Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

25 MAY, 2015

Emerson on Small Mercies, the True Measure of Wisdom, and How to Live with Maximum Aliveness

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“To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.”

In contemplating the shortness of life, Seneca considered what it takes to live wide rather than long. Over the two millennia between his age and ours — one in which, caught in the cult of productivity, we continually forget that “how we spend our days is … how we spend our lives” — we’ve continued to tussle with the eternal question of how to fill life with more aliveness. And in a world awash with information but increasingly vacant of wisdom, navigating the maze of the human experience in the hope of arriving at happiness is proving more and more disorienting.

How to orient ourselves toward buoyant aliveness is what Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882) examines in a beautiful essay titled “Experience,” found in his Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — that bible of timeless wisdom that gave us Emerson on the two pillars of friendship and the key to personal growth.

Emerson writes:

We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them… To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom. It is not the part of men, but of fanatics … to say that the shortness of life considered, it is not worth caring whether for so short a duration we were sprawling in want or sitting high. Since our office is with moments, let us husband them. Five minutes of today are worth as much to me as five minutes in the next millennium. Let us be poised, and wise, and our own, today. Let us treat the men and women well; treat them as if they were real; perhaps they are… Without any shadow of doubt, amidst this vertigo of shows and politics, I settle myself ever the firmer in the creed that we should not postpone and refer and wish, but do broad justice where we are, by whomsoever we deal with, accepting our actual companions and circumstances, however humble or odious as the mystic officials to whom the universe has delegated its whole pleasure for us. If these are mean and malignant, their contentment, which is the last victory of justice, is a more satisfying echo to the heart than the voice of poets and the casual sympathy of admirable persons.

Indeed, Emerson highlights the practice of kindness as a centerpiece of the full life, suggesting that our cynicism about the character and potential of others — much like our broader cynicism about the world — reflects not the true measure of their merit but the failure of our own imagination in appreciating their singular gifts:

I think that however a thoughtful man may suffer from the defects and absurdities of his company, he cannot without affectation deny to any set of men and women a sensibility to extraordinary merit. The coarse and frivolous have an instinct of superiority, if they have not a sympathy, and honor it in their blind capricious way with sincere homage.

An equally toxic counterpart to such self-righteousness, Emerson argues, is our propensity for entitlement, which he contrasts with the disposition of humility and gratefulness:

I am thankful for small mercies. I compared notes with one of my friends who expects everything of the universe and is disappointed when anything is less than the best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods.

Illustration by Julia Rothman from 'Nature Anatomy.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment almost Buddhist in its attitude of accepting life exactly as it unfolds, and one that calls to mind his friend and Concord neighbor Thoreau’s superb definition of success, Emerson bows before the spiritual rewards of this disposition of gratefulness unburdened by fixation:

In the morning I awake and find the old world, wife, babes, and mother, Concord and Boston, the dear old spiritual world and even the dear old devil not far off. If we will take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures. The great gifts are not got by analysis. Everything good is on the highway. The middle region of our being is the temperate zone. We may climb into the thin and cold realm of pure geometry and lifeless science, or sink into that of sensation. Between these extremes is the equator of life, of thought, of spirit, of poetry, — a narrow belt.

Only by surrendering to life’s uncontrollable and unknowable unfolding graces — or what Thoreau extolled as the gift of “useful ignorance” — can we begin to blossom into our true potentiality:

The art of life has a pudency, and will not be exposed. Every man is an impossibility until he is born; every thing impossible until we see a success.

Or, as a modern-day wise woman admonished in one of the greatest commencement addresses of all time, it pays not to “determine what [is] impossible before it [is] possible.”

A century and a half before Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert illuminated how our present illusions hinder the happiness of our future selves, Emerson adds:

The results of life are uncalculated and uncalculable. The years teach much which the days never know… The individual is always mistaken. It turns out somewhat new and very unlike what he promised himself.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures is indispensable in its totality. Complement it with his kindred spirit Thoreau on what it really means to be awake and the true measure of meaningful work.

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27 MARCH, 2015

A Seizure of Happiness: Mary Oliver on Finding Magic in Life’s Unremarkable Moments

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How to revel in the “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

Nearly a century before modern neuroscience presented the uncomfortable finding that mind-wandering is making us unhappy, Bertrand Russell contemplated the conquest of happiness and pointed to the immense value of “fruitful monotony” — a certain quality of presence with the ordinary rhythms of life. The diaries and letters of humanity’s greatest minds are strewn with such instances of finding happiness in simple everyday moments, but no one captures the humble grace of presence better than Mary Oliver in one particularly bewitching passage from her altogether enchanting Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (public library).

Mary Oliver in 1964. Photograph by Molly Malone Cook from Oliver's 'Our World.' Click image for more.

With Thoreau’s attentiveness to the outer world and Rilke’s attentiveness to the inner, Oliver writes:

On the windless days, when the maples have put forth their deep canopies, and the sky is wearing its new blue immensities, and the wind has dusted itself not an hour ago in some spicy field and hardly touches us as it passes by, what is it we do? We lie down and rest upon the generous earth. Very likely we fall asleep.

