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.)

13 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2022 #2: How to Be Pretty Happy”

  1. There’s also fulfillment, satisfaction, contentment, and pride at a job well done – emotions that are not happiness per se – but feel pretty damn good.

  2. Also Ram Dass: “It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed.”

    Also, for those seeking therapeutic support, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) differs from other modalities in starting from the presumption that everything might, in fact, NOT be all right, and won’t be, even if you “fix yourself.” Harris’s book, The Happiness Trap, is a good starting point, and there are ACT certified therapists in many communities.

  3. I think if you spend a lot of time worrying about whether you’re happy or not, you will never be happy. Happiness is a by product of a life well lived.

  4. Your cats have theme songs? That’s cool. One of mine used to have bad-tv-movie-villians (with obligatory bad-tv-movie-russian-accents) after him.

    The human brain is a trip.

  5. I was often angry during 2020, probably at many of the things that angered JS, especially since I happen to be an expert on Infectious Diseases — so I was not pleased at certain politicians loudly rejecting what people like me were saying.

    Fortunately for me, I started a really great job just before the pandemic began. Even more fortunately for me, that great job (which I am still doing and is still a great job) is fully remote, so I have been able to do it without interruption.

    Therefore, at least during the hours when I was working, my job (mostly) kept me from thinking about the awful stuff.

    But, oddly enough, my Virology expertise also helped me emotionally, because I basically went through all the classic stages of grief over this pandemic before most people even began to realize how bad it was going to be. Once it was clear that this was a highly infectious airborne virus that people could transmit before developing any symptoms, with an Infection Fatality Rate around 1%, all of which was clearly established by the end of March 2020, it was obvious the world was looking at the worst pandemic in a century. And that in many places people were gonna deny reality until reality forced them to reckon with it.

    So by the end of April 2020, I was well into the Acceptance stage.

  6. “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”

    I am a person who medicates to help my brain work and it makes a WORLD of difference for me. W/out my medication I’m Eeyore all the time. Or, if not Eeyore, just a lump who can’t get motivated to even be Eeyore-like.

    With medication I’m able to motivate to do things that I enjoy that bring me moments of happiness. Or even moments of contentment and all-is-right-with-my-worldism, which is also pretty awesome.

    There should be no shame with taking medication for neurotransmitters anymore than there should be shame for taking insulin for diabetes or thyroid meds for hypothyroid or, heck, vitamin D for a vitamin deficiency.

    It’s worth talking to your primary care doctor about if you have one to talk to.

  7. I love the idea of “trained optimism.” My depression is genetic, and a combination of drugs and daily exercise keeps me just barely functional. But the idea that one can train oneself to be optimistic is just lovely. I’m going to give it a whirl. Thank you for the concept!

  8. Aww man.

    Thanks for being “normal and down to earth” (by my standards at least) and teaching how to be “normal and down to earth” by just doing so, and being so verbose about how to do so.

  9. CGPGrey calls gratitude practice “annoyingly effective”, and he’s right. Taking a few moments each day to think about a few things in grateful for had made a HUGE difference in my baseline mood level.

  10. As usual, you have given me many things to contemplate.

    I have always thought that I was happy more often than being a curmudgeon, but never quantified it. First is to decide if I do need to quantify it by moments.

    I am not sure of that and think a general stream of consciousness might be better for me. I am on a fairly smooth road, so maybe no reason to dig potholes in it.

  11. The quote that always gets me when people reject pharmacological interventions for mental health issues is “I’m worried I won’t feel like myself”. Because the self that person is at that moment is battling deep depression or self loathing or something else. Yes, you won’t feel like yourself, that’s the point. The yourself you are now is not doing you any good.

  12. My mother has a theme song for one of our cats. I read the magazine The Atlantic and there is a columnist on there that has articles about the pursuit of happiness. He says that you should find something that brings you joy and happiness in everything you do.

  13. The Oatmeal on Happiness:

    As our host notes, even happy people aren’t always happy. But in times when they’re not, often they are engaged, interested, focused – which is potentially a useful goal/measure instead of the more nebulous happiness.

    Or not. YMMV.

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