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Don't Worry, Be Happy?
By Judith Gayle | Political Waves

DOES THAT SONG work your nerves as much as it works mine? It was annoying in the 80s but now, with everything topsy-turvy, with the economy tanking and people in genuine need, it hits me like nails on a chalkboard. For most people, worry seems justified and happiness an afterthought, given our current challenges.

Perhaps the song activates that bit of curmudgeon in me -- the bit that thinks that finding the pony in the horseshit requires wading through a lot of crap and eschews simplistic answers; still, it's light and catchy, and excellent advice.

Worry, like guilt, achieves nothing productive and takes us on side-paths of experience that we wouldn't deliberately choose if we had our heads screwed on tight. The things we worry about are seldom the ones that manifest; and worry itself adds energy to the creation of worrisome events, causing us to choose erroneously in a sort of subconscious self-fulfilling prophecy.

Happiness isn't circumstantial, arriving due to the conditions outside of ourselves; it's an inside job. It's both an attitude and a condition of our body, mind and soul. Science suggests that some of us are hard-wired for happiness; others, not so much. We've seen examples of people in poverty smiling and laughing, while the filthy-rich can be just as cranky and mean-spirited as those with much less. If stuff doesn't do it; then what does?

We can take some cues from our brains. PBS recently aired a program, Magnificent Mind at Any Age, by Dr. Daniel Amen, who is the author of books on brain function and the benefits of approaches that restore our brains to balance and health at every age level. He prefers a holistic approach to problems like anxiety, depression, ADD and insomnia; he advocates nutrition, alternative medicines and mental/spiritual strategies. As we consider happiness, we must remember that it's part and parcel of whole-body health.

On Thanksgiving, in a gathering of nearly 40 people, one of our family matriarchs had a bit of a meltdown; her son, daughter-in-law and two young grandchildren had not arrived on time. We had received a call that they had begun the two-hour drive later than expected, but as the moments marched on without their sweet faces, she began to fret. When it became evident that they couldn't be reached by cell phone, she panicked.

Some of us gathered to assist her; usually a stable, cheerful sort, she seemed about ready to burst into tears. I gave her a hug and suggested that she didn't know anything for sure, they were probably stuck in holiday traffic and to try to let it go. She snapped at me that she was working on being authentic and feeling her feelings, and after a pregnant pause to see if I'd snap back, began the real work of the moment -- sharing her emotional concerns.

After a lifetime of good health and blood pressure on an even keel, she had suddenly spiked into months of irregular readings, which had caused her physician to put her on medication. As it became clear to me that her systemic issues were a large factor in her emotional response, her behavior began to make more sense to me. Her fear had prompted a physical response she couldn't deny and her intention to be authentic gave her permission to share it.

While I applaud her desire to feel her feelings and her quest for authenticity, I think we need to be mindful of what we share with others. My relative obviously felt comfortable with those around her; perhaps she would have had a different response in public. Her concerns evaporated when her children arrived, late but safe and sound; our family response to her authentic moment took her through that tunnel of worry as gently as possible, but it also dampened the good cheer of the gathering. No harm, no foul -- that is simply the physics of it.

We need to remember that strong emotions, the kind we're seeing around us everywhere, are contagious. We can catch fear from others -- and so, science affirms, can we catch happiness, as well. Consider this conclusion from a recent study on happiness: "Emotions have a collective existence -- they are not just an individual phenomenon."

Collective humanity is constantly muddying the emotional waters of the planet and passing along the result. That's not news to many of us, but it should be impetus to affirm our intention to contribute mindfully; what we think, what we feel, is a vital part of the fabric of the world's wholeness. Our ability to find, and share, our own happiness is more a service to the world than we know.

None of us is without the complex emotions of our human condition -- we each have moments of despair, anger, disillusionment, anguish. That comes, gratis, with a birth certificate. How we deal with these moments tells us a lot about our ability to take responsibility for ourselves.

Over the years, I've developed a set of what I call process partners; people with whom I am intimate with the details of my life and who are my peers on a spiritual level. People I can trust with my emotions; people who will listen patiently, weep with me if necessary, and call me on my bullshit.

What bullshit is that, you say? Self-pity or hasty conclusions jumped to; negative pronouncements or hopeless assessments. I have a rule for myself -- feel what you feel, express it in harmlessness but don't you dare live there. The last of that is a time consideration; it may take an hour, a day, a week to get past something difficult. It might even take a year or, for some, a lifetime.

Life is messy -- it can appear to be either a series of losses or a panorama of adjustments and opportunities; the choice is ours. Now, more than ever, it's a critical choice.

Circumstances may change everything we thought we were about in an instant; loss may define us on some level. But every morning, as we face a new day, we are contributing to the emotional well-being of the collective of humanity in what is called 'social contagion;' we have a responsibility not only to ourselves, but to others, to find our way through our difficulties as mindfully as possible. The good news is we can depend on our friends; if the science is correct, we can even depend on theirs.

Part of our problem with happiness is that we assess it through a process of checks and balances; this is actually a control issue. If things work out this way, or even that, then we're happy; if they don't, we're sad. We are constantly sorting out what is good versus what is bad; that's our humanness asserting itself in a polarized world. There are other, more productive ways to view this; what works and what doesn't work sits better with me. And even if things don't appear to be working, there's the "door closing, window opening somewhere" thought system. Down is just down, my dears -- down is seldom out, unless we want it so.

