Happiness

July 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s been a bit longer than usual between posts. One reason is that happiness turned out to be a tough nut to crack. You’ll remember that I’m doing a series of posts on synonyms for contentment. It seemed to me that happiness went with contentment the way a hand and a glove go together. It’s easy to see why these words are considered synonyms.

But when I started doing some investigation and thinking carefully about happiness, I found that the word seems to mean so many different things to so many different people that one simply cannot assume that happiness is even close to being understood in the same way by by most people.

A man named Donny laughing

He looks like a happy man, doesn't he?

I got a good idea of how understandings of happiness varied so greatly when I started searching for quotes about happiness. I found hundreds and didn’t even begin to exhaust the search. After having read so many different interpretations and definitions, I decided to use several of the quotes as points of departure for talking about happiness in relation to contentment.

First, however, I want to share the one I enjoyed most. Here it is:

“To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then, one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be happy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness.”

You think I’m nuts? Well, about halfway through reading this for the first time I thought “What is this? Can this guy possibly be serious?” And then I finished the quote and on the next line saw the author’s name. Woody Allen! Who else? I loved it.

But some of the serious quotes I read by people I generally hold in high regard for their keenness of mind struck me as being almost as senseless as Woody’s. Well, perhaps not really senseless but it was difficult to get at what they were really about. For example:

“You can easily find people who are ten times as rich at sixty as they were at twenty; but not one of them will tell you that they are ten times as happy” George Bernard Shaw

In a certain sense he’s right. I, for one, couldn’t say I’m ten times as happy as I was at 20. I’d have to say that today I’m a hundred times as happy as I was at 20. There seems to be a perception that as we age it’s more difficult to find happiness than it was when we were young. That idea is something I hope to disprove as I continue to post to the blog.

This quote makes me think that the nature of happiness as people understand it depends a lot on the context. I mean that I certainly was happy at 20  – all that partying, dating, boozing, not worrying about much other than how was I going to find time to write that paper when I had this hot date, and so on.

But was I aware of being contented, of being at peace with myself? Did I feel that I had ever accomplished anything worthwhile? Did I find satisfaction in helping others in difficulty and bringing some happiness into their lives? I’d have to answer no to all these questions.

I very much like George Bernard Shaw and have experienced a great deal of pleasure from reading his work. But I found many quotes from people I like and respect that struck me as just plain wrong. By the same token, I found quotes from people I not only don’t like and respect, but whose ideas I actually despise. For example:

“Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.” Ayn Rand

This isn’t the place for me to go into why I have such negative feelings about Ayn Rand (and even stronger negative feelings about her followers), but I strongly feel that her definition of happiness is right on the money. What makes it stand out is found in the words “achievement of one’s values.” She doesn’t stop at “achievement” or even “achievement of one’s goals” the way many others do when talking about the things that make us happy. She sees a relationship between values and happiness that seems much more significant to me in the context of contentment.

The frustration we experience when our values are compromised or thwarted, either by our own behavior or by other circumstances, leads to anything other than contentment and happiness.

It’s obvious that this topic is too complicated to be dealt with in one session, so I’ll continue discussing it in my next post.

Satisfaction

July 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

A satisfied man drinking coffee.

Satisfaction from a pleasant cup of coffee.

In the last post I mentioned that I was going to start discussing synonyms for contentment because I think they need to be considered as a whole in order to explain fully what contentment is.

I thought I’d start with the synonym “satisfaction” because it seems to me to be one of the trickier terms. I think it’s tricky because it doesn’t appear that it’s as simple to understand in the context of contentment as it might seem.

First, of course, the word “satisfaction” can have a negative context as in the phrase “self-satisfied.” No one wants to be thought of as self-satisfied. Sometimes I think that there are other, more subtle, negative aspects of the word. For example, being satisfied because you feel full after eating what was really too much food or food that’s not good for you; being satisfied after having got the best of someone, that is, outsmarting someone. I’m sure all of you can think of contexts for the word “satisfaction” that have some small negative connotation or implication.

