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An Old Letter From a Friend

Throughout my time at college I’ve had a close friend whom I have exchanged letters with sporadically. This fall, when feeling exceptionally down, I wrote a letter to this friend and he responded with some musings and advice that I have continually gone back to in the last few months when in poor spirits. Tonight is a night that I needed a another look at this letter and after re-reading it I decided that maybe somebody out there on the internet might also benefit from my  friend’s writing. The following are the relevant “happiness-bits”.

“Well, I have today received your letter, and I felt it important to respond in good time. Naturally, the immediate moment seemed most appropriate. For as it has been recorded Goethe once said, “The only day that matters is today.” And while no doubt such a line smacks of cliche in our present day, there seems a certain wholesomeness that can, regardless of the spirit of the age, be gleaned from its central message.

“Now I would not expect such a message to necessarily lift your spirits out of or indeed above the moroseness that presently plagues it. Yet I think it is in words–not mine or anyone else’s, but your own–and the array of those words, in your own mind, that may offer you again the joyfulness of experience.

“What do I mean by “joyfulness of experience”? Well, I might begin with what I don’t mean. I don’t mean to limit joyful experience to some particular achievement or development. To win a race, or to finish a project, or to graduate from a school are all good things, but they can cause trouble if that is the reason you get out of your bed in the morning. For as long as the race is unwon, the project unfinished, or the outcome of the present semester still in doubt, these goals will ever dance before your mind, and verily all of your attention will come to rest on these phantoms and shades rather than upon the actual task of accomplishing them. To focus on the end result can in this way keep you from ever getting there. It is strange, no?

“Let me tell you a story. An old man once brought an aspiring runner into his office. The young fellow’s gaze quickly caught a shimmering crystal trophy behind the old man’s desk. The old man, in seeing this, told the young man how he had won the trophy in a 5k many years ago against the best distance runners in the country. Upon hearing this, the young man grew swiftly excited, and asked it he might hold the trophy. The old man obliged, but no sooner than after the young man felt the weight of the trophy in his hands that it slipped from his grasp, and shattered into a thousand [shards] upon the floor. And as swiftly as the young man has grown excited at holding an object of his greatest desire, he then became stricken with grief and fear at causing the destruction of so great a treasure. And when he had explained these feelings to the old man, the old man replied, “the treasure is not the trophy, but rather the experiences that led to that victory.”

“For the old man, the end was a beacon leading him on, a star that raised his gaze above the pressures of accomplishment, and the demands and expectations of the world. For the old man, his outward victories became more reflections of his victories within. “The arrival is nice, he said, “but the journey is best.”

. . .

“I shall try and detain you not much longer with this not-so-little note. It is helpful I think, to feel that it is within yourself and by your own efforts that life is made meaningful and good. You won’t find this in man, riches, or achievements. It is in you; the capacity to create and to think in unorthodox ways. To find humor in the mundane, and joy in things that nobody notices. To think about  your work in a meaningful way, as though you would hug the idea to acquire understanding of it. When you focus on results and getting work done only, it can feel like your focus is like a tea-cup, and all those thoughts about getting done cause the cup to become filled, so that when you seek to think about the idea, the cup overflows, and your attention is overwhelmed. Of course, then you might think, “Well, I must be a mediocre thinker if it takes so little to overwhelm me.” But of course, the reality is that your capacity to think is stuffed with preoccupations to begin with–occupations focused on achievement and getting the job done–rather than on the process of reaching that end. It does seem strange, but to think seems to require an empty cup.”

It seems fitting that I read this letter again tonight, its message reminds me so much of the book I am currently reading: The Alchemist.

Posted in Alexandra Funk.

Buddha’s Brain

Buddha’s Brain is an interesting read. I really liked all of the practical applications and meditations provided by the author. I think these will be useful and interesting to try (I’ve attempted a few already in my daily life, but I have yet to sit down with the intentional goal of meditating). I also like that the authors paired all of their practical advice with the actual chemical processes that go on in the brain. It grounds what they say and makes it feel more legitimate. The argument of Buddha’s Brain is that you can actually change the way you think. It is very important to me that this statement is true because (as I told Anne in our last meeting) if it    isn’t then I am going to live a very unhappy life.

