How many of us asked what’s most important in life would say happiness? Most of my life I have. But of course I’m a member of the notorious, self-centered baby boomer generation born and raised in a middle class home by two college educated parents in the suburban sprawl of a small town between Philly and NY. I was raised to believe I could choose my own path. My teenage angst and anger at a country engaged in the insanity of the Vietnam War and which unfairly discriminated against African Americans was assuaged by a counter-culture which allowed me to express my anger and rejection of the “straight” world by growing my hair long and substitute the relaxing and often hilariously happy highs I got by smoking pot and the crazily mind altering excitement of psychedelics.
Before I was twenty, having turned on and tuned in, I dropped out. Anger and political frustration as I had watched my heroes (JFK, MLK, RFK, Malcolm X) get murdered and the lying Nixon take over the Presidency led me to participate in massive marches against the war in D.C. in 1969. I believed in peace, but seeing the soldiers lined up shoulder to shoulder around the Justice Department and tanks in the garage entrance backing them up, breathing the pepper gas and tear gas that we were barraged with, I came to an ultimate realization that they had all the weapons, all the power, and it was suicide to fight. Truly, I was ignorant of political process and also ignorant of what it really meant to make change through nonviolence. I thought the 60’s had proven nonviolence doesn’t work. Unwilling to die in Vietnam and unwilling to die fighting or going to jail to end the war here, I headed for the woods to live the life of a hippie homesteader—what we now call “off the grid.”
Call it growing up, but over the next several years the pursuit of happiness was pushed aside in favor of learning how to survive….not hunting and fishing and farming, but learning how to live on less, build a serviceable shelter, fix my own car, grow some vegetables, take advantage of free stuff this prosperous country offers, and find odd jobs to bring in enough money to “get by.” The birth of a child brought me the rest of the way back on my journey from homeless wandering to rural poverty as I sought full time employment and worked for a logger for a couple years before finding a job in a runaway shelter and going to college in the evenings, eventually becoming a teacher.
My happiness was secondary to responsible parenthood until the marriage I was in left me so unhappy that I divorced when my daughter was fifteen, leaving her with her mother. This was the most unhappy time of my life and I sought the help of a wise therapist who helped me resolve some of the barriers to happiness within myself through a process called “inner child work.”
Now remarried and retired, I have time to pursue happiness full time. And I have done so by pursuing my interests and taking care of my health. I play music regularly at home and in public in a variety of settings, a lifelong avocation that I couldn’t make work as a career. I ride my bike or go to the gym almost every day and do some Yoga. I cook meals regularly and struggle to keep my weight down. I read a lot of news and a few books, and I occasionally write essays I fire off to the newspaper about issues that bother me. I give volunteer time to environmental groups and to organize contra dances sponsored by my local folk music organization, FOOTMAD. I read, watch Netflix, and listen to the radio, especially NPR and NPR podcasts.
Which brings me to the reason I started writing this morning. Yesterday, listening to the NPR program, TED Radio Hour as a podcast while riding my bike on a gorgeous Indian Summer day, I listened to an episode called Simply Happy (you can stream or download the whole hour or any of the shorter segments here ). TED is a worldwide series of short lectures on topics related to Technology, Entertainment, Design by some of the smartest, most successful people in the world. The NPR program aggregates a few “TED Talks” by theme, uses excerpts from the lectures and interviews with the speaker to weave together a fascinating and educational hour of radio programming each week.
This particular show featured a scientist who had researched what makes people happy, someone who created a happiness app, authors, and a monk. It was full of wonderful “a-ha” moments for me. Takeaways:
- Stuff, wealth, etc. won’t make you happy
- Adversity such as illness, misfortune, etc., does not keep people from being happy after an average of a few months of adjustment
- Slowing down and paying attention to what you’re doing can increase happiness, or at least letting your mind wander tends to add to unhappiness;
- Happiness does not cause you to be grateful, gratefulness causes you to be happy.
That last was imparted by a Benedictine monk by the name of David Steindl-Rast, who has a PhD in psychology and studied Zen Bhuddism and probably every other religion and spiritual practice. Thinking back over my life, I realize that I lacked gratefulness for much of it, which means I was not as happy as I could have been. I’m grateful I ran across this, and intend to look for more of his advice on the key to happiness. I also intend to think more and more often about what I have to be grateful for (though I don’t intend to write it on FB everyday as I’ve seen some others do, which I find…annoying). In the meantime, as the great philosopher Bobby McFerrin sang, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”