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Reader Request Week 2022 #2: How to Be Pretty Happy

LEA asks:

You seem pretty happy. This is something I seem to be bad at. Any advice?

I am in fact “pretty happy” on a day-to-day basis, and now having said that, let me roll out a couple of caveats before offering any advice.

First caveat: As a general practice, I would recommend against estimating someone’s happiness based on their public persona (which this is, or at least, is one of them). I’m the first to admit my online public face, here and elsewhere, is edited to be mostly personable and emphasizing the positive things that happen to me, with very little about the negative things, aside from annoyances and irritations. When I do discuss negative things, it tends to be only after I’ve had time to sit with them and process them to my satisfaction, and (usually) when they involve other people, after consultation with them and with their permission — which includes their ability to veto my discussion of it at all.

As a result, while this public face of mine is not a false face, it is selective. It may present happier than I actually am at any given time.

Second caveat: Happiness is like so many other emotions and events in the day, which is to say, transient and not necessarily always present even in the best of times. When I note that I tend to be happy, what I really mean is that I have a fair share of happy moments, and then most of the time I’m not feeling one way or another, I’m just getting through my day in a sort of agreeably neutral way. For example, right this moment, I’m not feeling particularly happy. I’m not feeling particularly unhappy either; I’m in “writing” mode, which is mostly about problem-solving how best to put words in the most effective order. “Methodically intent” is the best way to describe my emotions right now. Earlier in the day I wasn’t particularly happy or unhappy either; I was just doing stuff. I had moments of happiness: Eating some carrot cake Athena made (which was really good), giving Krissy a kiss when she came up the stairs, singing the theme song to one of the cats (yes, each of our pets has their own theme song, just deal with it). And then the moment passed and what I was left with was not unpleasant, but also not actively happy either. I was just, know, being while I was doing stuff.

I think it’s okay to acknowledge at even “pretty happy” people aren’t just floating around on a cloud of bliss on a 24/7 basis, and it’s okay if one is not all happiness, all the time. I think perhaps the issue is less happiness as a default state, as it is being able to access happiness regularly, and without extraordinary effort.

With those two caveats noted: Sure, I am mostly a happy person. I’m also aware that for various reasons, it is pretty easy for me to be happy. My brain chemistry seems to incline me toward happiness, or at least contentment. Some days are better than others, but the good days and the bad days and the ups and downs largely seem to be in the band that is neurotypical. Also, on most days I am free from the life crises that invite unhappiness. I and my family have the necessities for life in the United States, and more on top of that. We do not have any current financial or health concerns. My career is successful and I don’t have much worry that I won’t be able to continue what I do for a living. Friends and family are largely well. Finally, I have a life that allows for a variety of people and experiences in it. I am not bored.

(knocks on wood)

Am I always happy? No; aside from the caveats noted above, like anyone I can be affected by events, from family emergencies to the general state of the world. I sometimes have career hiccups and frustrations. I can crack a toe or have a cat pee on a mattress or have a computer just decide to stop working. Some days I wake up with the attitude of fuck all of you, every one of you, you should all die in a fire for no good reason, and I can’t get out of that attitude for the rest of the day. And sometimes I do stupid things, intentionally or otherwise, and have to live with the consequences. There are any number of reasons for me to be unhappy on any given day.

But I’m usually not, or at least, not for long. Again, on average, I revert to being mostly happy, or at least, mostly content. I think that’s just, you know, me. Some people with equal or better circumstances have not been happy with their lot; many people with far worse circumstances are just as happy (including me, at earlier times of my life). Some people are just that way. Brain chemistry, trained optimism, the ability to find a silver lining whatever the circumstance; some people just get happiness as an easily-accessible state. Some people don’t, and have to put in the work to get there.

I am optimistic that the work can be put in, but I also recognize that I may not be the best person to ask about this. I will also note that when I say “the work can be put in” I don’t mean a simplistic “just put on a happy face” sort of Pollyanna sensibility. I think “the work” in this case will very often start with a willingness to acknowledge that some brains are divergent from what is understood to be the norm, by design or by circumstance, and maybe can’t do “happiness” the way that I or other people understand it on a daily basis.

So one piece of advice I might give is: If you think you’re bad at happiness, check in with a medical professional. It’s entirely possible that your brain might need some help in the form of therapy or medication. With regard to the former, I’ve seen it work, and with the latter, the saying “if you can’t make your own neurotransmitters, store-bought is fine,” is something that I think is important. The stigma of pharmaceutical intervention for mental illnesses is still out there, and I would prefer that we live in a world where it wasn’t. All I can do about that at this point is to let all of you know there are people I like and love who medicate to help their brains work better, and I am happy they do so, because their lives are better for it. So if you can (the US medical system being what it is), go to a doctor and see if that’s a useful avenue.

