how to go beyond happiness ( + neil gaiman’s advice on creative living)

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Recently some friends and I tore up the dance floor. So much so that the organizers of the event came up to me the next day, called me a ‘dance machine’ and said, “You were out there with your crew until the bitter end. You guys set the energy level all night.”

And it occurred to me that some of the happiest moments of my life have been on the dance floor, whether it was some grungy rave club in San Francisco or sleek VIP scene in Miami or Marie Antoinette themed masquerade in Los Angeles or retreat in the Utah mountains run by people well aware of the power of an excellent DJ.

It turns out that dance actually does make you happier. Jane McGonigal lists it as one of the ‘happiness hacks’, writing in her book REALITY IS BROKEN:

“Synchronizing physical behavior to music we like is one of the most reliable – not to mention the safest – ways to induce the form of extreme happiness known as euphoria.”

Other happiness hacks are to:

Practice random acts of kindness twice a week.
(we get dopamine hits when we can make someone else smile first)

Think about death for five minutes every day.
(we can create a mental state of ‘post-traumatic bliss’ that helps us appreciate our lives more)

Which makes me wonder: if I know that dance makes me happy, why don’t I do more of it?

In fact, why don’t I do the other ‘happiness activities’ that aren’t just pie-in-the-sky, woo-woo suppositions but the results of millions of dollars of scientific research?

I’m not the only one.

McGonigal points out that despite the rise of positive psychology, the rates of both clinical and mild depression are

“….increasing so quickly, the World Health Organization recently named depression the single more serious chronic threat to global health, beating out heart disease, asthma and diabetes. In the United States, where we frequently put on happy faces for each other in public, we admit in private to surprisingly low levels of life satisfaction.”

A lot of us think that happiness activities are just plain corny. Or forced and inauthentic. On top of that

“….there’s an undeniable tendency toward irony, cynicism, and detachment in popular culture today, and throwing ourselves into happiness activities just doesn’t fit that emotional climate.”

Another thing about happiness is that, even as self-help gurus tell us that “happiness is a choice” and “happiness lives within”, much of it is actually social. We shouldn’t be looking inward but outward: to friends and family, to community, to something larger than ourselves: to sites of purpose and meaning.

(I wasn’t happy just because I was dancing – I was dancing with some of my favorite people in the world. I even dance-connected with a handsome stranger.)

Maybe this is why some people consider the pursuit of happiness to be overrated, including the father of positive psychology himself, Martin Seligman. Seligman prefers the term wellbeing, or flourishing, because happiness seems too incomplete a concept to underpin a life.

“Well-being cannot exist just in your own head,” he writes. “Well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment.”

He sums up the five crucial elements of well-being in the acronym PERMA: positive emotion, engagement (the feeling of being lost in a task), relationships, meaning and accomplishment. Each element is pursued not to get us something but for its own sake.

What becomes clear is that happiness isn’t something that happens to us, anymore than good physical health simply happens (at least beyond a certain age). We have to practice certain behaviors – and minimize or stay away from others — in order to stay fit and vibrant, both physically and mentally.

It’s just easier not to.

We also have to cut against the rugged individualism and rampant consumerism of our culture, where achievement isn’t about personal fulfillment but the pursuit of good grades, good colleges, good jobs, money and status; where we think that we can’t or won’t be happy until we get that house, that car, that body, that wardrobe; where the pursuit of happiness translates into a kind of pursuit of the self.

In fact, a study published in the journal Emotion headed up by UC Berkeley’s Iris Mauss found, as this blog post describes:

“that the more people value happiness, the more likely they are to feel lonely during stressful events.

Mauss and her colleagues found that inducing people to value happiness increases feelings of loneliness and even causes a hormonal response associated with loneliness—troubling news given how much emphasis our culture places on happiness, particularly through the media.

Why this effect? The researchers argue that, at least in the West, the more people value happiness, the more likely they are to focus on the self—often at the expense of connecting with others, and those social connections are a key to happiness. “Therefore,” they write in their Emotion paper, ‘it may be that to reap the benefits of happiness people should want it less.’”

Penelope Trunk goes so far as to dismiss the pursuit of happiness as “vacuous.” For one thing, we have a happiness setpoint that is largely genetically determined; for another thing, we are terrible at predicting what will make us happy; for yet another, the things we tend to think will make us happy (like job security or financial freedom) aren’t likely to come our way anyway. So the pursuit of them will only doom us to frustration.