“Richard and I both believe that something transcendental is involved with the mind, consciousness, and the path of awakening-call it God, Spirit, Buddha-nature, the Ground, or by no name at all. Whatever it is, by definition it’s beyond the physical universe” (9).

Virtue, Mindfulness, and Wisdom
Virtue simply involves regulating your actions, words, and thoughts to create benefits rather than harms for yourself and others…Mindfulness involves the skillful use of attention to both your inner and outer worlds…Wisdom is applied common sense, which you acquire in two steps. First, you come to understand what hurts and what helps…Then, based on this understanding, you let go of those things that hurt and strengthen those that help” (13).

“Well, who is the one person in the world you have the greatest power over? It’s your future self. You hold that life in your hands, and what it will be depends on how you care for it” (16).

Everything changes. That’s the universal nature of outer reality and inner experience. Therefore, there’s no end to disturbed equilibria as long as you live” (33).

“Oxytocin-promotes nurturing behaviors toward children and bonding in couples; associated with blissful closeness and love; women have more oxytocin than men” (37).

“The brain is drawn to bad news” (41).

“In relationships, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one” (41).

“Compassion for yourself helps reduce your suffering” (48).

The first and second dart: “inescapable physical and mental discomfort is the first dart…reactions are the second darts-the ones we throw ourselves. Most of our suffering comes from the second darts” (50).

“Suffering is not abstract or conceptual. It’s embodied” (51).

“If you’re feeling ambitious, do something additional: take small risks and do things that reason tells you are fine but worry wants you to avoid” (74).

“It takes an active effort to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones” (75).

“When have you felt really strong yourself? What was that experience like-in your body, your emotions, and your thoughts? Strength is often quiet, receptive determination rather than chest thumping pushiness” (104).

“Equanimity is neither apathy nor indifference: you are warmly engaged with the world but not troubled by it” (110).

“Physical pain and social pain are based on overlapping neural systems” (128).

“We are social animals who need to feel felt…Empathy contains an inherent generosity: you give the willingness to be moved by another person” (138-139).

“Loving-kindness is not about being nice in some sentimental or superficial way: it is a fearless, passionate cherishing of everyone and everything, omitting none” (160-161).

“Life includes getting wounded. Accept as a fact that people will sometimes mistreat you, whether accidentally or deliberately” (167).

“Developing greater control over your attention is perhaps the single most powerful way to reshape your brain and thus your mind” (177).

The previous quotes are the things that I underlined or marked strongly in my copy of Buddha’s Brain. I don’t think I’m ready to go into the particulars yet, but I definitely intend to write about some of them soon. But who knows what “soon” means.

I’m currently reading Hector and the Search for Happiness. I’m really enjoying it. It’s very quaint and amusing. I found it last semester by doing one of my favorite things: wandering aimlessly around a book store.

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Revisting Story of a Soul

Not only do I have a new mission for the blog, but one of the major issues in my life that was causing me so much stress and unhappiness has resolved itself. Although it did not come to the resolution that I hoped for and I am still very sad, it does feel better to be out of limbo. Onto my new blog mission: before I return to school after my spring break I intend to write a blog post for every book we have read so far. In each of these posts I will list the themes/things that stuck out to me the most and if I feel inspired I might also write a bit about why that is.

I’m going to begin with Story of a Soul.

“I should suffer terribly if I ever had to leave here. My heart is far from hard, and it is because it can suffer so much that I want to offer to Jesus all it is able to endure…I dream of a convent where I should be unknown and forced to endure the pain of exile…I know I would not be disappointed, for the slightest pleasure is a surprise when one expects nothing but suffering. And suffering itself becomes the greatest of all joys when one seeks it like a precious treasure” (121).

Therese’s longing for suffering (of all kinds) was initially very shocking to me. She wanted to take in all the suffering of the world and felt that doing so would make her happier. At first glance this seems completely backwards. Who would want to volunteer for more suffering than they already have to endure? Actually, there is at least one simple answer to this question (and I’m sure you could think of more if you tried): mothers. It is often said that a mother would do almost anything to take away suffering from her child.