Satisfaction in the sense of being a part of contentment is a state or feeling of wellbeing, which contentment is, too. Usually when this feeling is part of our sense of contentment it’s because we’ve done something that needed to be done, especially when we were not particularly anxious to deal with the things that needed to be dealt with.

I might be so keen on this today because I’ve just had two days that showed me the difference between dissatisfaction and satisfaction rather vividly.

Friday I had a long list of things I needed to do, things I had been putting off for a couple of days because they weren’t particularly fun to deal with and there were other things to do that also needed to be done but which were more enjoyable. So, human that I am, I had spent those previous couple of days dealing with the things I wanted to, the things that were more enjoyable than the others.

But then came Friday, and I spent the day just . . . well, just messing around. I didn’t do any of those “un-fun” things that I needed to do. And for most of the day Friday, I was anything but content. I characterized the day to my wife as a “not very good day.” I just felt “kvetchy” all day, and I knew that my feeling of dissatisfaction was because I wasn’t doing the things I needed to do. But the strange thing about the way I felt was that I didn’t simply feel guilty, the way we often feel when we’re not doing what needs to be done. Rather I felt what I just called “kvetchy” and dissatisfied. But what I was really feeling was a general sense of unease.

And then came Saturday morning. And I was off like a shot. I just started doing things that needed to be done, and I finished them, one after another, until everything was done and it was still only early afternoon and I had the rest of the day to enjoy with my wife, which we very much did.

Later that day, just before dinner, I was doing something, I’m not quite sure what, when I began to feel a real sense of wellbeing. I imagine it was because of three things: first, I had done the things I needed to do and, second, I did several things that I wanted to do, and third, I had spent a few very enjoyable hours with my wife.

But I definitely didn’t feel self-satisfied or smug because I had done things I didn’t particularly want to do. I just felt good about everything. I was satisfied with the day and was feeling happy, contented, and very much at peace. It was a wonderful feeling. And in part, I think, that feeling was the result of my awareness. Too often we go through our days without truly being aware of what we’re doing, what’s going on around us, or how we really feel about these things. We often live lives of routine.

There’s nothing wrong with routine, in fact there’s a lot in it that is comforting and that enhances our sense of security, no small thing when looking for contentment. But at the same time, not being aware prevents us from enjoying what is good in our lives, what is good in our routines, what brings us pleasure, what brings us satisfaction, what it is that makes us feel happy; in a sense what brings us contentment.

So I would suggest that we try to the utmost of our ability not to forget to be aware of the course of our lives and to try to focus our attention on what is going on that’s good. If we do that, then a byproduct of that focus will also be an awareness of what is going on that is not good. And being aware of that, we are more able to determine what we might do to change the “not good” to the good. We’ll discuss this later on in other posts.

The point of all this is not that if you do everything you don’t want to do you’ll feel good, though I’m sure that helps. Instead, what I think happened to me was that I lived a full and rewarding day and, most important, I was very much aware of it; that is, I was very much aware that my day was enjoyable and rewarding and that brought me a great sense of satisfaction with concomitant contentment.

(P.S. My post about “getting over it” has been republished in a slightly longer form here.

Attaining contentment

July 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

An old man and infant resting contentedly

Resting contentedly

When I chose the name for this blog, I was undecided between Senior Happiness and Senior Contentment. Essentially I wanted to try to help people, especially seniors, find or re-find the happiness in their lives. But I decided on Senior Contentment because I came to feel that containment, while a possible synonym for happiness, implied more than happiness.

In the first post, I listed a lot of synonyms for contentment. They included: satisfaction, gratification, fulfillment, happiness, pleasure, cheerfulness, ease, comfort, well-being, peace, equanimity, serenity, and tranquility.

After having read these synonyms a few times, I felt that their entirety was much greater than a lot of individual words that could be used instead of the word contentment.

If I change those words from nouns to adjectives, I can say that there is nothing more that I want than to feel satisfied, gratified, fulfilled, happy, pleased, cheerful, easy, comfortable, peaceful, equanimous, serene, and tranquil. And certainly then I would find myself in a state of well-being (no adjective for that phrase that I can find), or – and here we are back at the blog’s title – completely contented.

