Monday, January 22, 2007

Happiness Runs in a Circular Motion

Ellijay, Georgia Nov. 19, 2006

I begin with this morning’s holy scripture:

Little pebble upon the sand
Now you’re lying here in my hand,
How many years have you been here?
Little human upon the sand
From where I am lying here in your hand,
You are to me but a passing breeze.
The sun will always shine where you stand
Depending in which land
You may find yourself.
Now you have my blessing, go on your way.
Happiness runs in a circular motion.
Thought is a little boat upon the sea.
Everybody is a part of everything anyway,
You can have everything if you let yourself be.
Happiness runs, happiness runs. Happiness runs, happiness runs.
The word of Donovan for the people.

I am so sure it is a generational thing, but for some of us of a certain baby boomer age, for a brief shining time, Scottish folk-rock star Donovan epitomized a carefree, mellow yellow kind of eternal happiness.
I can testify to my belief in this, my belief in him, sitting high on cushions on an auditorium stage, dressed in a pure and saintly white loose sort of shirt and pants, rose petals strewn around him ( or so I remember). A slightly older but still baby faced foreign cousin to the flower children who lived across the Bay from where I spent my college years,an antidote in a slight human form to the tear gas canisters that regularly wafted through the stormy plaza, the war blazing in the jungles thousands of miles away but so close you could smell the napalm and hear the children screaming.

His world was for me a respite, if ever so brief, if ever so whimsical and maybe even ludicrous, from the Eve of Destruction we seemed always just hours away from: one push of the button and death the world wide. In Donovan’s song, in his perhaps hallucinogenic universe, little pebbles lay on the sand unharmed over the millenniums, human beings were inconsequential to the shape and shiftings of time, passing breezes lighting momentarily in this plane of existence. Thought, all the existential angst, all the trying to make sense of madness, was like a little boat upon the sea: so small in the midst of a large deep ocean.

You will always shine where you stand, he sang to me, to us. Depending in which land you find yourself, you have my blessing, go on your way.

Happiness runs, happiness runs.

He may not have been thinking about this, but it really does depend in what land you find yourself what happiness seems to mean. The pursuit of happiness, as our founders declared, looks quite different to an American than to a citizen of Bhutan, for example. Or even whether happiness really is an important goal.

The recently released film –"Pursuit of Happyness"—starring Will Smith and his adorable young son—is a look at the thwarted search for happiness of an African American man in San Francisco in the l980’s. He is stuck in a loveless relationship, in a profitless sales job, broke and owing for a slew of luckless parking tickets .The metaphor for this 21st century man’s life is running after things: stolen bone scanning machines, taxis, places in line for the homeless shelter he eventually ends up bedding down in.

His epiphany early on in the movie is that when Thomas Jefferson talked about happiness in our Declaration of Independence, he only wanted to guarantee pursuit of—the right to chase it—not that happiness was some sort of built-in birth right. We can’t control or expect a certain portion.

For this character in a Hollywood biopic, happiness ( not the word misspelled and scrawled on a wall of a Chinatown alley) but happiness as he understands and craves it, means a high end car and all that goes with those who own these vehicles. Happiness as stock market success. Happiness as box seats for a pro football team. That’s what he is pursuing and that’s what he gets.

Eric Weiner, who is the author of the upcoming book “ The Geography of Bliss”, which some would say is a synonym for a certain feeling of happiness, asks us to consider what the following have in common: the war in Iraq, sales of cigarettes, a series of spectacular and destructive fires in Southern California.

The answer is that they all contribute to the U.S. gross national product, or GDP as economists like to speak it, and therefore they are all considered – for the purpose of pumping up these money numbers- “good.”

GDP, he explains, is the sum of all goods and services a nation produces over a given time. GDP measures the size of the pie, not the quality of the ingredients—fresh apples or rotten to the core apples are counted the same. Or, as he so bluntly puts it, the sale of an assault rifle that ends up used in a high school massacre, and the sale of an antibiotic that saves the lungs of a pneumonia patient contribute equally to the national tally ( assuming the sales price is the same).