[…]

Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and — it was the most casual of moments — as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conditions of this total, effortless surrender to happiness parallel the “flow” state typical of creative work.

Oliver, who has extolled the urgency of belonging to the world as the supreme act of aliveness, writes:

Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity — the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women. And yet it was a moment I have never forgotten, and upon which I have based many decisions in the years since.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from 'Sidewalk Flowers,' a visual ode to living with presence in the modern urban world. Click image for more.

Indeed, this immersive attentiveness to the casual, unremarkable, yet remarkably enlivening moments of life is the raw material of Oliver’s genius, of her singular gift for bridging that vast abyss between the mind and the heart. (“Attention without feeling,” she wrote in her beautiful memoir, “is merely a report.”) She considers how the unremarkable becomes the screen against which the remarkable shines its luminous beam:

My story contains neither a mountain, nor a canyon, nor a blizzard, nor hail, nor spike of wind striking the earth and lifting whatever is in its path. I think the rare and wonderful awareness I felt would not have arrived in any such busy hour. Most stories about weather are swift to describe meeting the face of the storm and the argument of the air, climbing the narrow and icy trail, crossing the half-frozen swamp. I would not make such stories less by obtaining anything special for the other side of the issue. Nor would I suggest that a meeting of individual spirit and universe is impossible within the harrowing blast. Yet I would hazard this guess, that it is more likely to happen to someone attentively entering the quiet moment, when the sun-soaked world is gliding on under the blessings of blue sky, and the wind god is asleep. Then, if ever, we may peek under the veil of all appearances and partialities. We may be touched by the most powerful of suppositions — even to a certainty — as we stand in the rose petals of the sun and hear a murmur from the wind no louder than the sound it makes as it dozes under the bee’s wings. This, too, I suggest, is weather, and worthy of report.

Long Life, which also gave us Oliver on how habit gives shape to our inner lives, is exquisite and enlivening in its entirety. Complement it with Oliver’s gorgeous reading of “Wild Geese,” her moving remembrance of her soul mate, and her playful meditation on the magic of punctuation.

If you haven’t yet devoured Oliver’s wonderfully wide-ranging On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, give yourself this seizure of happiness:

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16 FEBRUARY, 2015

Lewis Carroll on Happiness and How to Alleviate Our Discomfort with Change

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“There’s no use in comparing one’s feelings between one day and the next; you must allow a reasonable interval, for the direction of change to show itself.”

I am the frequent and fortunate recipient of wonderful letters from readers, many of whom share deeply personal stories of their struggles and triumphs. But few have moved me more than a recent one from a 61-year-old woman from Santa Fe, who has been living with Stage IV cancer for nearly twenty-six years — something she revealed not as a centerpiece of the letter, and not as self-pity or even a complaint, but as a mere factual report for context. She went on to describe all the enlivening ways she has found for leading a rich, creative, and rewarding life as she adjusted to her progressively diminishing physical faculties. Astounded at first by her resilience and optimism given the cards she had been dealt, I was reminded of a now-legendary 1978 adaptation theory study (PDF), which found that both lottery winners and people rendered paraplegic by an accident not only return to their baseline happiness level within a few months but also have similar baselines overall, regardless of whether they had great or terrible fortune.

And yet most of us find this difficult to believe because, despite what we may know about the psychology of resilience and our hardwired optimism bias, we dread change enormously. Change — be it negative, neutral, or even positive — is hard; more than that, it’s usually unwelcome — in no small part because we’re stitched together by our routines and rituals. But change is also how we stretch ourselves and grow, and in the tension between the resistance and the necessity lies one of the great paradoxes of the human condition.

The wisest advice I’ve ever encountered on how to assuage our deep discomfort with change comes from Lewis Carroll — a man of timeless and timely insight on so many facets of daily life: In his nine commandments of letter-writing we find guidelines to making modern digital communication more civil, and in his rules for digesting information we find solace for our present state of information overload.

Although Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland is a story about befriending the disorienting strangeness of change, he addressed the subject directly two decades later. In an August 1885 letter included in the altogether addictive The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download) — which also gave us Carroll’s three tips for overcoming creative block — he writes to a young friend named Isabel Standen, who had written to him lamenting her loneliness and unhappiness in a new environment:

I can quite understand, and much sympathize with, what you say of your feeling lonely, and not what you can honestly call “happy.” Now I am going to give you a bit of philosophy about that — my own experience is, that every new form of life we try is, just at first, irksome rather than pleasant. My first day or two at the sea is a little depressing; I miss [my usual] interests, and haven’t taken up the threads of interest here; and, just in the same way, my first day or two, when I get back [home], I miss the seaside pleasures, and feel with unusual clearness the bothers of business-routine. In all such cases, the true philosophy, I believe, is “wait a bit.” Our mental nerves seem to be so adjusted that we feel first and most keenly, the dis-comforts of any new form of life; but, after a bit, we get used to them, and cease to notice them; and then we have time to realize the enjoyable features, which at first we were too much worried to be conscious of.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Tove Jansson. Click image for more.