I’m much too much of a realist to be considered a Pollyanna and I don’t believe for a minute that I, and most others, are able to be completely contented all the time or even most of the time for that matter. But I do believe that there is much that most of us can do that will allow us to feel a sense of contentment much more often than we regularly do.

And so, in the next few postings, I am going to focus in on those adjectives and discuss what we can do to help ourselves more frequently attain the states that they imply.

Little things

July 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Mugs help contentment

A couple of my favorite mugs.

One thing that adds to my sense of contentment on a daily basis is having things around me that make me feel good, things that I enjoy seeing, touching or using.

For example, because I’m a big coffee drinker – probably about 6 cups a day on average – I spend a lot of time holding coffee mugs, having them on my desk or at my side on a table, and, of course, raising them to my mouth and touching them with my lips.

I’ve found that having a mug that I find attractive to look at and that has a good feel about it, enhances both the taste of the coffee (just my imagination, I’m sure) and the whole ritual of drinking it.

Because from time to time I’ve played around with throwing clay and making pottery, I’ve learned that there’s more to a mug than just the way the decoration looks. The mouth should be wide enough (3.5″ is about just right for me), and the rim lip quite thin. The handle should be large enough to accommodate your fingers without cramping them up, and if the top of the curve of the handle has a little flat space for you to rest your thumb on you can leverage the mug more easily. (By the way, I never succeeded in producing a mug that I really felt good enough about to use regularly.)

Mugs are regularly available in sizes that hold from 12 oz. to 20 oz. Some people who drink a lot of coffee the way I do prefer large mugs so they don’t have to refill them too often. I, however, find that I’d rather fill them more often and avoid having the coffee cool off before I’m finished.

Well, this wasn’t meant to be a discourse on coffee drinking but instead a few words about how everyday objects can help us maintain our sense of contentment because we’re aware of them, we don’t let them become boring. They help us to be happy in our surroundings and contribute to our sense of well-being while we’re going about our quotidian tasks.

So this was just about a simple coffee mug. Now, multiply the number of objects you interact with one way or another in the course of your everyday lives. I’m suggesting that to the extent you can take pleasure and enjoyment in these many things, your life in general will seem more pleasant and your sense of happiness and satisfaction will be increased.

Getting over it

July 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

Two people in a heated argument about religion...

Image via Wikipedia

In the last post I said that I’d try to explain how I dismiss things that get me angry, that is, how I “get over it.” I put those last words in quotation marks because they remind me of a story. I had a friend who was a psychotherapist. From time to time when we were out he’d tell me stories from his practice, of course never with any identifying information about the patient he was discussing.

Once, after he related what to me seemed a really unbelievable story about a patient, I said, “God, Jerry, don’t you sometimes want to just grab these people and really shake them and scream ‘Get over it!'” He smiled and said, “No, never. That’s why I’m the psychoanalyst and you’re not.”

Well, of course I understood him, but I thought then, and still do, that “get over it” can be a very productive way of dealing with our anger (and other things we’re not talking about just yet).

The first thing to ask yourself about an incident that makes you angry is “Is there anything I can do about it?” And you need to answer that question within reason. Sure, if someone cuts you off in a car, I guess you could easily enough just smash into his car with yours. Let’s not even talk about the consequences of that angry act but admit that unless we’re seriously mentally ill, that’s not an option. Truly, there’s nothing you can reasonably do to “get even” with the other driver. And of course getting even doesn’t really mean anything either. Maybe you’ll be exacting revenge, but that’s not going to make up for anything. What happened to you happened, and you just need to accept it and realize a couple of things:

  • Other than causing a dose of adrenaline to shoot through your system, and maybe getting scared for a moment, nothing happened to you
  • There’s nothing you can reasonably do about what happened anyway.
  • And the longer you stay angry, the shorter the period of contentment and happiness you’ll experience that day.

