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Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

29 APRIL, 2013

A Natural History of Love

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“A one-syllable word heavy as a heartbeat … a sort of traffic accident of the heart.”

“You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better,” a wise woman wrote. But what, exactly, is love? Literary history has given us a wealth of beautiful definitions, mathematicians have calculated its odds, and psychologists have dissected its mechanisms. Love has been hacked, illustrated, coached, and reimagined. And yet the heart’s supreme potential remains ever-elusive.

Written nearly two decades ago, A Natural History Of Love (public library) by prolific science historian Diane Ackerman, Carl Sagan’s favorite cosmic poet, endures as one of the most dimensional explorations of humanity’s highest emotion. Ackerman begins with a meditation on love’s many faces, inescapable power, and ineffable nature:

Love is the great intangible. In our nightmares, we can create beasts out of pure emotion. Hate stalks the streets with dripping fangs, fear flies down narrow alleyways on leather wings, and jealousy spins sticky webs across the sky. In daydreams, we can maneuver with poise, foiling an opponent, scoring high on fields of glory while crowds cheer, cutting fast to the heart of an adventure. But what dream state is love? Frantic and serene, vigilant and calm, wrung-out and fortified, explosive and sedate — love commands a vast army of moods. Hoping for victory, limping from the latest skirmish, lovers enter the arena once again. Sitting still, we are as daring as gladiators.

[…]

Love is the white light of emotion. It includes many feelings which, out of laziness and confusion, we crowd into one simple word. Art is the prism that sets them free, then follows the gyrations of one or a few. When art separates this thick tangle of feelings, love bares its bones. But it cannot be measured or mapped. Everyone admits that love is wonderful and necessary, yet no one can agree on what it is.

Even the very etymology of love shies away from explaining how, when, and why we imbued love with such immense significance:

What a small word we use for an idea so immense and powerful it has altered the flow of history, calmed monsters, kindled works of art, cheered the forlorn, turned tough guys to mush, consoled the enslaved, driven strong women mad, glorified the humble, fueled national scandals, bankrupted robber barons, and made mincemeat of kings. How can love’s spaciousness be conveyed in the narrow confines of one syllable? If we search for the source of the word, we find a history vague and confusing, stretching back to the Sanskrit lubhyati (“he desires”). I’m sure the etymology rambles back much farther than that, to a one-syllable word heavy as a heartbeat. Love is an ancient delirium, a desire older than civilization, with taproots stretching deep into dark and mysterious days.

Our long history of ambivalence towards love, Ackerman argues, is rooted in the necessary vulnerability and uncontrolled surrender true love requires:

We think of it as a sort of traffic accident of the heart. It is an emotion that scares us more than cruelty, more than violence, more than hatred. We allow ourselves to be foiled by the vagueness of the word. After all, love requires the utmost vulnerability. We equip someone with freshly sharpened knives; strip naked; then invite him to stand close. What could be scarier?

Still, uncomfortable as it may be, love is also inescapable and subject to our own imagination in redefining it:

Common as child birth, love seems rare nonetheless, always catches one by surprise, and cannot be taught. Each child rediscovers it, each couple redefines it, each parent reinvents it. People search for love as if it were a city lost beneath the desert dunes, where pleasure is the law, the streets are lined with brocade cushions, and the sun never sets.

Ackerman offers an important disclaimer on how we think about the history of love, which is in effect a universal reflection on all of history and something we too often forget — the idea that everything builds on what came before:

It’s tempting to think of love as a progression, from ignorance toward the refined light of reason, but that would be a mistake. The history of love is not a ladder we climb rung by rung leaving previous rungs below. Human history is not a journey across a landscape, in the course of which we leave one town behind as we approach another. Nomads constantly on the move, we carry everything with us, all we possess. We carry the seeds and nails and remembered hardships of everywhere we have lived, the beliefs and hurts and bones of every ancestor. Our baggage is heavy. We can’t bear to part with anything that ever made us human. The way we love in the twentieth century is as much an accumulation of past sentiments as a response to modern life.