GDP does not register those monetarily intangible things, as Robert Kennedy reminded us, “ the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, or the intelligence of our public debate.” It does not register my experience for the then modest price of a ticket of seeing Donovan in that white white shirt, propped up on those silk pillows on that bare stage in the middle of the Vietnam War, or Donovan’s own experience of lying on a beach letting himself get small enough to realize that, as he sang, everybody is a part of everything, anyway: inconsequential and ephemeral, grand and eternal.

GDP measures everything, Bobby Kennedy concluded, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Yet, Eric Weiner points out in his soon to be published book,, we continue to track this quarterly statistic as if nothing else matters. If our GDP is up—at least for some segment of our population and a powerful one at that—nothing else matters. If the number is high, we feel good. If the number is down, if there are low rates or growth or, God forbid, a shrinking economy, this means we are less well off and presumably less happy, he tells us.

This assumption flies in the face of what economists and psychologists have spent decades studying, concluding that wealth increases people ( and societies by inference) when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class, but it does next to nothing as the dollars increase. Americans who make $50,000 a year, they have discovered, are much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year, but Americans who earn $5 million a year are not much happier than those who earn $100,000 a year.

People who live in poor nations are much less happy than those who live in what they call moderately wealthy nations, but people who live in moderately wealthy nations are not much less happy than people who live in extremely wealthy nations.

Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist himself who has written a fascinating look at how the mind works, explains that what studies tell us is that wealth has declining marginal utility, which he says is a fancy way of saying that it hurts to be hungry, cold, sick, tired and scared, but once you’ve bought your way out of these burdens, the rest of your money is quite frankly an increasingly useless pile of papers.

So while a capitalist economy likes profit—which comes from the association between making money and spending it on products you can count—individuals in their core being, in their brain cells and tissue, really don’t benefit all that much.

Americans are three times wealthier than we were a half century ago, but objectively ( or as objectively as we can be about this emotion, experience, or intention which is called by social scientists subjective well-being ) we are no happier. This is also true of Japan and other industrialized nations. Yet we continue to treat our gross and individual economic growth and happiness or well-being as one and the same.

We just get a lot of information, propaganda if truth be told, that the opposite is true. It’s all around us, especially these past couple of months when even the most innocuous Christmas songs like that crazy making Andy Williams classic “ It’s the hap-happiest time of the year,” with much mistletoe-ing and everyone showing to be of good cheer,” filled us with images of folks bustling around with arms full of packages and return receipts.

The news media regularly reported on the holy bottom line—whether this year’s retail sales were higher or lower than previous holidays, whether the post Christmas gift card redemptions would raise the totals.

The fall release of the opulent film “ Marie Antoinette” gave an early boost to the shopping frenzy, with its retelling of the story of a young woman who almost more than any historical figure has come to represent what one economist has called luxury fever in the midst of chaos. We are, in some ways, an entire nation of Marie Antoinettes: binge consumers. As one fashionista article gushed, we are all golden again. Whether it’s mod or a Marie Antoinette kind if thing, white gloves are hot this year, the coveted ones coming in at $250a pair, lavish elbow length affairs with intricate beading.

Think positive guides linking happiness to prosperity are in abundance. We are once again concocting a fantasy world, as one writer penned, a bubble to seal ourselves off from the traumas of our times.

Personal disclosure: I have gone through waves, pun intended, of feeding into this myth about happiness and money and buying things that might cause a microscopic blip in the GNP.

When I was living in the Donovan era, I remember living in my then husband’s blue work shirts and jeans, eating grilled cheese sandwiches on day old bakery outlet bread.

When we drove across the country in the dead of winter to visit his parents in Detroit I remember being incredibly grateful and feeling incredibly well off when his mother bought me a warm purple wool hat – a new one from Hudson’s Department store. That, in those lean and counter culture days, was wealth to me.

I have subsequently gone through years, even decades, of spending weekends in retail malls, then years of loudly shunning them. Buying everything in thrift stores and then buying most everything from the latest glossy catalogues. I might have stopped going to Wal-Mart and paid off one credit card, only to just sign up for one for J.Jill., with its creamy blouses and suede-ed skirts. On a recent flight to Washington D.C. and back, I studied the Sky Mall magazine, enraptured, I will confess, with all the stuff: the sumptuous upside down tomato garden for $69.95, the genuine fluffy Turkish bath robe for $99.95, the magically lighted slippers that let you see in the dark, the leopard spotted personalized airline seat cover.