I just read that Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.” And if you are focused on trying to bring contentment and happiness and peace into your life, you realize that every sixty seconds is important.

I know that the kind of thing we’re talking about now, that is, getting upset about another driver is no big deal. Nevertheless, we’ve all both experienced in ourselves and have seen in others how angry a small incident like this can make us. It’s just not worth it. So the next time something like this happens, as soon as you feel your anger, just try to remember that it’s really meaningless. I also find that if I shake my head with a smile (and the smile is important) and say something like “boy, what a jerk,” I can get over it really easily.

In the next post I’ll speak about something lighter than anger over a driver for a nice rest before going on to even more serious things that often blunt our contentment with our lives.

Anger 2

July 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

An angry woman.

Just imagine what this is doing to her blood pressure.

In my earlier post about anger, I talked in generalities about the effects of anger and gave an example of how we can become angry over what, in the scheme of things, are really rather insignificant incidents. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that incidents that can seem insignificant in hindsight do seem quite significant at the time they happen and then easily trigger our anger.

Anger per se, however, is not always bad. My reading tells me that it is closely connected to the fight or flight reaction that serves us humans so well in times of danger. Nevertheless, I think in most cases, for most of us, anger is the result of certain frustrations, misunderstandings, and unthinking, learned reflex actions.

I have come to believe, based on my own deliberate experience, that more often than not we can quite easily overcome our anger if we just pause to think about what’s going on and then consciously make the effort to get over it.

Let’s take a quick look at a very few of the things that commonly make us angry:

Someone in another car does something that gives us a fright. Perhaps cuts us off, goes through a stop sign, zooms through a light changing from yellow to red, suddenly slams on the breaks right in front of us, etc.

Someone of a different political persuasion makes a really caustic (from our point of view, stupid) negative remark about something we think is really important.

We’re off to run an errand, get a few blocks from the house and then remember that we forgot to take some papers with us that we need for the errand and we have to go back.

We’re watching the local or national news and hear a report about some great unfairness, illegality, or hypocritical act that infuriates us and, as we say, “just drives me up the wall!”

This list could include many more things, some quite serious and some really inconsequential. There is likely no limit to the things that can and do arouse our anger.

Every time we allow some incident that is beyond our control to anger and upset us, our sense of contentment takes a battering, as does our emotional well being and our blood pressure.

For quite some time now, my reaction to things such as these is simply to dismiss them. And, yes, of course I know that this is much more easily said than done. I certainly don’t find it easy all the time, but I’m becoming more consistently able to do it.

So how can we do it? That will be the subject of my next post. P.S. I’m not purposely trying for a “cliff hanger” here. I just think that blog posts shouldn’t be too long.

How I got here (2)

June 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

So after I decided that I would write I first focused on the things that upset me about the world. In fact, I even created a blog and wrote two entries. The blog’s name was The New Social Misanthrope. The idea was that it would spotlight the things going on in the world – especially in American society and politics – that were so very wrong and that drove me to despair. These included things such as hypocrisy, corruption, cruelty, crime, and abuse in all its horrible manifestations.

Of course this was a very depressing blog. Concentrating so much on the negative aspects of our lives was not fun for me, obviously. In addition, no one would get anything out of this blog that he or she wasn’t already aware of. And, perhaps the most important reason I decided against it was because it didn’t help anyone, that is, no one would profit in any way from reading what I was writing.

So that led me to think about what I might write about that would be much more positive and even perhaps help someone else in his or her thinking. In the course of thinking about what in my life might be worthwhile writing about, I happened to think about the fact that in the last years I’ve often felt a certain sense of contentment that hadn’t always been part of my life. Then I started thinking about how that feeling manifests itself and, most important, why it does.

That in turn led to more thinking about specifics and how, over the course of the years, I’ve changed in my attitudes and behavior. At that point I decided that I’d like to look at all of this in more detail and more carefully. Finally I thought that some people might even find reading about this subject interesting. That’s how I got to the Senior Contentment blog.

My next post will be the second about anger. Hope to see you there.