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