Much like the study of psychology, which has a long history of treating pathology by bringing our emotions from the negative to the neutral and only a nascent interest in the kind of “positive psychology” that elevates us above the neutral, Ackerman points out that the science of love has been largely confined to examining the negative — and yet, that misses the most rewarding marvels of all:

After all, there are countless studies on war, hate, crime, prejudice, and so on. Social scientists prefer to study negative behaviors and emotions. Perhaps, they don’t feel as comfortable studying love per se. I add that “per se” because they are studying love — often they’re studying what happens when love is deficient, thwarted, warped, or absent. … We have the great fortune to live on a planet abounding with humans, plants, and animals; and I often marvel at the strange tasks evolution sets them. Of all the errands life seems to be running, of all the mysteries that enchant us, love is my favorite.

A Natural History Of Love goes on to explore such intoxicatingly fascinating subjects as why love evolved, how culture and customs shape its expressions, what makes erotic and nonerotic love different, and much more. It comes as a fantastic addition to these essential books on the psychology of love.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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04 APRIL, 2013

The Art of Living: A 1924 Guide

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“Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts.”

The art of living has occupied such celebrated minds as Henry Miller, Leo Tolstoy, Ray Bradbury, Anaïs Nin, Viktor Frankl, Montaigne, and Steve Jobs. That’s precisely what Karl De Schweinitz explores in the first chapter of The Art of Helping People Out of Trouble (public library) — an early manifesto for social case work, originally published in 1924:

Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts. Being born and growing up are such common experiences that people seldom consider what they involve. As most readers of books pass from cover to cover, realizing not at all that the letters which form the words are the product of painstaking craftsmanship and that the imposition of the type upon the page, the composition of the title-piece, the binding of the volume, are the result of centuries of study and design, so also we take as a matter of course the miracle of being alive, and the comings and goings of the men and women about us.

At the crux of the art of living De Schweinitz places the skill of nimbleness and adaptation to circumstances, or what he calls “the fundamental question of adjustment”:

For man is not born into a world made to fit him like a custom tailored suit of clothes, or a house built to order. He enters a universe that was eons old before his appearance, and that in all likelihood will continue for eons after his departure an infinitely complex, eternally changing universe that evolves its processes unmindful of his presence. It sets the conditions. It is man who must do the fitting.

He offers a metaphor for the art of navigating life:

Man is like a canoeist directing his course through waves. One after another he meets them. They may be heavy and powerful or they may be light ruffles of a sunshiny day in midsummer. He must ride them all. To each one he must slant his craft, dipping his paddle at just the right moment, giving it just the right twist, putting just the right amount of force into the stroke. Each wave requires a decision. Let him fail in judgment, or in skill an d strength, and his canoe may ship water until it fills, or, in the lift of some great breaker, overturn immediately.

He goes on to consider various challenging adjustments across the different stages of life — from childhood to young adulthood, from health to illness — including a particularly prescient meditation on the evolution of marriage:

The adjustment to marriage involves an institution that, ever changing, is yet ever the same. It varies as human beings vary. In the homes of neighbors it may exist in the tradition of one hundred years ago and as a prophecy of what it may be to-morrow.

[…]

Marriage is the most complicated of adjustments. … Two individuals, two sets of likes and dislikes … two products of different inheritance and experience, must combine to give expression to a new entity, the family. It is the most intimate of relationships. In it there is no such thing as the impersonality which simplifies association with human beings in other situations. Always there is the intangible emotional factor, capable of thwarting every attempt at adjustment or of making easy the adaptation of personalities whose union would otherwise be impossible. Analyze it though one may, marriage will continue to escape definition.

De Schweinitz also considers women’s growing “adjustment” to single living — bear in mind, in 1924:

To chart a straight course through the shoals and reefs of single life, to attain to the happiness of dignified and affectionate friendships, to keep a sense of proportion and balance, to maintain a tolerance of temperament an attitude is truly an achievement. Yet women are making this adjustment, developing in the process richer personalities, and sounding new depths of understanding and appreciation.

He then goes on to explore work, making an eloquent case for avoiding work-work by finding your purpose and doing what you love:

Work is one of the most important of adjustments because it is chief among the mediums through which a man expresses his personality.

