Saturday, April 7, 2012

H is for Happiness

Fat Chance Bellydance via Ouled Nail
Perhaps this seems like an obvious one, but I actually wanted to take today to talk about a few things having to do with happiness that are oddly hurtful. And -- aww, geez. I was searching the internet for an appropriate picture to put up here, and I accidentally clicked through to a pro-ana blogspot, and now I'm a little derailed. For those of you who don't know the term, "pro-ana" is short for "pro-anorexic" and is exactly what it sounds like: a website that treats anorexia as a "lifestyle choice" and not a terrifying, life-wrecking eating disorder. Pro-ana websites tend to be run by young anorexic girls, and this was no exception. You know, it's one thing to see unreal standards of beauty pushed by the media. It is much, much, much worse to see them pushed by a sweet, ordinary girl who just wants to be happy and believes that her body is getting in the way -- and I don't know about you, but for her to believe that I, and anyone else who looks even remotely healthy, am fat is so strikingly and heartstoppingly awful that I just need a moment to breathe, here.

My healing instinct on this one is to immediately put up a picture of the amazing ladies of Fat Chance Bellydance -- for a number of reasons. First of all, check out the variety of bodies there! Second, look how totally blissed out they look - and how fierce. Although FCBD was actually named as a joking reference to the response founder Caroleena Nericcio used to give to creepy dudes asking for "private dances," the troupe is also famous showcasing a diversity of bodies and has done a lot to break down the Western stereotype of bellydancers as Barbies in coin belts. But also I want to put them up there in order to illustrate something I'm going to say in a few paragraphs...

For example, this picture comes up on the first
page of Google results for 'happiness,' from a
blog post called "Authentic Happiness." And maybe
she really is happy, but dude, if I had to wear
that outfit, I would be fucking
See? It's all relative. Via
I know that the fact that I just ran into a sixteen-year-old who has a circumference goal for the size of her wrist can't be blamed entirely on what I'm about to say, but it's not totally unrelated, either: a lot of us suffer from the myth that happiness is a resting state, something you can get to and then just stay there, like retirement, or notoriety. We've been taught happiness the way the proverbial donkey gets taught carrot, and this is at least part of why young women starve themselves into shadows: we are taught that happiness is a reward for good behavior, whether you're a capitalist or a dirty hippy: once I have this (insert waist size/stupid car/juice cleanse/small island/chakra alignment/inner peace/pony here) then I'll be happy. Um. Well. About that. We know on a sort of intellectual level that it doesn't work like that (because happiness comes from within, blah blah blah). But we still think yeah, but I'd HAVE happiness within me if only that dude liked me/I could ten pounds/Mercury would come out of fucking retrograde already. No, see, actually it doesn't work that way because happiness isn't a final destination. (Whoa, hey there - at last, a chance to make a sweet joke about the irony of Final Destination 2 3 4 5 6! Um, even Final Destination isn't a final destination! Bahahaha - aw, nevermind.) Happiness, like other emotions, comes and goes.

Okay, I lied. It turns out rich people are empirically happier. Because science.
Responses by income bracket in 2006 to the question "Taken all together, how
would you say things are these days?" Read more about this from Freakonomics
 And that's as it should be. "Happily ever after" connotes a life with no challenges, no sorrows, no suffering.There are an umpteen number of myths about happiness: for example, poor people are happy because they understand the value of important things like eating regularly and not destroying the environment while rich people are miserable and soulless because they don't appreciate how awesome caviar is; rich people are happy because, well, they're rich, dummy, and poor people are miserable because they have to work all the time and don't get to have a manny. (Both these myths, interestingly, consign the middle class to emotional mediocrity, but then we all know that's totally true.) But not only are there are happy rich people and happy poor people, most people, even naturally chipper ones like me, tend to fluctuate between states of happiness and states of discontent, grief, misery, boredom, pain, and other not-happy feelings. Sometimes that's because something awful has happened; sometimes it's not. We tend to think of happiness and suffering as alternating cards in a vast game of Uno: happiness trumps suffering, then suffering comes along and trumps happiness. People tend to fall into two camps about this: those who believe that happiness is the basic nature of creation and suffering comes along to cloud it for a while, and those who believe that suffering is the base state of creation and happiness comes along to relieve it for a while.