Continuing in a confessional mode, I, like seemingly thousands of other Georgians, have been eagerly awaiting the opening of Trade Joe’s markets, described as a paradise for foodies. I have missed the food-focused special products that I had taken so for granted: the two buck ( OK three buck) Chuck: cheap red wine, the dense fruity breads, the frozen vegetable dumplings, the thick corn chowder, and most especially the almost to die for organic chunky peanut butter. Opening weekend in Roswell, I was there. Opening weekend in Sandy Spring, I was there, basket full.

I plan on being on hand for the final two store openings, sharing the experience with those for whom Trade Joe is a familiar friend, a shopping comfort, and those who are, as they say, virgins to the rush.

Just a shade past Christmas, we all had the opportunity to peek into the nether-lands world of the American CEO, as the head of Home Depot was rewarded $210 million for his poor stock market performance during his tenure there, all the better to buy the$425 a gram tins of beluga caviar featured in the executive pursuits column in the business section of the New York Times.

Donovan wrote in his tome on happiness that the sun will always shine where you stand depending on what land you live in, that happiness is available to us, but does it look different? If my Americanized happiness is so shaped by the need to feed the GNP, so measured by my individual pursuit of it, what then is happiness in another part of the world?

My recent travels to Central Europe, formerly Eastern Europe, showed me developing countries that have largely emulated the United States in this regard, with centuries-old plazas ringed with chain stores selling all manner of designer jeans and Ipods. Even my travel to China a dozen years ago showed me a Beijing in any case that could shop with the best of us.

In a quick cell phone poll of my world traveled and traveling children, I asked my daughter who lived in New Zealand for a year what she thought made Kiwis as they are called happy. Adventure, she told me. Give them a hiking trail that is steeper and longer than they expected and they are in bliss.

I asked my youngest child, who is studying in Paris until May, what makes Parisians happy.

Nothing, he said glumly, now well into his difficult relationship with the French, especially those who live in Paris, who he reports are too busy or too miserable to be of any help to him at all.

My oldest child, who has lived in China off and on over the years, told me to look beneath the secular shopping surface of this country to the underlying moral and religious value of this ancient country. He pointed to the three major religious traditions there, traditions that have survived despite years of censure.

In Confucianism, happiness is not transient shallow pleasure. It is an eternal meaningful world of reason. Confucians regard happiness as spiritual, not material, as moral not circumstantial, as self-identified , not other- judged..

Happiness in Taoism is the personal liberation from all human desires, through following the Natural Force as it is called, not doing anything, accepting fate calmly and facing life with a peaceful mind. In so doing, one may reach the ultimate happiness of merging with the universe, termed “ tian ren he yi”

Happiness in Buddhism can only be found in the “Paradise of the West,” after Nirvana, which promises eternal bliss beyond what is viewed as the everyday misery of this world. Physical exercise, meditation, doing charitable deeds are all ways to lift up the soul to reach this state.

Closer to our Western core religious tradition, what some people call our Judeo-Christian foundations, is what Rabbi Irwin Kula calls the ethics of joy. He tells the story of being in Israel on an unusually cold winter day. He was visiting a temporary village that helped and housed newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants.

They had just arrived after a long journey and decades of struggle in their country, where they had been an oppressed minority. He writes that they stood around makeshift caravans of prefabricated housing, shivering in the new experience of being chilled after a life near the Equator.

The Rabbi walked around, not knowing what he could do that would be helpful, when he spotted two boys about 10 years old. They were rubbing their hands in an effort to get warmer, their eyes wide as they took in a new landscape and a new culture.

He walked over and offered them his gloves. They hesitated at first, the rabbi recalls, glancing from one to another until one of them took the gloves and put them on. He’d never worn gloves before. He immediately started laughing, a laugh of sheer delight at these second hands over his skin, at once warming and scratchy. He took one of the gloves off and offered it to his friend, who also started laughing in that wonderful way, both their faces beaming with joy.