Perhaps what is even more striking about this theme of suffering is that every single other book whether secular or religious, has agreed with Therese about the benefits of experiencing suffering. I’m hoping that this frequent stream of advice about the positives of suffering will help me to make it through my own in both the present and the future.

“When I act and think with charity, I feel it is Jesus who works within me. The closer I am united with him the more I love all the other dwellers of Carmel. If I want this love to grow deeper and the devil tries to show me the faults of a sister, I hasten to think of all her virtues and of how good her intentions are. I tell myself that though I have seen her commit a sin, she may very well  have won many spiritual victories of which I know nothing because of her humility. What seems a fault to me may very well be an act of virtue because of the intention behind it” (123).

Feeling hate or ill will towards other (no matter how deserving it may seem) only serves to harm you more. This is a tenet I have always done my best to live by and generally I think I am fairly successful at following it (of course like everyone, there are exceptions…see this post). But I also recognize that I am lucky in this respect; I do not get angry by nature. I am just not an angry person. Therese also speaks of the more traditional forms of charity: giving time and resources. It is universally acknowledged that charity of all kinds can only increase a person’s happiness.

(3)Distance in Relationships
I wrote about Therese’s feelings on this here, but since that post I have read Buddhist philosophy that I feel strikes middle ground between Haidt and Therese. It is important to have close relationships, they are what make life most meaningful in many cases, but being guarded can protect you from unnecessary hurt. It is also important not to get so wrapped up in your relationships that you forget about yourself: your goals, your spiritual journey.

Therese claims she “never became entangled by a love of creatures,” but she still had many meaningful earthly relationships: her father, her sisters, her mother superior. Like she says, it is important to remain properly detached. It is important to remember to focus on your own happiness too.

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Generosity: An Enhancement

[Anne:] “True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out–you must stay out; and to stay out, you must have some absorbing errand” (the epigraph for Part Two of Richard Powers’ 2009 novel, Generosity; taken from Henry James ‘s 1875 novel, Roderick Hudson).

So, Powers’ novel is not on our reading list here, but I’m re-reading it just now for another course I’m teaching this semester on The Evolution of Stories. And as I’m preparing for my lecture there, I’m finding it quite relevant here. A few excerpts:

“Well-being is not one thing….optimism, satisfaction, capacity for happiness, and capacity for unhappiness are all independent…

People in positive moods are more biased, less logical, and less reliable than people in negative moods. Score one for…’depressive realism’….

Happiness is probably the most highly heritable component of personality…People display an affective set point in infancy that doesn’t change much over a lifetime. For true contentment, the trick is to choose your parents wisely….

Yet… like perfect pitch: a little early training in elation can bring out a trait that might otherwise wither” (pp. 48-49).

“…happiness is a moving target, a trick of evolution, a bait and switch to keep us running. The doses must keep increasing, just to break even. True contentment demands that we wean ourselves from all desire. The pursuit of happiness will make us miserable” (p. 71) –THE NEXT-TO-LAST SENTENCE HERE SOUNDS LIKE ADVICE FROM THE BUDDHA. BUT THE LAST ONE MAKES IT SOUND AS IF OUR “HAPPINESS PROJECT” IS DOOMED BY DESIGN.

“The secret of happiness suddenly seemed absurdly simple: surround yourself with someone who was already happy” (p. 92).

“Most people are already pretty happy. What we really want is to happier. And most people think they will be, in the future….” (p. 136).

“Boethius…insisting…no one will ever be safe or well until Fortune upends him” (p. 138).

“The secret of happiness is meaningful work” (p. 218).

Joy does little to increase one’s judgment. Happiness is not the condition you want to be in when you need to be at your most competent” (p. 226).

“If a reasonably alert person wants to be exhilarated, she just has to read a little evolution…. Why do we need happiness when we can have knowing?….Three billion years of accident is about to become something truly meaningful. If that doesn’t inspire us, we don’t deserve to survive ourselves” (pp. 274-275).

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Attempting to Take the Dalai Lama’s Advice to Heart

I began to feel better last week after my first interview and I quickly fell right back into my happiness exploration, but by the end of the week things took a turn for the worse. I again became preoccupied by my unhappiness and seemed unable to recall or utilize any of the happiness philosophies and meditations I have been reading about for so long.

