devours the future. In Roman mythology, Zeus and Kronos are known respectively as Jupiter and Saturn. For the astrological imagination Jupiter rules the sign Sagittarius that I mentioned earlier as reflecting the American outlook on the world. Oddly enough Zeus’ bird, the eagle, known for its great flight and great vision, became our national emblem.

          The astrological Jupiter is associated with expansiveness, growth, opportunism, enthusiasm, optimism, joy, buoyancy, levity, and freedom. Saturn on the other hand, is known for matters that are delayed, limiting, focusing, sobering, serious, constrictive, fated, and other related expressions. Saturn as the last and furthest planet out during the centuries when the astrological imagination flourished in the West (before the discovery of Uranus in the 18th century) was symbolic of the end of the road, finality, mortality, the grave. It is grave not only in the sense of death and final resting place, but also grave in the sense of serious and weighty, issues that are heavy and leaden. Additionally, grave as in to stamp or impress deeply, to fix permanently. Grave and grieve stem from the same Latin root, gravis which has to do with bearing, not only one’s bearing, getting our bearings, but with being weighed down, and gives us our word gravity. It is easy to see why we avoid Saturn’s realm. Deprivation, denial, limitation do not blend well with the expansive ‘no limits to what we can do’ American Dream. We are educated to accumulate stuff, to live in large homes so that we can store our booty. And as we acquire more stuff , we rent storage space for this excess. We are taught to accumulate, not to let go, to seek happiness, not to embrace sorrow, yet dark times are half of the human experience.

            Now if you recall, the qualities associated with Jupiter all tend to carry positive cultural value – joy, levity, optimism, enthusiasm, frivolity, happiness – things we all want. Those just mentioned regarding Saturn however, are burdened by a negative valuation. Who wishes to be bound, weighted, and restrained in their living? So like heliotropes, we turn toward the levity of Jupiter wanting to avoid the saturnine world at all cost, and yet in doing so we can live only a partial life, incapable of affirming the fullness of existence.

            Ah, but strangely and fortunately, life is structured in such a fashion as to remedy its own dilemmas. Taking any polarity to an extreme, forces a repolarization. For example, if I move in the direction of north, eventually if I continue this trek, I will be moving south. The exposure to the extreme cold of dry ice is experienced by me as searingly hot. Extend the pleasure of an orgasm too long and it becomes painful. Constantly pursuing happiness ends in disappointment and discontent. Embracing this discontent, leads to contentment. And this is the paradox, the necessity of losing one’s soul in order to gain it, as the gospels intone.
           So, what must I do to escape the happiness trap? Absolutely nothing, there’s no escape, there is nothing I can do in terms of activity, method, or practice to escape this moment. There is no satisfaction in a future that never arrives; there is only contentment in the moment when past and future are realized as distractions. We’re all in the same cosmic soup, sometimes it’s stirred, and sometimes it’s stilled. No one is ahead and no one is behind. There is only a deeply felt sense of the miraculous and wondrous absurdity of it all, the awe and the terror, with full acknowledgement and embracing of it.

           In giving up our busyness, our searching for happiness, the questing for enlightenment, the chronic dissatisfaction I feel dissipates like clouds clearing away and the sun breaking through. Fate we discover is no more than freedom, gravity no more than grace and life is experienced in its fullness. In that moment of clarity, when we have surrendered any hope for happiness or desire for salvation, the scales will fall from our eyes, and we will drop our crutches and dance with Life. May we all be so blessed.

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