It’s better, Trunk writes

“To want an interested life. Not that I want to be interesting, but that I want to be interested.

I want to get up each morning and have something I’m excited to do. I want to have intellectual challenge and physical challenge and emotional challenge. I want personal growth, and I want goals that are difficult but attainable, through which I can track my progress.”

Note that Trunk’s emphasis on looking outward to the world (being ‘interested’) as well as purpose, meaning and challenge maps rather neatly onto Seligman’s sense of flourishing/wellbeing.

There’s a scene in SURVIVOR –the show about people trapped on an island divided into tribes and competing for prizes — where the winner of one of the challenges gets to assign various meals of descending quality (from a steak dinner down through bread and water) to her starving tribemates. What’s interesting is how it becomes a visible exercise of the tribe’s pecking order. The alpha person gets the steak; the final, pathetic meal goes to the person most likely to get kicked off next (and whom the assigner doesn’t have to worry about pleasing).

This is where, as human beings and particularly as Americans, I think we get confused. We think we have this innate drive to pursue status because it will make us happy, or bring us the money and material pleasures that will make us happy.

But we pursue status because the ancient part of our brain still equates that — not with happiness — but survival.

High-status people get to eat, and feed their offspring.

Low-status people risk starvation, exile and death.

The higher up the pecking order you could climb, the more likely you were to find food, find a mate, provide for your kids.

In our culture, thankfully, status might translate to an ability to get a great table at any restaurant at any given time (…the eating thing again…) but it’s no longer so strictly synonymous with survival. Both the CEO and the waitress serving him coffee get to eat.

Which is why money can’t actually buy us happiness – it was never meant to.

Once it meets our needs for survival, its basic evolutionary purpose is done.

And you don’t thrive, or flourish, or create an inner sense of wellbeing, just because you’re driving a Mercedes (at least not for long). A psychological concept known as the hedonic treadmill ensures that we’ll not only adapt to any increase in pleasure, we’ll soon take it for granted and want and expect more (whether or not we can actually get it).

Better to step off the treadmill as best we can, and turn our attention elsewhere.

It’s not about the pursuit of happiness – or at least our muddled and flawed understanding of it– but the pursuit of wellbeing, of interestingness, of the life conditions that enable us to flourish. A successful pursuit demands that we be active, engaged participants not just in our own lives but the larger human community.

We can’t just consume. We have to create.

The flourishing life is the creative life.

Which is why I love this advice Neil Gaiman wrote to an art student struggling between her parents’ wish that she aim her achievements at financial security versus her own desire for creative fulfillment:

“The greatest satisfaction you can obtain from life is your pleasure in producing, in your own individual way, something of value to your fellowmen. That is creative living!

When we consider that each of us has only one life to live, isn’t it rather tragic to find men and women, with brains capable of comprehending the stars and the planets, talking about the weather; men and women, with hands capable of creating works of art, using those hands only for routine tasks; men and women, capable of independent thought, using their minds as a bowling-alley for popular ideas; men and women, capable of greatness, wallowing in mediocrity; men and women, capable of self-expression, slowly dying a mental death while they babble the confused monotone of the mob?

For you, life can be a succession of glorious adventures. Or it can be a monotonous bore.

Take your choice!

Neil Gaiman”

I like that. Take your choice. It’s like that scene in THE MATRIX where Keanu has to choose between the red pill and the blue pill. Or that scene in the Indiana Jones sequel where the characters find their way to a cave that holds the Holy Grail. But there’s a problem. The real Grail is disguised among many possible Grails, and to choose the wrong Grail means to meet with certain death.

The Grail’s immortal Guardian advises the characters: “Choose wisely.”

Indeed.

Feb 4, 2013
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12 comments · Add Yours

Thank you for this. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot the past few years myself.

I wish more people would talk about these this openly. I feel like we’re in a moment where we can’t share our passion or our sorrows. It’s sad to me because these are parts of what makes the human experience what it is.

I feel for me that happiness is basically a lack of angst. If I’m excited to get up in the morning and I have an environment that allows me to create things, learn things, and work with others, I’m content. Basically, then it’s all good. :)

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Ah man, I need to dance more. Hey Justine, if we ever meet at a party, you have to teach me some moves. =P

Thanks for sharing this.