This brings me to something that Anne and I spoke at length about during our last meeting: how difficult (and often seemingly impossible) it is to continue to work towards your happiness when crisis strikes. All of the authors we have read so far have touched on this very issue. They all recommend spending as much time as possible working to fortify yourself against the hard times during the goods times. This is a piece of advice I’ve been trying to take to heart over the last year and I think, although it’s hard to believe while I’m in the thick of sadness, that this effort has served me well.

In the Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, he speaks of learning to let go of the worries that you can not do anything to change, to not waste your time dwelling on things out of your control.   Anne and I talked about this for a long time in the context of anger. I don’t think of myself as an angry person generally, but one thing the Art and my talk with Anne has reminded me is that all people have anger about something. Anger is an emotion that really only comes into play for me when I am worried about other people. I have a very hard time getting angry for myself, mostly in that case I just get really sad. That’s what I am currently going through now. Intense sadness and confusion. I’m trying so hard to take the Dalai Lama’s advice and let go of what I can do nothing about, but it is much harder in practice than in theory. I’m sure this is something I’ll have to continue working on for the rest of my life.

Working on this blog post is definitely a step in the right direction. It’s the first time that I’ve really been able to accomplish anything this week. That’s something to be proud of.

(from Anne:) I’m very grateful to Alex for enticing me into the reading of these texts about Buddhism; I’m now finding the exercises in Hanson and Mendius’s workbook, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom of great use. As we discussed in our last conference, what both Alex and I want to get out of this shared project is  a greater sense of well-being in our own lives, so the most important ‘homework’ we can be doing is trying out the lessons of these texts in various concrete ways. This is not theoretical–or not only theoretical!–work; the test of its efficacy is whether it makes a differences in how we feel about ourselves and the world in which we live. This most recent book is all about the power we have over ourselves–the power to change what-and-how we are thinking. So: I’m on it.

Here are the passages in Hanson and Mendius which I found most useful:

  • Suffering is not abstract or conceptual. It’s embodied; you feel it in your body, and it proceeds through bodily mechanisms. Understanding the physical machinery of suffering will help you see it increasingly as an impersonal condition (p. 51, my emphasis)
  • Throughout all of this, keep in mind the big picture, the 1,000 foot view. See the impermanence of whatever is at issue, and the many causes and conditions that led to it…. Over the long haul, most of what we argue about with others really doesn’t matter that much (p. 153, my emphasis).
  • Try to decouple your thoughts from the other person’s. Tell yourself: She’s over there and I’m over here. Her mind is separate from my mind (p. 164).
  • [this exercise is really the key for me!]: The Ten Thousand Things
    *Pick a situation in which you feel someone has wronged you.
    *Reflect on some of the various causes–the ten thousand things–that have led this person to act in the way that he has…the historical events and other upstream forces that have formed the river of causes flowing through his life today (pp. 165-166).
  • have faith that others will pay their own price one day for what they’ve done. You don’t have to be the justice system (p. 168).
  • Wishing well to microoganisms of all kinds, the amoebas, the bacteria, even the viruses: may every living being be at ease (p. 172).
  • Concentration is the natural ally of insight…We find ourselves in a forest of ignorance and need a sharp machete to clear a path to liberating understanding: insight makes the blade shape and concentration gives it power…. Monkey mind is the traditional, critical term for skittish attention–this is exactly what helped our ancestors stay alive. Or consider open awareness meditation, where you practice choiceless awareness of whatever comes to mind without becoming engaged by it; this is equally contrary to our evolutionary nature (p. 191-192).
  • subjectivity arises from the inherent distinction between this body and that world…subjectivity is generated … in the ongoing interactions the body has with the world …. Then the brain indexes across moments of subjectivity to create an apparent subject…. But there is no subject inherent in subjectivity… from neurological standpoint the everyday feeling of being a unified self is an utter illusion: the apparently coherent and solid “I” is actually built from many subsystems and sub-subsystems over the course of development,  with no fixed center, and the fundamental sense that there is a subject of experience is fabricated from myriad, disparate moments of subjectivity …. It’s not so much that we have a self, it’s that we do self-ing. As Buckminster Fuller famously said, “I seem to be a verb” (210-211, 213).
  • It’s a wonderful paradox that as individual things–such as the self–feel increasingly groundless and unreliable, the totality of everything feels increasingly safe and comforting (p 221, my emphasis).

