As I go through the world talking to people about gratitude, I notice their eyes glaze over and I recognize that my coolness quotient suddenly drops about 1000 points. Any of you who have known me awhile know that I despise evangelism of any kind and I strive at all times to be authentic. By the time I knew I wanted to write about this, I knew that I would need to practice what I preached and to write about the awful days (like yesterday) where I feel petty, depressed and defeated because they are as much a part of the process and a part of life as living gratefully. We can't simply bypass the darker moments to get to a place of gratitude. We have to go through them. And that hurts.
But, for those who don't know me....there is a tidal wave of happiness messages out there and it is easy, in doing a kind of social shortcut, to tar me with that same brush.
I admit it - gratitude and happiness are interrelated. In my experience, gratitude practice leads to living gratefully and that leads to happiness. So, anything that reflects poorly on the 'happiness' movement will probably reflect poorly on gratitude practice. (Witness for instance, the coca cola adverts that use the repetition of the word "happiness" to sell sugary drinks that cause tooth decay and obesity - yeah, happiness, alright)
In that vein, I am grateful for an article published by Huff post by Jamie Varon about the pressure that all this happiness movement seems to put on people to be cheery all the time. It has given me a focus to bring together a lot of thoughts.
Like I said, happiness isn't about being cheerful and negating the experience of darker moods and difficult times. But, just like yoga, a lot of people run to these movements to actually suppress and repress their emotions and avoid dealing with life. Oh yes, there are a lot of people hiding out in yoga, and, from what I can see....in the happiness circles as well.
Its not very PC of me to say this because I am a member of a Happiness movement and I am a yoga teacher. But, it is a dark truth with which the yoga community has had to contend, and one with which the positive psychology gurus better get a handle before they get tainted with someone flipping their happy lid, going postal and shooting a bunch of school children. I am grateful to be able to say that my yoga teacher, Swami Satchidananda and the current leaders of the Happiness movement to which I belong do understand this. But, as with all things, we can't judge the leaders or the teachings by all the followers around them. Swami Satchidananda used to remind us that if all the followers had it all together, they wouldn't need the teachings, now would they?
Unfortunately, it is often the followers that are a bit off kilter that get all the attention and go out into the world hypocritically evangelising. The article described how the stream of endless spiritual platitudes pisses people off and makes them feel guilty for somehow not having it all together. There is a tyranny of happiness out there - it is real and nobody should be ashamed or wronged for having darker emotions. I agree with her on this. Forcing a 'happy' world view or attitude on anyone before they can find their way to it reeks of the saccharin coated sinister world of Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange and of religious cultism.
Yes, I do believe happiness is a choice...but not in the way it is normally preached....not because we can choose all our circumstances...but because we can choose how we respond to those circumstances. And no, I don't define happiness as a perpetual feel-good state, nor as the achievement of all our dreams. Bad stuff happens. We hurt. And we process that hurt and transform it into something positive in our lives. Or...we grow bitter. Therein lies our choice.
I know this sounds like first world thinking. I don't believe that our personal responsibility to choose our attitude and thoughts in any way negates our social responsibility to one another. When we see another suffering, it is our duty in society to do what we can to alleviate suffering. It is the social contract under which we have lived for centuries. It has broken down - I admit that. This week I watched a man maintain his rush hour stride while stepping right over a homeless man who was begging outside of Clapham Junction. Perhaps we are afraid to look into the eyes of that man on the street because to do so forces us to recognize that save for a few circumstances, it could be any one of us in that position. If we don't want to take responsibility for our fragility in becoming destitute, we certainly don't want to take responsibility for creating our own happiness. But it is more - when we fail to have compassion for the man on the street, we cannot have it for ourselves, either. And without self-compassion, we can never make peace with our shadow selves.
Happiness is not about sustaining pleasure all the time, in my opinion. To me, the journey to happiness is finding our own ways to experience loss, anger, grief, injustice and finding the seed of compassion that propels us to grow, to live resiliently and to take what we've learned out into the community. It is that seed of compassion that turns a rape victim into a counsellor, a Nazi death camp prisoner into a positive psychologist, a school drop out into a ground breaking modern artist and a victim of injustice into an activist.
I share positive feeds and I hashtag many of my photos #happinessisachoice and hell, I'm bothering to spend 365 days here writing about gratitude. That may make you want to slap me but I practice pratipaksha bhavana (a yogic practice of replacing positive thoughts for negative thoughts) not to avoid dealing with my negative emotions and thoughts, but because I do believe that as we think, so we will be. Sometimes that positive thought is simply one of compassion.
I will be the first to admit to my own petty-mindedness, anger, disappointment, grief, lust, loneliness, gluttony, greed, shame, laziness, jealousy and insecurity. Some days I want to slap the smile off of people's faces, too. Accepting this about myself, without judging, fearing or having to look away from it allows me to have compassion for myself and to avoid acting on those impulses. By compassionately processing, without judgement, my dark stuff, I am freed of it and I can find the meaning in the suffering that gives my life a deeper purpose.
And so, with a mix of acceptance, processing the darkness and working to transform it through choices in thought, word and deed I do believe we can find our way to a meaningful, authentic life of depth and purpose.
And to me, THAT is the meaning of happiness.
If you want to read the original blog in Huff Post it is here: