"Happiness lessons?" you may be asking yourself. "Has Sukie gone totally off her rocker?" (Or perhaps you're thinking, as the neighbors say of Mr. Plumbean in Daniel Pinkwater's book, The Big Orange Splot, she has "popped her cork, flipped her wig, blown her stack, and dropped her stopper. . . gushed her mush, lost her marbles, and slipped her hawser.") Perhaps I'm overplaying this a bit, but I couldn't pass up a chance to quote Daniel Pinkwater.
What occurred to me as I signed up for "happiness lessons" was how truly against the grain of my upbringing it was--that is, within the context of good old New England, Anglo-Saxon, stiff upper lip, always put others before yourself, being and doing good are more important than being happy ways of thinking and being. And that doesn't even begin to touch on some of the more painful contributions of the Judeo-Christian tradition in general and of Christian theology in particular to the topic of happiness and suffering.
Let me say simply that it felt almost dangerous to consider taking happiness lessons, as if I might be putting my soul in mortal danger (even though that's more of a Roman Catholic sort of category than a Unitarian Universalist-turned-Episcopalian one). At the very least it seemed somehow borderline shameful, shadowy, a little bit "New Agey," flaky, and without doubt self-serving or self-centered or self-indulgent or some other self-word-combination. As if that's about as bad as bad can be!
In an act of extreme courage (which is often hard to distinguish from craziness), I even put myself out there cyber-wise as the leader of a local "happiness hub," not having a clue what that might mean, but thinking it might gain me access to some kind of bonus lesson or something. What it did gain me was an inquiry from another area resident who turns out to be a master certified Martha Beck life coach--so I really did get "some kind of bonus lesson" in a form I never could have anticipated. More on that another time.
Not long after, I was continuing to read Martha Beck's book Finding your own North Star and came across the following paragraphs:
"I once gave a speech to a group of devoutly religious women in which I stated my belief that all God really wants from us is an unshakable commitment to our own happiness. I could tell the audience was shocked by this comment. After the speech, several women commented that I'd gone a bit too far, and one said I should be 'dragged away in chains.' These women seemed to share a religious belief that suffering is the way to paradise, while the road to Hell is paved with happy times.
"If you believe the same thing, I encourage you to put down this book and pick up one of those cute little whips with razors embedded in them, because you're not going to find any support for your world-view in these pages. I don't believe in suffering for its own sake. Enduring a thankless, painful life doesn't mean that you deserve happiness as a kind of recompense; it just means you're enduring a thankless, painful life. If I'm going to suffer, it better be for a damn good reason. It better yield me more joy than it costs. If not, I will do anything I can to avoid it, and I advise all my clients to do the same.
"This is a profound sacrifice for the martyrs among us."
Clearly this is a large topic, and one that I believe to be worth unraveling fully in due time. But for now, I want to state that I hereby declare, for 2009 and beyond, my own "unshakable commitment to my own happiness." To be committed to my own happiness means, among other things, that I am not expecting or passively hoping that someone else will take care of that for me. It means giving up trying to manipulate someone else into doing that, guilting someone else into doing that, or otherwise, through all sorts of well-tried, devious and indirect means, roping someone else (or Someone Else, e.g, "God") into being responsible for my happiness.
And on the positive side, it means continuing to learn and to practice (and practice, and practice, and practice again) paying attention to what's going on in my head and in my body. To afford my body some much overdue respect and honor and affection as my most trustworthy, God-given teller of the truth about what delights me and what drags me down; about when I need to rest, when to eat, when to get outside and breathe fresh air; when I need to be alone, and when to join the party; when I want to laugh, when to weep, when to dance, when to sing. And then to dare to follow its instructions! And usually that means noticing and then ignoring or hushing up a lot of prim, judging, fearful, cautious, and sometimes downright nasty "voices" in my head telling me why I should do just the opposite.
So here's to happiness! My own, and yours, and to the increasing happiness of an increasing number of people around the planet.
P.S. In case you're still really worried that "claiming happiness" is brazenly and unforgivably selfish, or that a commitment to your own happiness will turn you into a self-centered brat with no thought for others, I have two suggestions. First, if the word "happiness" makes you flinch, (as I'm afraid I still do sometimes when I hear someone say, "the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness"), try substituting "contentment." Maybe contentment sounds like a deeper, more grounded, less happy-in-a-bouncy-kind-of-way state of being, and maybe that makes it a little easier for you to contemplate. Second, look at the Dalai Lama: he sure looks like a happy guy to me, and yet he is clearly anything but a self-centered brat lacking in compassion or concern for others. And he is the author of that conviction I alluded to above, "that the very purpose of life is to seek happiness."
Well, how 'bout that!