Whitmanian happiness à la MacGyver

Yesterday, I dyed my hair an orchid color, just for my own amusement.

The last time I dyed my hair an orchid color, I was hitting either a new high or a new low, depending on your perspective. In the space of 4 months, I had:

1.     quit my PhD program, 2 chapters into my dissertation

2.     broken up with my wonderful-but-not-soulmate boyfriend of many years, with whom I shared an apartment and a dog (I did keep the dog, though)

3.     moved

4.     realized that spending the entirety of my young adulthood doing basically unpaid things (volunteering, retail, graduate school) had left me with a very short resume

5.    taken 3 part-time jobs and a work-study shift at the yoga studio to almost pay the rent, stay semi-sane, and bide my time while I figured out what to do

Before that tumultuous time, I basically believed in the all the culturally extolled directionalities of life - all the mythical Paths to Success we hear about.

Go to school --> go to college --> go to graduate school --> finish your dissertation --> become a professor --> get tenure --> … die.

Meet someone --> date them --> fall in love --> move in together --> get married --> have babies --> celebrate metallic anniversaries and dote on grandchildren --> … die.

I suppose I felt a subtle uneasiness at the tidiness of these Paths, laden as they were with assumptions borne of privilege, and glittery with presumptions of happilyeverafter good fortune. But I never – not until those 4 months – questioned that they might not take me in The Right Direction. I thought: time moves forward, and so do I. We build our identities and livelihoods, decision by decision. And we ensure our success, good choice by good choice. Life is cumulative. Progressive. Like this:

Be birthed --> live --> die.

I believed this, until I realized parts of me were dying off in the middle of the living.

As my mind and tongue were sharpened in graduate school, my love of books and writing was slowly ground away. My sense of self was stubby. Stunted. I used to believe this was because of the intensity of my PhD program, but really it was because I was forcing myself to become - and to write and speak and behave like - someone I was not. I was unwilling – unable, maybe - to acknowledge how deeply unhappy I was.

At that time, I was trying so hard to find something smart and incisive to say about Leaves of Grass that I missed its messages entirely. There they were, under my boot-soles – my squeezing teetering vicious stiletto boot-soles – where I didn’t even look when Walt told me.

  Walt is a handsome devil.

Walt is a handsome devil.

Walt wrote, “Happiness, (which whoever hears me let him or her set out in search of this day.)”

(I did not hear him.)

Walt wrote, “Happiness, knowledge, not in another place but this place, not for another hour but this hour.”

(I was completely. utterly. miserable. in that place, in those hours and hours and hours.)

What I wanted – what I still want – was to move in the direction of happiness. I thought it was at the end of a line of accomplishments, or at least would be served up in bigger and bigger portions as I walked my chosen glittery Path to Success.

What I am learning – what I expect I always will be learning – is that happiness is everywhere and nowhere, all around me and/but only self-generated. It is in every direction, actually, and it is also always only right here.

There's not, then, a Pursuit of Happiness so much as a genesis of it. We don't find happiness or earn fulfillment. We generate them with what's in front of us, MacGyver-style.

If this doesn't sound easy, that's because it isn't, always. Sometimes, it is really fucking hard. And yet this approach - this believing that I generate happiness with what I have in this moment, rather than get on the right track in pursuit of it - is much more compatible with the ups and downs of everyday life.

Because what the glittery directionalities pointing This Way to Success don't account for, after all, are the curve balls and knockouts of life. Illness happens. Recessions. Floods. Layoffs. Sometimes you find your partner in Happily Ever After doesn't really make you happy, or doesn't live as long as you do. Sometimes you choose a less-than-ideal school/career/house, or you get a majorly incompatible advisor/boss/neighbor. Sometimes you get cancer.

These ups and downs of life are much easier to navigate when we are free from the belief that there is a Right Way to happiness and fulfillment. We are more agile when we know that happiness lies in every direction, that there is no Wrong Way. The curve balls and knockouts still suck, but they don't seem like punishments, injustices, failures...and so they are much less heavy on our hearts. We're free from the feelings of self-blame, resentment, and disillusion that get us stuck, stewing in our misery.

Even better, we are free from the nagging unease of the What Ifs. What if I go back to school, but can't find a job? What if I break up with my partner, but then never meet someone? What if I move to Seattle, and that big earthquake comes? A friend of mine calls this "pre-suffering." Really: we do not know what is going to happen. We only know what is happening, right now.

It's a deeply counter-cultural thing to say, but future happiness doesn't come from good choices, and future sorrow doesn't come from bad choices, because the future is not and will never be ours for the choosing.

If you're still with me, you are maybe wondering how, in that case, we choose anything, ever. How can I make this self-generated, MacGyver-ed, Right Now happiness work?

I have a few ideas.

1. Appreciate loveliness, right now.

We generate happiness, I believe, when we take Walt's advice and hone in on the bits of it in this hour, in this place. This means practicing being present to and grateful for what's in front of us - even and especially for everyday things, like morning coffee or very blue sky or public radio. Right now, if you sense for them, there are lovelies around you. See/smell/taste/feel/hear them. Here's one of mine:

  Ravi is also a handsome devil. I almost didn't adopt him because What If He Barks or What If He Poops in the House? Turns out he does both sometimes. But mostly, he brings me joy. 

Ravi is also a handsome devil. I almost didn't adopt him because What If He Barks or What If He Poops in the House? Turns out he does both sometimes. But mostly, he brings me joy. 

When I say "appreciate," I mean it in both senses of the word. One, recognize these lovelies as contributors to your happiness. Two, let them count for MORE - give them greater value when you assess this moment, your day, your quality of life. Consider them all, each little scrap of lovely, as resources.

2. Do what you love.

I believe we generate happiness for ourselves as well as for others when we use our talents, follow what flows for us, and do what we enjoy doing. I believe this is how we generate professional success and money, too! Marie Kondo loves decluttering, and has made not only a career but also an internationally bestselling book out of it. Bobby Flay loves grilling food. Oprah Winfrey loves talking to people. 

Maybe you are thinking that you are no Marie or Bobby or Oprah. Of course you're not. You are you…that is, if you let yourself be you.

3. Do what you used to love.

Of course we all grow up and our interests evolve….but I agree with Barbara Sher when she says that chances are, what made you happy as a kid will make you happy as an adult. Kids have a marvelous ability to access a flow state - to lose themselves in play, to merge with their environments, to interact with whatever's in front of them, to enjoy life. Do you want to entertain a toddler in the kitchen? Open the Tupperware drawer. Or don't - she'll find it.

When I was a little girl, I used to make up dances to pop songs and teach them to my sister and the neighborhood girls. Tomorrow morning, people will come to my yoga studio and pay me to teach them dances and vinyasa flows I've made up to go along with pop songs. I can't believe it, either, but it happens every week.

4. Exist in continuous, creative response to whatever is present.

This one comes via one of my teachers, Martha Beck. It's a more elegant way of encouraging you to MacGyver your happiness. It says that fulfillment arises as we engage fully inside and out, mindful both of our innermost resources and our abundant surroundings.

This acknowledges that we are most powerful in the unfolding present: we can't change the past, we can't know the future. We let go of "I should have" and "What if" thinking in favor of this:

How do I want to feel in this moment, and what small thing can I do - right here, right now, with what's right in front of me - to bring that into being?

Happiness: not in another place, but this place. Not for another hour, but this hour.