Monday, October 11, 2010

Life, Liberty and...

Would you rather be right or happy? I have no question that my answer is the latter. Being right is about justifying, explaining, wasting your living time and energy on trying to get people to agree with you, or trying to get people to change. It's also about thinking that if someone in your life would just act differently, you'd be happy. But we can, at any given moment, choose happiness no matter what someone else is doing or saying. When you are being who you truly are and leaning into positive, loving thinking--then happiness arrives. (This is a timely topic today, National Coming Out Day, in which embracing one's happiness is central!)

Sparked by the fact that I'll be seeing the Dalai Lama speak this week, I've been reading The Art of Happiness, a book written by psychologist Howard Cutler, who interviewed the Dalai Lama over a long period of time. About half the book is the Dalai Lama's words and ideas juxtaposed with positive psychology--which has a lot in common with the Dalai Lama's flavor of Buddhism.

One of my favorite points the book makes is that being happy is not a selfish goal. Cutler writes: "Isn't a life based on seeking personal happiness by nature self-centered, even self-indulgent? Not necessarily. Survey after survey has shown that happy people are more sociable, flexible, and creative... And are found to be more loving and forgiving than unhappy people."

The Dalai Lama--who lost his country to some of the most brutal violence in modern day history--believes that being happy should be our central goal because it is unhappy people who disrupt others' lives at the minimum, and at extremes do things like start wars.

I've always felt deep down that happiness was crucial to me personally but also for larger reasons--and now I understand why. There are so many critiques of pursuing happiness that argue that it's "fluffy" and unrealistic. I've been called a Pollyanna more than once in my life. I've also been accused of not being a deep thinker because I tend toward the positive. (Funny, because the Dalai Lama is one of the deepest, most contemplative thinkers around, and he promotes the "art of happiness.")

But what I understand now is that the discipline of happiness is not about denying our negative feelings. Instead, it's using our negative feelings to recognize--as the Dalai Lama puts it--the ways in which negative feelings point us in the wrong direction. The key is to note those feelings and then lean into something more positive. One way to do this is to look at what you appreciate around you, what you are grateful for. One cannot be compassionate without being fundamentally happy because if we look at the ills of the world through the lens of anger, we perpetuate anger and violence. If we are happy, we are peaceful and kind, and we are more effective at creating solutions. Happiness, he believes, will change the world.

(Another event I'm attending this week is a talk by filmmaker Michael Moore, who is receiving the Steinbeck Award at my university. Afterward I get to attend a reception where I might actually meet the guy! Love him or hate him, he's made his mark on the documentary film as a social change agent.)

Something else I've been thinking about a lot is this: Wherever you put your energy, there you are. There have been times in my life that I've been miserable, such as when I've been stuck in the "wrong" job or "wrong" relationship. Now that I look at those situations from a distance, though, I can see in each case how I had put a lot of energy into making those jobs, relationships and other "unfortunate" situations happen. I'd worked hard to set the stage for those things. I'd gotten the "right" education, put myself in situations to meet the "right people," and cultivated the "right" disposition to bring those things into my life--and then when it was clear they weren't working, I spent a lot of my living time thinking about what was wrong, complaining about what was wrong, rallying the troops about what was wrong. All of that was energy that entrenched me into my unhappy situation. It made me "right" not happy.

Now I see that if I think more about what I want (not what I don't want) and about what I appreciate about the positive aspects of my life, then those things proliferate. It makes sense, doesn't it? Whatever we spend our thinking and living time on multiplies like rabbits.

The things I love are reproducing in my life. I'm very much enjoying writing the "personal transformation" book. I've been meeting regularly with a good writer friend to share what we're working on and to give feedback. I can feel the book forming in exciting ways. And now in the past few weeks I: a) received a message via Facebook from a guy who loved one of my novels that he'd come across in Guatemala, of all places, b) I just received a call from a radio program interviewer in Florida who wants to interview me in January, c) A new review of my novel that came out last year was just published and d) I gave an informal talk on campus about writing, and a student wrote this wonderful response on a blog. Energy begets energy.

Speaking of energy, I ran the San Jose Rock n Roll Half Marathon about a week ago, which was a wonderful community event. As I ran, I was moved by all the community participation: the numerous groups and individuals cheering from the sidelines, the hundreds passing out water, the bands every mile or so celebrating with their music--and of course my 13,000 other running comrades. It was fun to walk out my front door to the start line, joined by two of my friends. These events aren't just about running; they are about connection. Next on tap: Big Sur Half Marathon November 14, and the 10K Silicon ValleyTurkey Trot Thanksgiving morning.

I ran that Turkey Trot last year, which coincided with my 47th birthday. This year, it's the day before my 48th birthday. What a difference a year makes. Last year, I was coming into my own. I was spending my birthday and Thanksgiving single for the first time in 15 years, which felt somehow remarkable. After having been married in summer 2008, I'd never imagined that I'd be single in 2009. Last November, though, I embraced feeling free. I could feel that my world was mine to design.

Fast-forward a year, and now I'll be running this race with a man who has brought so much joy into my life. Talk about energy begetting energy. He is already teasing me with tantalizing hints about elaborate plans he's made for my birthday weekend. Perhaps throwing my own birthday party for myself last year (including buying my own cake embossed in frosting with "Happy Birthday Kate"!) set the stage for what is happening now: co-creating a life with someone who celebrates me, as I do him. Each day is a study in appreciation of now--and excitement for the future.

At the heart is a certain tenderness I feel toward the human condition. As one of my friends said to me today, "It seems like when things get really really bad, when things change for the better they change to the same degree and get really, really good."

I'd rather be happy than right--and I also know it's everyone's right to be happy.