"Bad is so bad, we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, we feel certain that evil could be explained." - G.K. Chesterton

 Replace "bad" with "suffering" and "good" with "happiness" and I think you'll have a hard time disagreeing with this one. The truth is (and yes, I am going to make a sweeping statement about the true nature of the universe, and I'm right, too) that they are not mutually exclusive emotions. They exists side by side. Suffering doesn't naturally cancel out happiness; I have friends who have gone through a very particular kind of guilt because they found they could still manage to experience happiness after the death of a loved one, when they weren't "supposed to" be able to feel it. Happiness can coincide with, overlap, or simply be gently nudged out of the way by other emotions. That makes it no more or less flimsy than suffering - or anger, delight, jealousy, or any other feeling. It is not a way of being. It is not a lifestyle. 

via Zagharette
All those self-help books about finding the keys to happiness? They're trying to give you the tools to feel happy more often. And that's great, and I support that. Coming back to bellydance (at last): I love bellydance because it makes me incredibly happy. I love dancing, but I also love teaching, maybe more than the actual dancing itself. In bellydance, the abdomen can't be sucked in; there are just things you cannot do in the dance if you're trying to make yourself look as skinny as possible, as many of us do, sub- or un-consciously, throughout our days. Telling a room full of people that it is okay to relax their bellies, to send some love and attention to this part of the body that we universally shame, and watching the faces change from shyness and discomfort to a kind of blissful letting go - I love that. It makes me exquisitely happy. It never doesn't make me feel happy. But that doesn't mean that I can't be grouchy, miserable, upset, or heartbroken before, after, or even during a class.

The Bluebird of Happiness temporarily absent from his life,
Stan is visited by the Chicken of Depression.
(from the ever-awesome Gary Larson)
The thing is, we all suffer more when we treat happiness like a cure to suffering, a kind of emotional heaven we'll all get to where we don't have to feel bad any more. Tough titty, Pollyanna. "Being happy" is as unrealistic a life goal as "being a clear political stance belonging to Mitt Romney." Being happy is not, in fact, the most important thing in life, any more than being rich (or quaintly, adorably poor) is. It is a very nice thing to have as an aspect of your life. But listen, sometimes the Dalai Lama isn't happy. (I read his book, yo. I know this because he said so.) Do I know what the most important thing in life is? No way, dude. But  being happy is not a tenable life goal. Being happy is part of life's scenery: see, over here you've got your sunny Plains of Delight, your craggy Mountains of Despair, and then there's that weird smoggy place over there they call The Snarled Overpass of Too Much Time on Facebook. Happiness is not Oz. (And even if it was, Dorothy still goes back to frackin' Kansas, okay?)

Am I telling you to give up trying to be happy? Well, yes and no. Look, let's bear in mind that the experience of feeling really wonderful about existence is so important to me that my life goal is to build a museum all about it. So obviously I don't think happiness is some dopey thing we all make too much fuss about. I do think that trying to be happy is a waste of time. Trying to experience happiness on a regular basis? Swell, give me a call, I've got some great hikes we can go on and I pack a mean picnic. But trying to be happy? Listen, I think being bisexual would be totally awesome, but the fact is that the only lady parts I want to get up close with are my own, and ain't nothing gonna change that, either.

