Monday, March 23, 2009

Happiness in a cold cubicle world

  I got up this morning with the intention to write an article on happiness when I got home. I had a really great weekend and had been kicking around some ideas on the subject for a couple days; I subsequently had a miserable day at work and came home in a lousy mood.

But it occurred to me that this may, in fact, be a good position from which to write about happiness.  Isn’t everybody’s goal—rather than simply never having another bad day—to be able to accept bad days with grace, to shrug them off, to live in the sort of state where bad days don’t make a difference regarding one’s happiness?

I’m having dating problems; my job is boring, rote, and purposeless; I’ve got credit card debt; most of my friends have moved away or else I don’t consider them my friends anymore; I don’t like a lot of things about the way I look.  There are a lot of reasons I could—and until lately, did—consider myself unhappy.

I do live in what I consider to be the most beautiful place in the world—Phoenix, Arizona—and while a lot of people have a lot of nasty things to say about it, I can somehow always see the beauty around me.   I like the desert.  It gets hot, but generally we have only three to four months of really awful weather, which beats the hell out of the east coast, and it’s always sunny.  When it’s not sunny the rain makes a nice change.  There’s lots of hiking—every weekend I get to go out to the biggest city park in the United States, South Mountain Park, and  get a great workout climbing trails through the mountains.  From the highest point there’s a beautiful view of the Valley, and the Superstition Mountain range to the east.

Over the weekend I picked up the guy I’m dating at eleven-thirty at night and drove out into the Superstitions on Rt. 88,  and pulled over on the side of the road for some stargazing.  From where we sat the sky was so large that we could see the edges curling around the curvature of the Earth, and the desert so still that we could hear lizards darting through the dust. 

Sure, there are miles upon miles of tract homes, and clogged freeways, and corporate stores; people say Phoenix has no culture, but really what we have is the white-collar thirty-something culture of sterile bars and dance clubs and restaurant/grills that serve Californicated Mexican dishes and hamburgers.   The people who live here drive sedans and work for corporations and wear button-downs to work every day, and they start to complain about the heat in February.

But we also have rattlesnakes (sounds like a downer, but to a biology major they’re pretty amazing organisms), and coyotes calling at night, and monsoons, and a decided lack of mosquitos; we have sunshine and saguaros that are hundreds of years old.  We have beautifully landscaped freeways and one of the highest standards of living in the country; and we still have dairy farms and agriculture and good ol’ boys driving old Fords around in cowboy hats.  Right next to the place I work is a pasture full of goats. 

I can see all of these lovely things about Phoenix, no matter what people say, and I can’t help but wonder today why I can’t see these same sorts of things about myself, no matter what happens to me.  Why can’t I see my perfect health, my lovely hair, my strong legs and great smile; why can’t I see my intelligence and sense of humor and good singing voice and all the things that I like about myself?

The past year for me has been an upward struggle out of a bad breakup and the black hole of the post-graduation existential crisis, but in the course of said epic battle I have learned two things about myself and happiness. Firstly, my brain tends to impede happiness rather than facilitate it, going round and round analyzing things half to death simply because I am bored.  I have to give it something useful to do in order to distract it from making up problems to dwell on.  This idea is a basic tenet of meditation practice: you give your conscious brain a mantra, something to repeat and focus on, and in this way your unconscious, your feelings and, I guess, your soul, can rise to the surface and sometimes make a connection to something greater than itself.  Humans are capable of the most extraordinary reasoning practices and incredible solutions, and yet most of that goes unused, fed into things like scanning files and trying to pick up a new partner in line at Starbucks.  Our bodies, similarly, are incredibly capable (read: Bruce Lee), and yet most of the day my body at least is plopped in a chair, only my fingers and my eyes doing anything, excepting the occasional bum shift in my seat.

The second thing I learned, a consequence of the first thing, is that I already am happy.  Happiness is a lot more like your car keys than a new pair of jeans: you don’t have to go out and try on all sorts of things and put yourself through dressing-room purgatory in order to find it; you just have to remember where the hell you put it.  

Two people, separately, gave me a word which has been more useful than any other in my quest for happiness: both Bob Dylan and Nietzsche espouse the concept of becoming.   Nietzsche's entire philosophy is built around this idea; Bob Dylan said, and I paraphrase, “An artist can never let himself feel like he’s gotten anywhere; he has to always live in a state of becoming.  There’s always somewhere else he can go.”  And I think that’s true not just for artists, but for everybody.  Growth is the factor here; striving always to be better than what you were before gives you not only a purpose, but satisfaction from the attempt itself, and not from the outcome.  It doesn’t depend on anything outside yourself, or from any achievement; it gives your brain something to do and it distracts you enough for your unconscious to remember where you put the damn thing. 

And these are things that I know, that I have learned for myself, slowly and painfully; and sometimes still I have a bad day at work and come home pissed off and tired.  It’s easy to get distracted from your mantra, but I think all you can do is go back to the beginning and try again. 



  1. There's some very soulful and delightful moments here, Hilary. I bet Dylan would have smiled.

  2. Thank you! I'm glad you found your way over here :)