It was belief in happy thoughts that kept Tinkerbell alive, if you remember, happy thoughts that allowed Peter Pan to fly. Children's stories are shot through with wisdom. We all have a vast collection of both happy and unhappy thoughts at our disposal. We choose which to reflect upon -- and which of them will reflect us out into the world. Thoughts are, in the purest sense, choices; happy thoughts are excellent choices, but life being what it is lately, we may need some guidance through the mire.

Dr. Amen tells us that we are able to train our brains to optimize our ability to feel happiness; he gave a helpful tool in that PBS offering that I think is useful to our conversation. When we have a random fear thought, or even one that seems highly personal, we should reflect a moment upon the truthfulness of it. Our thoughts may or may not tell us the truth; quite often they do not, and drive us toward dysfunctional behaviors.

When we have one of those distressing thoughts, Dr. Amen asks us to write it down. Then he proposes that we ask ourselves four questions:
1. Is this thought true?
2. Is it absolutely, undeniably 100% true?
3. How do I feel when I believe that thought?
4. Who would I be without that thought?
If the thought we are thinking limits us, lies to us and denies us happiness, it cannot hold up to these questions. We filter our thoughts through our own personal bias and fear. As that is how humanness works, let's be sure that the meaning we're assigning to these kinds of thoughts assists us toward health and happiness. Each little bit of forward movement we can achieve in our own lives adds to the wellbeing not only in the lives of those we hold dear, but to all of our brothers and sisters, world-wide.

I've written about gratitude in the last years as a way to access higher levels of thought. Finding the glass half-full is more useful than deciding the glass is half-empty; it's required that we notice and appreciate what's in that half-full glass in order to lift up toward more. There are certainly times in all our lives when we think the glass is bone-dry; it never is, but it may take some work to find the blessing.

While we're looking at gratitude, perhaps we should take a moment to consider that happiness wasn't even a factor for many of our forbearers; it wasn't until the last century that it became a consideration for the majority. It took a certain level of prosperity and wellbeing to bring us into an awareness of happiness.

Life is made up of duty and responsibility as well as personal satisfactions and contentment; the former is easy enough to find, the latter harder -- but at least it's on our radar. A few hundred years ago, our current insistence that we are entitled to be happy campers would not have been part of our understanding. We would have been held prisoner to our social class, and limited opportunity. We can thank government for much of that; equity laws, civil rights laws. As flawed as our system is, it is remarkable in many ways.

I was interested in the tiny new democracy of Bhutan, in the Himalayas. This little nation has determined a very Buddhist outlook for itself, and has established an economic model that it calls Gross National Happiness. It has its roots in rationality, and the concept of providing what its natives need in order to enjoy stability and wellbeing. It takes a pragmatic approach, which includes the goal of "parity in terms of distribution and the provision of all kinds of services."
"Happiness is a very serious business," Bhutan Prime Minister Jigme Thinley said. "The dogma of limitless productivity and growth in a finite world is unsustainable and unfair for future generations."
The UN has taken note of the GNH project, and a number of countries are studying the concept. Brazil, India and Haiti are attempting to institute some of its goals, and France has developed a Quality of Life Commission; the US, Canada and Australia are attempting to measure national wellbeing. It has been noted that the United States president-elect uses many of the words found in the GNH project, and naturally assumes its tone.

Currently, our own national news doesn't offer us much help in lifting our spirits; it surely adds to our stress and fears, on a daily basis. In a little more than a month, new leadership is set to institute a series of changes that may help turn the tide on our downward spiral. One would think the incoming president would be biting his nails and twitching over the challenges, but Obama has an interesting mindset about them -- he thinks this is THE perfect time to reconfigure government.

His populist voice and positive attitude toward the future takes into consideration the problems we face, while directing our attention to what we can achieve together in this time of emergency. There's no simplicity in what he proposes, but I fancy I can hear the strains of that dratted Happy song in there, somewhere.

Perhaps what is simple enough in this proposition is the choice of where he puts his attention; and where we must put ours. That seems to me the most important choice that we have ahead of us. Even when we're dogged with challenges and emergencies, the hope that Mr. Obama spoke of a year ago is more vital to our mental health now than it was then. We would all be wiser to focus on the energy opening before us, than that which is closing behind us.

Dr. Amen showed pictures of brain scans to punctuate his ideas on brain health. He offered the scan of a friend's brain thinking unhappy thoughts, as opposed to another in which she was thinking happy ones. They were different: noticeably so. It's impossible to ignore the visible evidence of our emotional state, and since this is a choice, select the one that serves us best.

If we were aware that dwelling on unhappiness was doing physical damage to us, would we continue to do it? Well, guess what -- it is. Gloom, it appears, really does go hand in glove with doom. But we have options. In researching this article, I found a website on retraining your brain that seemed worth visiting; you might want to play there awhile, especially in the part marked The Fun Factor. Google on this topic to find more information.

Perspective continues to be crucial these days. A friend sent me this YouTube of a young man named Nick Vujicic; I defy you to watch it without tearing up and reconsidering what difficulty means. We take so much for granted, and now that some of the things we've depended on are disappearing, with challenges changing some of our lives in disturbing ways, we've come into a season of dismal thinking. The kind of perspective Nick gives us is invaluable, as we make our way through this anxious period.

Don't worry, be happy? We are all somewhere between those two polls -- somewhere on the happy scale, somewhere on the hand-wringing scale. Our ability to own our emotions must come with a realization that we are in control of them, to quite a large degree.

Finding ways to keep our balance includes managing our emotional response for our own betterment; luckily, we know more about that now than ever before. Discovering ways to maximize our happiness is certainly a worthwhile experiment in which I hope you'll join me. Just don't sing that Happy song, ok? It annoys my inner-curmudgeon, and I'd just as soon prefer she keeps her yap shut.

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