He illustrates the height of vocational bliss by citing Colas Breugnon, a character in a Dmitry Kabalevsky novel-turned-opera:

There is one old chum that never goes back on me, my other self, my friend — my work. How good it is to stand before the bench with a tool in my hand and then saw and cut, plane, shave, carve, put in a peg, file, twist and turn the strong fine stuff, which resists yet yields — soft smooth walnut, as soft to my fingers as fairy flesh; the rosy bodies or brown limbs of our wood-nymphs which the hatchet has stripped of their robe. There is no pleasure like the accurate hand, the clever big fingers which can turn out the most fragile works of art, no pleasure like the thought which rules over the forces of the world, and writes the ordered caprices of its rich imagination on wood, iron, and stone. … To serve my art the elves of sap push out the fair limbs of the trees, lengthen and fatten them until they are polished fit for my caresses. My hands are docile workmen, directed by their foreman, my old brain here, and he plays the game as I like it, for is he not my servant too? Was ever man better served than I?

De Schweinitz remarks:

Here was a well-adjusted workman. He had what every one needs: an employment in which his faculties had the freest possible play. Happy is that person who finds this in his pursuit of a livelihood. A man cannot expend too great pains in the search for appropriate employment. Sometimes it is a quest of years, involving many trials. The more encouragement, therefore, should we offer the youth who, after leaving school or college, experiments with a number of different occupations. Instead of being reminded of the dismal proverb about the rolling stone, he should be received with sympathy and with interest and should be helped to discover the best channel for self-expression and service.

But not all can enjoy the freedom Breugnon extols. To those confined to restrictive occupations, De Schweinitz offers a loophole:

Sometimes this means creating in [your] present employment the desired opportunity. Imagination and invention can often delve into their own environment and find the seeds of growth. There are, however, many jobs that are so mechanical, so limited in scope, and so monotonous in the activities which they require, that there is little hope for self-expression in them. Those who earn their living in such ways, if they cannot change their work, would seek place for the play of their faculties in an avocation. There are many examples of this. Hawthorne’s interest was writing, but he supported himself for years by clerkship in a customs house. A man may be an operative in a factory and yet may make the art of photography his work.

“On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” Henry Miller famously wrote and, indeed, De Schweinitz concludes the chapter with an affirmation:

Event succeeds event; accidents, people, happenings, one after another come toward us. Each must be met and dealt with, and upon the manner of our ealing depends the issue of our lives. If successful, men say that we are happy. If unsuccessful, they say we are in trouble. For this process of adjustment is life, and the mastery of it is the art of living which, who that considers the stakes, will deny to be the greatest of all the arts.

Complement The Art of Helping People Out of Trouble with the 1949 gem How to Avoid Work, then wash down with the modern-day handbook for living, How To Stay Sane.

Public domain photographs via The Library of Congress

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02 APRIL, 2013

The Science of How Your Mind-Wandering Is Robbing You of Happiness

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Why the secret of life remains in the living.

“The main thing is to get what little happiness there is out of life in this wartorn world,” Clare Boothe Luce advised her young daughter, “because ‘these are the good old days’ now.” And yet most of us are conditioned to escape into the past, into the future, into our to-do lists — to wander off away from the present, even as we chronicle the moment in real-time on various lifestreaming platforms.

If you’ve read any of these seven essential books on happiness or taken the sage advice of Jackson Pollock’s dad, the research findings from his Track Your Happiness project Matt Killingsworth shares in his TEDxCambridge talk will be of no surprise. Still, there’s something grounding about the unequivocal empirical evidence of something most of us intuit on some level, often with great discomfort:

People are less happy when they’re mind-wandering, no matter what they’re doing.

Strikingly enough, that mind-wandering is a cause rather than a consequence of unhappiness is at once jarring and heartening — it suggests that by training our minds to be more fully present, we’d be honing our capacity for happiness, something Eastern philosophy has long maintained. But perhaps the most surprising and most commanding finding is that even when people’s minds wander off to pleasant things, they’re less happy than when they are fully present in the moment:

Remind yourself of what it’s like to celebrate the present with history’s greatest moments of everyday happiness, then reel yourself back into the moment with a lesson in immersive living from Henry Miller.

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