Beyond that, the only real piece of advice I have to offer with regard to happiness is a mindfulness of the things in your life that give you happiness or contentment. The things that we worry about are very good at consuming brain cycles, so making an effort to give brain cycles to the good things, no matter how small, is a useful practice. When you pet a cat, give as much of your brain over to petting the cat as you can. When you’re eating ice cream, really get into that ice cream. When you’re with friends, center yourself in your enjoyment of their company. Watch a sunset without taking a picture of it (or at least, enjoy it for itself before taking the picture). Make time in your day, even just a moment or two, for doing something happymaking or joyful. Making a practice of doing things that can offer happiness is a skill that can be learned. Will it always make you happy? Maybe not — but creating the opportunities betters the odds.

(Oh! And! Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to be happy, and it’s all right to acknowledge that, and to experience the not-happiness of moment, or day, or, Jesus, sometimes weeks or months. I spent a lot of 2020 angry and pissed off, and I think that was perfectly valid. I didn’t try to make myself happy. I didn’t stomp on happy moments when they happened, but I didn’t try to pretend the anger I was feeling wasn’t real, either. I had to process it. It took a while. It would have taken longer if I denied I was having it.)

Again, I don’t think “all happy, all the time” is a realistic goal or state of being for most people; as “pretty happy” as I am, I am not actively happy all that much, as a percentage of the day. I think it’s probably okay not to be “pretty happy” as long as when happiness does show up, you can focus on the experience, cherish what it gives you, and be glad you have it. And be open to it happening again, hopefully not too far into the future.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

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Reader Request Week 2022 #1: My “Man-Cred”

Me, looking very manly, if I do say so myself.

Hello, and welcome one and all to Reader Request Week 2022, where you offer up the topics, and I offer my thoughts on your topics. Let’s start this week off on a manly topic, shall we?

“Just Sayin'” asks:

You have occasionally been criticized by meatheads for being a “girly man” type, and you have dismissed these idiots appropriately.

However, for the sake of argument and fun, please defend your man-cred, and demonstrate your good standing in the white male dominated patriarchy. What tools do you own, and what can you do with them? Can you fix an engine, sail a boat? Are you a deadly shot with a pistol? Do you hunt? What sports have you, can you play well? Macho achievements, skills? Can you drink all night and crank out immaculate prose like a Hemingway? You get the idea.

So, to answer this, I need to go back to high school, and the day that the dance teacher, Joan Rohrback, decided that I was going to be in her dance class.

It went like this: I was standing around in front of my high school administration office, doing whatever the hell I was doing, when Ms. Rohrback marched up to me, said “I need a guy to be in the dance class. You’re it,” and then walked away before I could say anything one way or the other. And just like that, I was the guy in the dance class, because as it happened a physical education class was required, so I had to do something, and also I didn’t want to argue with Ms. Rohrback about it. She was a dancer, she could pop my head right off with her thighs.

It turned out that dance class was in many ways fundamental to my understanding of my own masculinity. This was for several reasons. One, it reinforced to me that I was, in fact, a straight dude — and a cis straight dude, although “cis” was not a word I knew or a concept I would have understood at the time. Regardless, I was very aware of the women I got to be with in the class, and felt like I was getting away with something being able to spend my time with them instead of, say, wrestling another dude into a foam mat. Two, it taught me to dance. To be a good dancer, I think, you have to understand that your dance partner is your equal — you may lead (or may not, depending on the dance and whether it is a partner dance or an ensemble dance), but the dance doesn’t work if you don’t support and aid those you dance with. I wanted to be a good dancer, and as a result I learned to understand, in a very oblique way I wouldn’t unpack until much later, the benefit of equality and support.

Third, it really effectively short-circuited my concern about the judgment of other dudes. A lot of straight men, especially young men, don’t dance, because they think they will look foolish doing so, and when they’re concerned about looking foolish, the people they’re most concerned about looking foolish to are other men — who they often imagine will see them on the dance floor and cast judgment on them, not for their moves, but for being on the dance floor at all. Learning to dance got me over that, by actually teaching me how to dance and by teaching me to enjoy dancing for itself, and by giving my dancing proper focus — not on the other dudes, most not on the dance floor, who may or my not be judging me, but either on my dance partner, who legitimately deserved my attention, or on myself, enjoying the pleasure of the dance itself.