Almost a century before that famous adaptation theory study, Carroll illustrates his point with a strikingly similar example:

Suppose you hurt your arm, and had to wear it in a sling for a month. For the first two or three days the discomfort of the bandage, the pressure of the sling on the neck and shoulder, the being unable to use the arm, would be a constant worry. You would feel as if all comfort in life were gone; after a couple of days you would be used to the new sensations, after a week you perhaps wouldn’t notice them at all; and life would seem just as comfortable as ever.

So my advice is, don’t think about loneliness, or happiness, or unhappiness, for a week or two. Then “take stock” again, and compare your feelings with what they were two weeks previously. If they have changed, even a little, for the better you are on the right track; if not, we may begin to suspect the life does not suit you. But what I want specially to urge is that there’s no use in comparing one’s feelings between one day and the next; you must allow a reasonable interval, for the direction of change to show itself. Sit on the beach, and watch the waves for a few seconds; you say “the tide is coming in “; watch half a dozen successive waves, and you may say “the last is the lowest; it is going out.” Wait a quarter of an hour, and compare its average place with what it was at first, and you will say “No, it is coming in after all.” …

With love, I am always affectionately yours,

C.L. Dodgson

The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll is a treasure trove of humorous and heartening treats in its entirety. Complement it with Carroll on how to feed the mind, his four rules for digesting information, and the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland.

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13 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Difference Between Routine and Ritual: How to Master the Balancing Act of Controlling Chaos and Finding Magic in the Mundane

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“The wonder of life is often most easily recognizable through habits and routines.”

William James, at the dawn of modern psychology, argued that our habits anchor us to ourselves. As someone equally fascinated by the daily routines of artists and with their curious creative rituals, and as a practitioner of both in my own life, I frequently contemplate the difference between the routine and ritual, these two supreme deities of habit. They seem to be different sides of the same coin — while routine aims to make the chaos of everyday life more containable and controllable, ritual aims to imbue the mundane with an element of the magical. The structure of routine comforts us, and the specialness of ritual vitalizes us. A full life calls for both — too much control, and we become mummified; too little excitement and pleasurable discombobulation, and we become numb. After all, to be overly bobulated is to be dead inside — to doom oneself to a life devoid of the glorious and ennobling messiness of the human experience.

This equipoise of routine and ritual is, to me, one of the essential balancing acts of life — not unlike that of critical thinking and hope, or form and freedom.

In Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (public library) — her magnificent meditation on how we endure and find sanity in a crazy worldAnne Lamott captures this delicate dance elegantly:

Here’s the true secret of life: We mostly do everything over and over. In the morning, we let the dogs out, make coffee, read the paper, help whoever is around get ready for the day. We do our work. In the afternoon, if we have left, we come home, put down our keys and satchels, let the dogs out, take off constrictive clothing, make a drink or put water on for tea, toast the leftover bit of scone. I love ritual and repetition. Without them, I would be a balloon with a slow leak.

More than a pleasurable rhythm for everyday life, rituals cast an anchor of stability during turbulent times:

Daily rituals, especially walks, even forced marches around the neighborhood, and schedules, whether work or meals with non-awful people, can be the knots you hold on to when you’ve run out of rope.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

And yet the most magical moments happen when life’s soft living body shakes free of the confining exoskeleton our routines impose. Lamott writes:

Beauty is a miracle of things going together imperfectly.

Still, structure and repetition are what keeps us whole:

You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next.

Without stitches, you just have rags.

And we are not rags.

But the true purpose of discipline — for this is the practice at the heart of routine — is to make room for the magical in the mundane. Paradoxically enough, it is an act of liberation rather than submission — routine grants us the stable platform within, from which we can begin not only to tolerate but perhaps even to enjoy the shaky messiness without.

Artwork by Maira Kalman from 'Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag.' Click image for more.

Lamott articulates this beautifully:

The search is the meaning, the search for beauty, love, kindness and restoration in this difficult, wired and often alien modern world. The miracle is that we are here, that no matter how undone we’ve been the night before, we wake up every morning and are still here. It is phenomenal just to be. This idea overwhelms some people. I have found that the wonder of life is often most easily recognizable through habits and routines.

[…]

Order and discipline are important to meaning for me. Discipline, I have learned, leads to freedom, and there is meaning in freedom. If you don’t do ritual things in order, the paper doesn’t read as well, and you’ll be thrown off the whole day. But when you can sit for a while at your table, reach for your coffee, look out the window at the sky or some branches, then back down at the paper or a book, everything feels right for the moment, which is maybe all we have.

Stitches is an immensely rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Lamott on grief and gratitude, the perils of perfectionism, the greatest gift of friendship, and how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing. For more on the magic of repetition and ritual, see the daily routines of celebrated writers and the psychology of the perfect creative routine.

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