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Some Thoughts

I’ve had a very unhappy week and so it has been hard for me to bring myself to post about happiness (and the search for it). But reading The Art of Happiness has reminded me of some of the reasons why I started exploring happiness.

Probably the first thing that really got me started thinking about the search was my physics class Sophomore year of college. On one of the first days of class my professor told us in some clever way that science isn’t the be all end all. It’s not the “truth”. Well, this blew my mind. I had written off religion pretty early in my life for the sake of science. This quote from the introduction immediately brought that day to mind: “Scientific knowledge is a dynamic, living thing-and scientific theories are always being refined, modified, or revised as we gather new data.” Obviously this makes sense, but I don’t think I would have realized for quite some time if I hadn’t taken that course. I also never would have been open to exploring religion last spring if I hadn’t of had that course.

Sometimes I wonder what the me of three years ago would say about the things I have been reading (and am reading) for this exploration of happiness.

(from Anne:) So I was quite taken with The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. I’ve been quoting it left and right, and I even shared a chapter with my faculty working group on assessment. This turned into an amazing experience: it took our discussion of evaluating student work to a whole new level. We began to re-imagine assessment as a spiritual practice: training students in a tool they can use forever, teaching them self-awareness, the practice of watching what arises for the self, and an appreciation for the unfinishedness, uncertainty, and unpredictability of life.

While I was reading this book, I also had a lot of questions about the implications of this practice for social change: if one accepts suffering–indeed, accepts all that is–then how does change happen? But when Alex and I got together to talk about the handbook, and began to think about applying it directly to situations in our own lives (in particular, to people whose behavior we find destructive–trying to think compassionately about them), I began to see the deep possibilities here.

Also, in the context of one of the courses I’m teaching this semester, on Exploring the Significance of Diversity, I was particularly struck by the Dalai Lama’s explanation (on p. 90) that he always approaches people “from the standpoint of the most basic things we have in common… rather than emphasizing secondary differences such as the fact that I am a Tibetan, or a different color, religion, or cultural background…. relating to others on that level makes it much easier to exchange and communicate with one another.” Perhaps I have been valorizing (=over valuing) difference?

I feel quite primed, now, for our next text, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, which seems to be filled with lots of concrete exercises to help me work on this practice. I’m ready!

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Quotes from Therese

Tomorrow Anne and I will meet to talk about Story of a Soul. While reading I marked various pages where certain quotes or themes stood out for me (the first of which I discussed in this post). Here are some others:

“I’ve been saved from that. I’ve found nothing but bitterness where stronger souls have found happiness and yet remained properly detached. So it’s no merit on my part that I never became entangled by love of creatures; I was saved only by the great mercy of God” (Pg 56 Chapter 4).

Whereas previously I found a similarity between Haidt’s and Therese’s views in regard to religion’s positive effects on a person’s happiness, This quote from Story seems to lie in direct opposition to some of Haidt’s other views (and frankly some of my own). Here Therese asserts that religion has spared her the bitterness of meaningful relationships on earth. In Hypothesis, one of Haidt’s main themes is the extreme importance of relationships, whether between a mother and child, lovers, or friends. No wonder Therese spent her life longing so ardently for death; she really didn’t have much to live for.

On page 62, Therese relays the story of her last Christmas as a child. She pretended to be happy in spite of her own feelings so that her family would be happy. This in turn caused her to actually become happy.

This is, I think, the first place where Therese begins her theme of charity. Here she does not explicitly mention the term but later in her narrative it becomes a major part of her story. Sacrificing one’s own happiness for others’ happiness is also something that Haidt touches on in Hypothesis. Starting on page 121 she talks a great deal about gaining the grace of charity. An especially interesting account involves doing all she can to put aside her dislike for a certain nun so that that nun might not suffer (this account was actually mentioned in The Happiness Project and Rubin’s discussion of Therese’s charity is what made me what to read her autobiography).

“I realized very clearly that happiness has nothing to do with the material things which surround us; it dwells in the very depths of the soul” (Pg 86 Chapter 6).