Did I get shit from other dudes about dancing? Sure, both in high school and beyond, but I didn’t care. And some time later, when literally the most beautiful woman I had ever met in my life saw me dancing and then told me we had to dance sometime that evening, and I said “now is good,” and then we got married (not that night, to be clear), my policy of not giving a shit about what other dudes thought about my dancing was vindicated. When I took Krissy to meet my dude friends for the first time, and they all said to me (when Krissy was out of earshot), “We don’t understand, how did you manage this,” I got to say, “Because I learned how to dance, motherfuckers,” and I have to say, that was especially sweet.

So, learning how to dance went a fair distance of getting me out of needing the approval of other men for the things I did, and who I was. It wasn’t the only thing, to be sure, and here are some of the other things that helped: My enormous ego, even as a child, which made me resistant to the opinions of people I thought were full of crap, particularly if they were my peers who I realized knew possibly even less than me about how the world worked; My manifest lack of genuinely useful male role models growing up, counterbalanced with a surfeit of women in my life who Just Got Shit Done; The ability to be in my own head a lot of the time, and to do my own thing, regardless of what anyone else thought of it. And also, you know, the realization that so much of the US Standard Model of Masculinity was just complete bullshit, which was evident to me at a very early age; so much of it posturing and so very little of it actually useful to anyone who had to deal with it, including the men themselves. But certainly the high school dance classes gave me a structure to think about masculinity and my relationship to it, whether I was fully aware of it at the time or not.

Now, let’s fast forward to today, and the interrogation of my masculinity by other dudes. It is correct that I have a tendency to wave away attacks on my masculinity by other men, but that doesn’t answer why I do that. One reason is because I don’t care what these dudes think; they’re all resentfully holding up the gym wall in the high school dance of my life, while I’m in the middle of the floor, dancing with my gal and all my friends. Another reason is that even by their own standards of what masculinity is, they’re usually not measuring up, so why would I let their opinion of what I’m doing matter one way or another?

A third reason is that, bluntly, and again, by their own standards of what masculinity is, I’m wiping the floor with them. Hello! I’m a financially sound cis, straight white man who, even factoring in all the societal buffs he got for free, built a successful career with his own hands(*), and has been living the life he’s wanted to live for going on three decades now. I’m good enough at it that the way these dudes deal with it is to try to demote me out of it. And, my friend, if you have to concoct an actual industry-spanning conspiracy to explain how I’m actually failing in my masculinity, well. You have fun with that. It’s all the same to me. You can’t demote me out of my manhood, and it’s not my manhood that looks lesser for you having made the attempt.

That said, I cheerfully acknowledge that I don’t care about so many of the things that (jokingly presented in the question, but not-so-jokingly presented by the Masculinity Police) are on the checklist for Standard Issue Man-Cred. Who made those lists? What are their credentials? What about those activities are so inherently strongly gendered that someone who is not “masculine” can’t do them? Tool use is not inherently masculine. Sailing a boat is not inherently masculine. Shooting a pistol is not inherently masculine. Writing whilst drunk is not inherently masculine (see: Dorothy Parker). Can I do the things on any random given Man-Cred list? Possibly! But there’s almost nothing on any random Man-Cred list that needs a man, by whatever definition you want to give that word, to do it.

But because we live in a sexist and deeply gender-anxious world and culture, both globally and locally, I concede that there are certain things that men are expected to do, or at least aren’t given the same amount of shit for doing, than other folks; it’s not suggested they can’t do these things, nor is their competence questioned when they do them.

To this end, these are some of the things on my own “Man-Cred” list, the list by which I measure my own success as a man, and which, I suggest, I will not encounter static for being able to do:

  • Provide, financially and emotionally, for my family
  • Love and champion friends
  • Be a good and useful neighbor
  • Contribute positively to my community
  • Be kind and fair with others when I can
  • Use my voice and wherewithal for the things I believe in
  • Use my privilege to raise people up, not keep them down
  • Acknowledge the wrongs I do and make amends if possible
  • Work to be the better version of myself every day
  • Plan for a future beyond myself and my own immediate desires

Again, there’s nothing on this Man-Cred list that needs a man to do them; anyone of any gender can perform them. But let’s also acknowledge that if men centered these sorts of things in their masculinity, we might be better off in general.

I will be the first to acknowledge that I am not perfect in observing the things on my own Man-Cred list; I’m not always performing my own conception of masculinity to its best. But I do make the effort. I become a better man, and a better person, by doing so. And if nothing else, I still get to dance.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

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