The rabbi writes that he too felt a rush of warmth, of happiness, even though his hands were by then very cold. He bought himself a new pair of gloves when he got back to Jerusalem, gloves that are now more than 20 years old, pretty worn out., but serviceable, and reminders of the gleeful laughs of those two young boys, each with a single gloved hand.

For the rabbi, this experience was a rich intersection of happiness- the boys experienced physical warmth and then the joy of sharing. For me, the rabbi writes, there was the joy of offering something of himself, a happiness born of giving pleasure and creating the opportunity for others to do the same.

Rabbi Kula tells us that a side effect of the longstanding tendency in Western culture to separate happiness from goodness, pleasure from morality, is that we don’t allow ourselves to associate personal joy from charity—doing for others- mitzvoth in Jewish tradition: loving kindness. We can be good, we are taught, or happy. Either/or.

The truth is, the Rabbi says, he does not spend much time calibrating, indexing how much pleasure he receives from doing good deeds, whether it is giving away his gloves to shivering young boys in Israel or spending a Saturday on an AIDS walk. But he knows viscerally, beyond measure, that when he visits a friend in the hospital rather than spend hours in front of the television watching his favorite shows that his contentment is richer and more abiding.

To be sure, he notes, the intensity and flash of happiness that flows from sensual experience is more brilliant and enlivening than the experience of dong for others. The intensity of fine pleasures, Sigmund Freud wrote, is mild compared with that of crude, primary, instinctual impulses: that can of wild salmon I threw into my grocery cart, that sumptuous bouquet of fall flowers, the precious bottle of pinot noir.

But with these sensual pleasures, the rabbi tells us both the joy and insights quickly evaporate. The higher state of awareness and understanding attained through an ethical practice is always more sustaining and embracing. Doing good is a practice and takes discipline, but the discipline is an ingredient in the joy.

This is what can be called the joy of doing good deeds, or the pleasure of acting as we should. This is age-old, age-less wisdom, like Donovan’s eternal pebbles in the sand. Everyone is a part of everything anyway: connected. The new science of happiness is now making the same discovery: doing acts of kindness in an interconnected way creates more happiness than just about anything else.

We are just past the time when we most frequently think of being charitable, of doing good deeds.

It is the time when we tended to be the most disciplined about this, most observant of this practice. We collected food, we donated warm clothing, we sent off our tithing checks to the causes we believe in.

Some of our Unitarian Universalist congregations are beginning to very consciously extend and deepen this practice, which can bring us so much pleasure and generate so much good..

We are Giving Away the Plate, all of the undesignated money that we collect in our weekly offerings, to a variety of people and places: groups that deliver meals to the sick and the fragile elderly; shelters of all sorts; refugee and immigrant services; environmental law organizations. We have let go of scarcity and regained our faith in generosity, raising in some cases, many cases thousands of dollars each Sunday, and miraculously increasing the amount people give to support the basic needs of our congregations.

I commend this to you, this and other conscious ways to link personal joy and collective goodness.

The little country of Bhutan high in the Himalyas has invented a radically new metric: Gross National Happiness. It’s no joke, Eric Weiner says, and the mountain people are not oxygen deprived. Bhutanese officials are dead serious about making policy decisions based at least partly on whether they will contribute to their nations’ mutual happiness. Or how they see it at least.

They are restricting tourist access to their breathtaking natural wonders, they are protecting their Tibetan arts and culture. They are puzzling their way through what is genuine happiness for their people in these times.

Not without critique, justifiable it would seem, that there is a dark side of this effort to promote and in fact require a kind of uniform definition of bliss: ethnic cleansing of Nepali Hindus living in Southern Bhutan for one, and cultural militancy.

Focusing on narrow cultural particulars, trying to tribalize happiness, they seem to have forgotten Donovan’s original sacred words to us- every one is part of everything anyway- that there is a dynamic interconnected universalism in human happiness that lies out there somewhere in the ocean of time.

Happiness runs in a circular motion.

Happiness runs.


© November 19, 2006

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