Here Therese also pulls in another of Haidt’s themes: adaptivity. She writes of being happy no matter what her surroundings are due to her faith in God. Haidt would say it is because humans are very adaptable creatures.

(From Anne:) So, we met and had that conversation. And I was very dismissive of Therese–for all the reasons I mention below: I really did not understand her desire for martyrdom. But then I had the idea of inviting into our discussion a colleague and good friend, who is a monastic woman committed to a life of prayer –and the story she told was a much more compelling one than the one I’d come up with while reading Therese.  I think I am now beginning to understand the conception of emptying oneself out, of stripping everything away, in order to make space to be filled by God. This concept fits, for me, w/ the Quaker concept of simplicity: if you fill your life w/ lots of stuff, you won’t have time for the important things. That’s what Therese knew.
I also think that I now have some understanding of Therese’s compulsion to suffer, as a means of identifying with her husband, Christ, on the cross: of sharing that experience, thus becoming one with him, but also thus making herself open for the transformation that is resurrection.

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Religion, Happiness, and Story of a Soul

The next book on the list is Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux. In chapter four one single sentence really stood out for me: “I am sure one can experience such joy only in a religious community.” Saint Therese was no expert on psychology, but she was definitely onto something. Her sentiment immediately reminded me of Haidt’s chapter on spirituality where he asserts that religious people tend to be very happy and live longer than non-believers. He discusses how the feelings of awe and what he calls elevation play into this (you’ll really have to read the explanation to get this one, but it has to do with moving away from disgust, feeling warmth in your the heart, and inspiration to help others). When I began exploring happiness, the first thing I looked into was faith. I come from a religious family, but haven’t identified as a religious person for as long as I can remember. So when I started thinking seriously about faith again it made sense to start where it all began for me: Christianity. I learned a lot from the time I spent with the Christian fellowship on campus and for a while I lost myself in exactly what Haidt and Saint Therese refer to: the elevation and awe instilled in one when they are a part of a religious community. I hadn’t been that happy in years and really thought I might become a Christian. Ultimately, I realized it wasn’t for me. I just couldn’t get behind some of the less tolerant and more supernatural doctrine. But I believe (and I think I can venture to say Therese would agree with me) that Haidt’s final question to the reader from this chapter has a lot to it. He ponders:

“If religious people are right in believing religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God.”

I’ve already discovered so much about happiness from spending time thinking about my own and discussing other’s spiritually. I’m not really sure if I believe in God yet, but I’m positive that I’ve learned a great deal from taking part in a religious community.

Anne has already filled me in on her disgust (no elevation here!) for our “little flower” Saint Therese and I have to be honest that I find her to be a bit off putting and…scary. How can I be afraid of a poor innocent dying nun you ask? Check out the beginning of chapter one when she recalls a conversation in which she wishes her mother would die so she will go to heaven. “Oh, how I wish Darling Mummy, that you would die!” But, I do think her autobiography has been worth reading. It clearly shows a form of extreme religious happiness that I myself have never experienced and in many ways hope never to experience. There are a lot of interesting bits on adversity and happiness as well so you may see another post on that topic before the week is over!

(Anne again:) I, too, was struck by Haidt’s description of the happiness of the religious, and by his description of our secular world as a short-sighted “flatland” that fails to acknowledge the “vertical” dimension that intersects with our social “horizontal” one. The world is larger than what we construct among ourselves, and we might well  be more open to that expansion — and so be happier (I’m looking forward to reading the Dalai Lama’s account, next week, in this regard).

But in the meantime? Alex’s report is correct; I’ve been having LOTS of trouble with The Story of a Soul. It violates just about of my political, philosophical and religious beliefs: there is so much “littleness,” so much diminishment — I think it’s mostly the feminist in me that can’t stomach this story. I confessed my dislike, this week, to a colleague who is a nun, and she suggested this way of accepting the story: “If God could make a saint out of this little neurotic creature, then there’s hope for all of us!”