via The World According to Lawgirl
To close with a little bit more gravity, I'd like to go back to the young women in the beginning of this post: I have a very knee-jerk reaction to eating disorders for reasons of my own, and I want to make it clear that I have nothing critical of any kind to say about them as human beings. I do have strong feelings about the choices they're making, and even stronger feelings about the forces that led them to make those choices. And one of those forces is the idea that happiness can be achieved -- in their case, by starving themselves into an ideal body. And maybe they really will feel happy when they get there. I cannot be the judge of that, nor is it for me to decide if they're "deluding" themselves or not. (I also have very strong feelings about breast augmentation, but I have a friend who says she feels way better about herself after her boob job, and I would never presume to say she's making it up or in denial or that because I don't value the thing that makes her feel happy her happiness is somehow less "real" than mine.) It's just that anything that makes you happy is only going to last so long before something else comes along: the feeling fades, somebody dies, you have an awful breakup, some kind of ennui creeps in, whatever it is. Happiness, like everything you will ever feel, is a transient emotion. What I love about this picture, above, is it tells an awesome story -- actually, several awesome stories. Is this woman happy? I don't know. But she's done some amazing things, obviously, and can do many more (check out the present tense verbs "makes,"  "can knead," and "lifts"). For me, this is the difference between someone who wants to be happy, and someone who is willing to go out and do scary, beautiful, wonderful things and trust that happiness will make its luminous appearance on the journey. What a joy to see. It's a lesson I would do well to remember as much as anyone.


  1. You know, I like that you messed with the alphabet and totally skipped G altogether:) That makes me happy. You are a rebel!
    I am aghast at the idea of proana websites. I've known two women who were/are anorexic and have written about it and there's nothing happy about it. I also know and very much admire a woman who wrote a book about being "fat" and positive about it. It's called "Read my Hips" by Kim Brittingham.
    If you would like to read a post by Kelsey, a very talented writer, here it is.
    Happy saturday!
    How about G for Gutsy!

    1. Ah, if only it was because I was a rebel and not because I inexplicably forgot the order of the alphabet.

      And wow, that was an amazing piece of writing. Thank you so much for sharing.

      I've got my G already, and while it's not for Gutsy (that's a pretty swell one, though) I think you'll appreciate it almost as much :)

      thanks as always for stopping by!

  2. You know, I think it all goes back to Jefferson and his whole "pursuit of happiness" thing. And, while I don't disagree with him, why did he choose -that-? I mean, wouldn't it make more sense to say that we all have the right to pursue survival or pursue... I don't know. Well, I suppose he didn't, at least, say we have a right to happiness, just to pursue. I think, though, that people have come to believe that happiness and whatever it takes to have it is what we are actually entitled to.

    Personally, I don't recognize happiness very often. I tend to be constantly striving after goals (like finishing my next book) and happiness, while it might be there, gets overlooked. I think it's kind of overrated anyway. Oh, and there's also the part where I'm mostly unaffected by things like caffeine and alcohol, and I think happiness must be the same sort of thing for me.

    Also, I peeked at your A Fool For God thing, and I'm intrigued. I don't have time to read it at the moment, but I will be back to do that. I loved the opening paragraph.
    (Do you live -in- SF or just somewhere near there?)

  3. See, since I'm a naturally happy person (in the sense that I'm what a coworker once referred to as 'obnoxiously cheerful') and I tend to see the bright side of things, when I DON'T feel happy it strikes me as being a big deal - and at a certain point I realized how ridiculous that was, that I was upset about not being happy, as if somehow I was performing badly by failing at happiness.

    Is it overrated? I don't know if I think THAT - I just tend to think it's the natural offshoot of DOING things, mainly things that you love, although not always - I often feel unreasonably happy when I'm doing the dishes, especially if it happens to be sunny outside - and that, as I said, it's not an end in itself. Do you enjoy the things you strive after? Do they feel worthwhile to you? That would seem to me more important than *being happy,* I think.

    And thank you! I lived all over the Bay the whole time I was growing up, and I'm moving back in July. (I've been slowly wilting in Western Massachusetts for the last 6 years. Nice place, but really? Tornadoes AND hurricanes AND blizzards AND summers like hot wet blankets? Ack.) Positioning my book in relation to San Francisco just acknowledges the spiritual debt I have to the landscape of that most marvelous of cities - although it doesn't technically take place there, the city in which it unfolds is probably more parts SF than anywhere else. But I'd be lying if I didn't say that Prague, Venice, Istanbul, New York, Marrakesh, and Jerusalem didn't all have some influence on the shape of the place :)

  4. Well, they seem worthwhile. I suppose I enjoy them. heh
    I enjoy painting (even if I haven't been able to do any in years), and I enjoy having written. I suppose it's more compliacated than that.

    You've been an impressive number of places. Very cool.


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