What is happiness?

Heath care professionals and medical students sometimes find themselves face-to-face with an individual who feels suicidal. Many of these people have daunting life circumstances: abuse, drugs, social isolation and/or intractable illness. On the other hand, I have sometimes found myself in the presence of a suicidal person who has life circumstances (family and friends, physical health, economic circumstances, etc.) that are approximately similar to my own. Yet that patient in front of me has wanted to end it all, while I feel the complete opposite. Because of the similarity of our lifestyles in other respects, I have to wonder: why? What is the crucial difference?

On further examination, I sometimes find a common thread of perfectionism, for both teens and adults who have considered taking their own lives. Needing to live up to the often-unreasonable expectations of oneself or others, and not doing so is a theme that comes up. This may have to do with academic or professional achievement, or simply "needing" to be more beautiful or fashionable or athletic or wealthy or publicly recognized than others.

Here is a completely opposite point of view: My father once told me that even if I should one day find myself homeless on a street corner, with a cold rain pouring on me, I should simply laugh with the joy of being alive. Just having the great luck to be the select one of possibly millions of gametes that could have become other individuals, and being a member of the luckiest species, and living on the most perfect planet in the solar system, in a temperate zone no less (not Arctic, not Sahara) is reason to take great delight in every moment of this precious life. My dad lived up to his instruction. He was able to appreciate life and good humor up to his last day of life, even though the last sixty years of his life were marred by severe injuries from a traffic accident soon after his return from WW2 service.

I have found my own truth in between these two opposites, but closer to my father's: What keeps me happy is this: Maintain a low threshold for happiness and a high threshold for negative emotions.

A low threshold for happiness means that I derive much of my happiness from everyday household events: I can lose myself in complete contentedness simply pulling weeds in my garden or transplanting seedlings. Every new flower or fruit is a source of new delight and a reason to pester the next person I see with my "garden report." But for years I did not have a garden, and this time of year not much is happening back there. So there are other things that make life wonderful...

Back when my cat was alive, I derived great contentedness just from watching him sleep and listening to him purr. But I no longer have a cat, so there are other things that make life wonderful...

I once lived in a little town at the bottom of a mountain and taught classes at a small college at the top of the mountain. Everyday I hiked to work for about an hour, then walked back home at the end of the day, including in rainy weather. The exercise, fresh air, and mountain views were fantastic regardless of the weather. But I don't live or work there anymore, so there are other things that make life wonderful...

While in college, I had an old, chipped, warped, beaten-up piano. But I loved it and played it whenever I could. It gave me great pleasure to play, almost as intensely as it pained those within earshot. But I don't have a piano anymore, so there are other things that make life wonderful...

Above all, I derive immense joy from my 5-year old son, playing with him, teaching him, and watching him grow. But for most of my life, I did not have a child, and my joy came from teaching other youth, volunteering at an emergency room and many other activities.

In other words, your source of happiness does not require special events or unusual circumstances or particular locations or individuals. Happiness is not miles away on a distant beach or cruise ship or casino or on Mt. Everest; it lies no further than the boundaries of your home or yard or workplace or neighborhood. It consists of nothing more or less than those activities, people, or experiences that bring you the most pleasure and fulfillment and/or hope for the future.

My second rule is to maintain a high threshold for negative emotions, which can also be stated as "don't let things get you down." For example, bad drivers inspire irritability in other drivers. But I am in the habit of singing in the car. When somebody near me is driving badly, I continue driving defensively and just sing louder (with the window closed of course) and more dramatically. Sing anything. I'm no Ella Fitzgerald or Mariah Carey. Your singing is at least as good as mine, and will also be good for eliminating your frustrations by its cathartic effect. Our ancestors were free to take out their frustrations by being in motion: walking, running, etc. But we find ourselves frequently stuck in cars with no way to work off steam. Since being stuck in traffic immobilizes your limbs and torso, you can let your lungs exorcise your frustrations.

My 5-year old and I often find ourselves in conflict regarding childish misbehavior vs. parental strictness. At times we vocalize these frustrations in mock operatic singing, i.e., "Why don't you beha-a-ave?" No, I will not beha-a-a-ave!!" But the misbehavior does end for the time being, because my son's vocal catharsis distracted him from the desire to misbehave. We both end up laughing and feeling happy with each other.

Sad or mildly depressed patients whom I meet sometimes admit to making themselves sad in order to accompany a loved one's bad mood. Also, quite often patients have made major life decisions against their own desires but in order to please a parent or other loved one. A healthier approach is empathy for that loved one, who may be suffering from oppressive mental constraints or dragging themselves through a miserable purgatory. But you have no obligation to follow them into that purgatory. Make your major life decisions wisely and calmly and following your own best judgment, because it is you who will be most affected by them.

During the winter holidays, depression can surface more than at other times of the year. Is it the short days of winter? The pressure of the New Year promise to make our lives more perfect than they already are? Include in your new-year resolutions challenges for self-improvement. It is imperative for our mental and emotional well being that ongoing education be a part of every adult's life, during all eras of our lives. Browse the catalog of a community college near you, or look into online courses in an area that you have never studied before: foreign languages, computers, art history, anthropology, scuba diving, yoga, theology, history, cinematography, marine biology.

Whatever your outlook on life, whether happy to depressed or anywhere in between, try raising your threshold for negative emotions and lowering your threshold for happiness until happiness infuses all of your daily life, and negative emotions are beyond reach. This is my instruction and my wish for you……….

                                                                                   Reprint from the (January 2006) www.naturopathyworks.com newsletter


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