But that still doesn’t get me very far: Saint Therese’s account is so filled with a longing for martyrdom, for victimization (the book ends with a prayer, “I beg You to choose in this world a multitude of little victims worthy of your LOVE!!”). She begs to remain “poor in spirit” (p. 38; I need to understand better what that means) and  “rich in suffering” (p. 82). She celebrates humiliation (p.111), and she admits that “freedom frightened her” (p. 41; I think I know all too well what that means!).

I do think, along with Hadit, that a sense of an expanded world, one larger than our little selves, can to help to make us happy; and I’ve long seen my religious life as entirely congruent with my intellectual work as a college professor and researcher: the exploratory seeking that Quakers call “continuing revelation,” the process of constantly “testing” in a social context, against what others know, what one knows oneself, against new experience and new information….are activities that, ideally, can be practiced in both the religious and the intellectual realms. But Saint Therese maddens me because she sacrifices her feelings (p. 137) along with (as far as I can see) all of her potential for thinking for herself. She just hands it over to God. Yuck!

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Adversity and Happiness

Anne and I just finished reading The Happiness Hypothesis. In Hypothesis, Haidt devotes an entire chapter to adversity. I feel it is only fitting to write my first post about this chapter since earlier this week marked the anniversary of my father’s death. He states that this chapter is about what we might call the “adversity hypothesis,” which says that people need adversity, setbacks, and perhaps even trauma to reach the highest levels of strength, fulfillment, and personal development” (136). Haidt also describes the classes of benefits that arise from surviving adversity: it reveals your hidden abilities which changes your self-concept and  adversity is a relationship filter. Adversity also makes you more open to new things and experiences. Adversity probably has the greatest effect in the late teens and early twenties.

I tend to agree with his adversity hypothesis (especially because he later qualifies that children do need a safe and controllable environment). In no small part due to my father’s death, my environment as a child was far from controllable and I do think that this early trauma has made me a more anxious adult. Even with this unfortunate outcome, I still agree with Haidt that I did receive some benefits from my early adversity. I was able to witness my mother’s transformation to an amazing strong single parent. I got to spend more time with my father’s parents and sister (these memories are now some of the best of my childhood). As a young adult, this experience has also made me stronger when dealing with death. I am more accepting and better able to cope with my grief.

This is obviously not a situation I would wish on any one else. But it is nice to reflect on the ways this experience has made me stronger as opposed to dwelling on the glaring negatives of losing a parent so young. My father’s death shaped who I am today (for better or for worse). The Proust quote that Haidt used on page 152 definitely resonates with me:

“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.”

Did my father’s death make me happier? No. Has it made me think critically about what the most valuable things in life are? Yes and this insight has in turn made me a happier person.

(Anne chiming in here:) I appreciated reading Haidt’s book; I’ve long admired, and taught, his wonderful essay on “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail,” so was looking forward to a more extended treatment of the role that the unconscious plays in our decision making. That meant that I was a little surprised @ Haidt’s locating happiness “inbetween,” as a balance of internal and external forces, but that position makes sense to me, and — as someone who is insistently “attached,” and finds much comfort and satisfaction and growth from those connections — I especially appreciated his cautions about the Buddhist injunction to give up up attachment, the strong statement that “nonattachment is an affront to human nature.”

Other insights I appreciated had to do w/ the “paradox of abundance” (the more choices we have, the unhappier we are); the concept of “negativity bias” (bad feedback always bothers us more than good–a perennial problem w/ student evaluations!); the idea of “ambient safety” (feeling safe enough to go exploring); the celebration of extroversion (being an extrovert m’self); the ideas that Alex discusses above about postraumatic growth; accordingly, the dangers of overprotecting our children (and so denying them that growth that can come from encountering adversity). I was also amused by the project Haidt sets the students in his positive psychology class @ UVA — to use what they’ve learned “to make themselves better people” — and prove it! That’s praxis w/ a vengeance, and the inspiration for the commitment Alex and I have made here, to use this shared reading course to make ourselves happier by semester’s end.

All that said, there’s something in me that resists the packaging of this book: it’s chirpy, relentless organizing and coherency (see the summary of the Slippery Brain Soldality’s discussion: it’s just a little too “tidy”). Which probably has something to do w/ where I find happiness: in critique. How paradoxical is that??

Posted in Alexandra Funk, Anne Dalke.

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