What makes us happy? What a loaded question! This seems to be an extremely common question amidst mainstream conversations since COVID began, but this is a question that has been researched and studied for hundreds of years of course. In recent years, the subject of happiness has been studied more and more by social scientists, with really great data coming out as a result, and applications of this information being considered in all aspects of human life. I have previously talked about one of my favorite podcasts on the topic: The Happiness Lab (https://www.happinesslab.fm/). This great podcast out of Yale talks about happiness from all sorts of angles and is entertaining as well as fascinating and useful in our daily lives. But what about our other emotions and how we handle them in ourselves and between each other? Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we misinterpret our own and each other’s different emotions and how uncomfortable we are with most emotions that are not happiness. As we work on diversity and inclusion in our culture, could we be more understanding and inclusive of our diverse emotions as well?
Have you seen that Disney Pixar movie Inside Out? The basic premise is that we can’t possibly be only happy all the time. Our complicated array of emotions is just one of the many things that makes humans so interesting. Valuing the experience of one emotion helps us value the others. In our busy, American culture, we are constantly looking for ways to make ourselves feel happy and fulfilled, and this is just one of the ways we tend to run away from our other, more complicated emotions. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to be happy. After all, that is the entire mission of Social Tinkering – to empower connections in order to grow happiness. But what if part of finding our true happiness, is about learning to embrace all of our emotions and their value? And what if embracing and accepting all of our complex emotions was part of our acceptance and embrace of other people?
Over recent years as I have worked on a lot of my own personal baggage, I’ve realized just how many emotions I have and have learned to name them and sort them out a bit – still learning. I started reading Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly about 3 years ago, and I still haven’t finished it. It’s all about shame and I started it thinking – “Oh, I totally know what shame is and I completely get what she’s saying.” But then I got deeper, (like 2 chapters deep), into the book and realized, “I don’t know anything about shame.” The more I read the word, the fuzzier and more convoluted the emotion became to me. I realized I’m not finishing the book because I have to keep putting it down to spend weeks processing all the different parts trying to understand it. I keep having revelations about different things then stop and think and research them. Then get distracted. It’s only been with very intentional personal work and support from an expert, that I’ve been able to somewhat understand this emotion and how it affects us humans and our relationships with one another more clearly. And that’s just one complicated emotion. This is really layered stuff people.
Last week I got my hair colored again at the salon and posted a photo of my new do on social media. It was a selfie and I didn’t smile but didn’t frown either – I just WAS. If anything, I would say my expression was thoughtful. I was showered with lovely compliments from friends, and in between I had a couple of people ask me where my smile was. You may have experienced this before; “Why aren’t you smiling?” “Where’s that pretty smile?” It’s a way people feel they are showing their concern or caring for you, and I appreciated this loving response. But I didn’t feel like smiling for the picture and it’s okay if we don’t smile all the time. Just because we’re not smiling does not mean we aren’t a happy human being. Personally, people who smile all the time worry me. People are complex. Smiles do not equal a happy person. We can be people with a range of emotions and facial expressions and that doesn’t mean something is wrong if we’re not showing we’re happy somehow. It just means we’re complex humans.
Those that know me, know that I am one of those people who have the annoying quality of being willing to talk about unhappy and uncomfortable things. I don’t like to go around pretending things aren’t the way they are and I don’t avoid conflict when the subject is important to me. This tends to bother people and I have been told “you’re too serious,” or “you must be depressed.” A couple of months ago, when I was honest about my feelings while talking with my brother, he told me for the zillionth time in our relationship how I should be feeling and talking. From there I was told I am an “angry person.” I should’ve felt like he felt - I should have focused only on happy things and if I didn’t, then I was wrong and angry and depressed and not “choosing” happiness. I pointed out what he was doing and needless to say, it didn’t go well. I’m talking about this because it’s an example I have from my own life of how we make other people uncomfortable when we aren’t only saying happy, positive things – when we are telling the truth about how we really feel. This can be really complicated of course. Many times, people won’t want to be around other people unless they are a “happy person.” I have heard many stories about people losing friends after going through hard times in their lives. Have you ever heard of or been a person who “learned who their real friends were” after a divorce or health crisis or job loss? All of these are examples of our discomfort with hard emotions. When people aren’t ready or able to deal with hard emotions from within themselves or from other people, it’s easier to pretend the emotions aren’t real and either dismiss them somehow, or make the other person out to be crazy to avoid dealing with the hard stuff. We lose the opportunity to embrace ourselves and each other for our full and complicated selves, to know each other beyond the surface where the good stuff in a relationship really happens. This is vulnerability. And that’s another super complicated emotion that Brown likes to talk about.
I am on the mailing list for Aha! Parenting's newsletter and this week they are talking about – surprise! - the subject of happiness. “Once survival, safety and basic comforts are assured, external circumstance doesn't affect our happiness level much. Our genes certainly contribute, but their affect can be ameliorated to ratchet up our happiness set points to a higher level. The largest determinant of our happiness turns out to be our own mental, emotional, and physical habits, which create the body chemistry that determines our happiness level.” (Aha!Parenting.com) So, the big question that everyone is trying to answer these days really is: How can we achieve true happiness, not just push-the-hard-crap-under-the-bed-and-ignore-it happy? True happiness, like true love does exist. And we can find it in the unlikeliest of places, just like love. We will find it when we are willing to embrace all of our complicated human emotions in ourselves and each other. We will find it when we accept ourselves and each other for the complicated beings we are, and begin to allow our whole selves in the room – the people we really are deep inside.
Here at Social Tinkering: A Human Connection Project, that is what we are doing. We are welcoming ALL of each of you into the room, not just the pretty bits and pieces of you that are shiny and smiling, but ALL the pieces. Because that is what makes us ALL human and that is what allows us to experience true connection between each other. All of this leads to trust and the biggest thing of all: Belonging. Belonging is what each of us as humans truly long for in the center of it all. We are big-brained pack animals that need to belong to a pack in order to survive. Not just for food and water and shelter, but for mental survival as well. As our country re-opens after this chaotic pandemic, we are figuring out how to open as well and we will be here to put all that social science on happiness into action. We are disrupting the status quo of how we do happiness and we are creating space for your whole self to belong.
~Captain Jack Sparrow