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I guess its all in how / what we define as ‘Happiness’. (And dancing, yeah makes me happy – I don’t even need to drink to go cut me some rugs!) If its that shallow thrill of ‘happy’ when you get a new shiny, then sure you’re going to burn yourself out. But that deeper sense of fulfillment is personal and different to everyone.

I swear a girl I know seems to get genuine fulfillment out of new pairs of shoes. (she has 300 pairs) And there are always more shoes, so is she onto some different, simpler plane of existence that I’m missing? Or is she more shallow? Or does it matter?

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Happily reading your blog!!

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It’s interesting, because I’ve kind of gone in the opposite direction of what Gaiman advises. I pursued my dreams and tried to fulfill myself artistically while eschewing my parents’ advice to be practical. And now, with health problems, no insurance and bad credit from unpaid medical bills, I’m living with my parents again and wishing like hell I’d followed their advice.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, at least to some degree, pursuing artistic fulfillment is a matter of privilege. If you have the money and security and health to do it, sure. But make sure your ass is covered too. Get the training for something practical that will be financially rewarding. Nothing will keep you from pursuing artistic and personal fulfillment as well, and it’s much easier to be artistic, to create a life of well-being, if you’re not literally starving.

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Gaiman was saying to find ways to create real value; he wasn’t necessarily saying you should make a living strictly off your art or even, necessarily, try. (Hugh MacLeod, one of my online heroes, actually advises creatives to keep their art on the edges of their life, where it won’t buckle under pressure or get warped by outside expectations. Money has a way of turning what you love to do into a job you’re suddenly wanting to avoid.) He was saying — at least in my interpretation — that there’s no point in living *only* for the money. And I have friends who pursued money straight out of college, only to end up disillusioned and frustrated ten years later, who would agree with him. So it cuts both ways: yeah, you need to survive, but you also need to feed your soul.

I’m not sure I fully agree with your statement equating creative work with privilege. The working artists + writers I know aren’t privileged, don’t come from privilege, and have accepted downsized lifestyles — especially in a city like LA — in order to do what they love (and get really, really good at it). Artistic development + success demand discipline, a work ethic, sacrifice (if not of money, then of all the other, easier, more immediately rewarding things you could be doing). Privilege can actually cut against these traits; it’s a lot harder to push yourself through the necessary struggle when you can go to Paris with your friends instead. Privilege makes it very easy to be a dilettante (and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not likely to net you a career)… I’m always bemused when people insist they don’t have the time to pursue their creative dreams, then go home and watch hours of TV (which doesn’t energize you the way creative engagement does).

I think we do people — especially young people — a real disservice when we make them think it’s an either/or proposition. That art can’t be something you develop on the side, mastering your tools and your skills and learning how to connect with the marketplace, just as many entrepreneurs will first develop their business as a sideline activity while holding down a job that pays the rent.

I hope you don’t give up. Success, however you define it, can be ten, fifteen, twenty years in the making. You might have to reinvent your ambition, or your skills, or yourself, you might have to find a new tribe of people to hang out with who can inspire, influence you and give you a new sense of what’s actually possible, but there’s more than one way to combine creativity + commerce. You talk as if your story is already over. It really isn’t, although I know the feeling.

I am also recovering from bad credit, by the way, and I don’t have medical reasons as an excuse, only carelessness, irresponsibility, ignorance, stupidity.

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God I love you for these words!

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Eating up your blog. MUST. PACE. MYSELF. And go do my own writing. Inspiring!

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Haven’t been here for a while, but read this first. The idea that synchronizing our physical movement to music produces endorphins brought me up straight: when I was a (generally) unhappy teen, I’d shut myself in my room, turn up the stereo, and lip sync to Aerosmith, Led Zep, and loads of other bands, acting like it was me actually producing the music and moving like I was onstage. Nothing made me feel better.

Guess I’ll need to hook up my iPod when I get home tonight.

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Oh, yeah—and don’t let debt or bad credit stop you. It’s so common today to almost be irrelevant. And I, too, am speaking from experience.

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Wonderful post and very insightful :) Your ideas on social status, their connection to ‘happiness’ and the real value of money are all brilliant.

Thx so much for a great read.

~ K

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@justine That has to be one of the most sensitive and caring responses I’ve read from anyone, anywhere. I’m glad I missed this post when it went up so I got a chance to read that response. You’re a remarkable woman.

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