I was viewing a philosophical video essay recently with a very interesting premise. It was that “The Pursuit of Happiness is a Moral Obligation” versus a selfish desire. The idea is that how we act and what we do impact not only our own feelings, but that of others. So why impose anything other than happiness, laughter and joy on others? It is a conscious choice that we can make. Even a leading psychologist and scholar, Martin Seligman, has suggested that happiness is a like a muscle: that we can consciously strengthen with daily exercise. So it’s best for ourselves and it’s best for others, but how do we achieve this in these complicated times?
In reflection on my own life, I realize that I’ve often been too focused on the end result versus my journey there. Perhaps I’ve been a lesser person than I could be, in terms of my not only my own happiness but also my impact on others. There have been so many times that I have denied myself pleasure for the sake of discipline and staying focused on career, personal goals and finances, for example. And if I grew frustrated or tired, it showed. Gratification and balance were always delayed. Somehow, I thought that was what an admirable, hard-working professional should be: persistant and stoic no matter how tough things got. Who has time for pleasure when there’s so much to DO?
I think the best analogy I’ve seen or read has to do with allowing some “white space” in your life. In the same way that graphic designers know that art needs to be balanced with an adequate amount of white space to be effective and uncluttered; I think we as individuals need white space in our lives for solace and pleasure to rejuvenate ourselves.
But what happens if we don’t create any white space and put off pleasure? What if those personal goals we have and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel take longer than expected? Or when our dreams of “Oh, I’ll have time to enjoy it all someday” get derailed—like they have for so many recently? Has our society become one of puritanical, self-flogging ascetics that get stuck on a habitrail for years, then have to overcompensate with “purchased” promises of joy? I can’t help but wonder if perhaps it would be more balanced, to allow ourselves these everyday pleasures, and carve out some time to enjoy it. Perhaps a simpler life, with a greater importance placed on small doses of consistant, daily hedonism is what we need as a society. It’s not only what we must do as individuals to provide a positive impact on others, but also the planet.
So how do we seperate the wheat from the chaff ,as it were? What doses of pleasure are good versus harmful and excessive? And how do we achieve this sense of time and space and this elusive thing called balance?
I noticed a segment on the “Oprah Winfrey” show, of all things on a seemingly unrelated but similar topic. She and personal finance guru Susie Orman were suggesting ways that people could simplify their lives, and pare down. In addition to doing a few things like not spending any money for one whole day, not using credit cards for a week, and not eating out for a month; they also made simple suggestions, such as families eating dinner together, and not allowing any computer or TV activity after dinner. In changing some of these habits, families found that this created more space and time for things like talking, sharing, and play; and that these things helped nourish them more. And they found that they spent less on wasteful things that didn’t add to their happiness or satisfaction in their daily lives. In fact, the two families that participated in the experiment preferred how refocusing their time on shared pleasures changed their lives.
So I’ve begun to think….maybe instead of being so frugal with our everyday comforts; we should be more generous and nurturing of ourselves and allow ourselves more daily joy. We need to make it a priority to carve out time for this also. And we need to refocus, by ensuring we do small simple things that don’t require alot of money or time but add alot of quality to our existance.
I think this new brand of simple hedonism is necessary to get through this time of seeming scarcity, and allow us recognize how much abundance we actually ALREADY have. This sense of abundance will certainly effect us, and also enable us to continue to spread the currency of kindness and joy around. And perhaps in being more frugal with our pocketbook, we’ll ensure everyday abundance for the long-term versus a lifestyle habit of alternating boomtimes, then scarcity. And as Americans, a sense of entitlement to an upwardly mobile lifestyle certainly hasn’t paid off. Which is where many of us are at, today.
I sometimes have to remind myself: why not choose to be happy when we are given the opportunity to be alive? There is so much in the world that holds the promise of providing joy. I think there must be a way to fill us up with this joy, and achieve the white space we need.
So, what are your top ten LITTLE things that you could do a few times a week… a list of things that you know would add to your quality of life and happiness? Even in the midst of these transitional times? I’d love to hear you share your top ten list. I’ll post a suggested top ten list of my own little daily joyful things, in my next column.