Autumnal Equinox ~ On Balancing Happiness
It is only mid-October and already the snow has boldly announced itself in Colorado, tumbling through the clouds like flying saucers, these plate sized flakes have been falling for most of the day—in torrents. Tonight, the temperatures are predicted to plummet into the teens. The summer sun has exited the scene. And, once again, same as last year at this time, I am scratching my head. Why is it that I am I living in the upward regions of the Northern Hemisphere?
In Dan Buettner’s interesting book, Thrive, he shares his findings on the location of the world’s happiest regions, suggesting that countries near the Equator enjoying a “sun bonus” tend to be happier, regardless of their status or development. Mexico, for example, ranks second in happiness on the World Values Survey, well ahead of the United States—even though it is a third world country with twenty percent of its population living in extreme poverty.
Are there other factors contributing to the “secret sauce of happiness” in Mexico besides sunshine? Beuttner mentioned the Mexican culture’s emphasis on social life and frequent interaction with family and friends as top on the list of the happiness quotient—different from our North American inclinations, which emphasize work and success. His findings about Mexico are definitely thought provoking. Why aren’t people happier in America (where everyone, including Mexicans, seems to want to live)?
Talk to any Mexican immigrant (illegal or otherwise) and s/he will more than likely tell you that s/he’d rather be here than anywhere, and yet once s/he arrives s/ he can’t help but recognize the differences in mood and demeanor here. Take Luis, for example (a Mexican immigrant). I am always delighted when he comes across my radar, usually when he is stocking produce at the local grocery store. He is quite possibly the happiest person I have ever met. Luis works two jobs (that I know of)—both of the blue collar variety, and is not in the least concerned about whether the sun is shining or if the snow is blowing. He is just happy to be alive—happy to be neatly arranging the apples, happy to be asked about his day so he can tell you how happy he is—and just generally full on happy. I have known him for ten years and I have never, not seen him happy. Now then, what is it that Luis is dialed in to, which seems to be largely missing in many of his North American neighbors?
I recently read an article in the New Yorker (September 19, 2011) on T.S. Eliot, poet, playwright and literary critic, who has been described as “arguably the most important English language poet of the 20th century.” And yet, as I explored his life story I found that he was chronically depressed, married to an unhealthy and unstable woman, and had a nervous breakdown at the height of his career. Even so, he “…changed the way poetry in the English language was written, which he was able to achieve in a relatively brief amount of time under less than favorable circumstances.” The problem with his marriage was described in the article as “an asphyxiating mutual dependency.” Eliot seemed to be anything but happy, and yet he was still able to express his talents in revolutionary ways, influencing the entire English literary scene while in the process.
In all the years of my study on human behavior and the development of consciousness, it is my belief that the condition of an “asphyxiating” dependency is one of the most limiting and toxic, though all too familiar predicaments of our species. We have touched on the subject of dependency before in these postings, and what it is in our human psyche that may exacerbate this deeply perplexing state, which scientific research has now shown to be connected to our brain circuitry, conditioning, and synaptic connections gone haywire. For purposes of explanation here, we will describe dependency in adulthood as something of a “learned helplessness (a conditioned behavior—remember Pavlov),” which causes the repeated belief (branding it in your brain) that there is an inability to take care of one’s own needs. Sadly, learned dependency can show up across all levels of human conduct from the micro (in our personal relationships) to the global (like depending on other countries for cheap labor, oil, and natural gas).
Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), a leader in the school of humanistic psychology, invested his life in researching the possibility for maximal human expansion and introduced the idea that people have a hierarchy of needs, which he believed had to be met in order for them to “self-actualize” into their most optimal potential (full-on-happiness). He sequenced these needs in the following way: Physiological—food, shelter, water;Security—steady employment, safe neighborhoods; Social—belonging, love, acceptance; Esteem—personal worth and recognition; and the peak experience: Self-Actualization, which he described as profound moments of love and happiness. He was a shape shifter in the psychological arena. Prior to his innovative thinking, most of the mental health world had focused strictly on pathology and illness. Humanistic psychology introduced the idea that one could develop a rich reservoir of inner resources (regardless of the difficulty) through a therapeutic process of identifying and then removing the obstacles or mind-blocks, which interrupt personal development and optimal growth. And, it is my belief based on both my professional and personal history, that part of this “removal” involves facing and moving through real or imagined fears.
One could only wonder how the life and talents of T.S. Eliot might have developed had he been exposed to this humanistic approach in ameliorating his chronic depression. Given the extraordinary range of his talent, how might things have changed for him had he not been imprisoned by his own limiting thought forms, which included “asphyxiating dependency”? And, of course, despite living his life beside the inner demons that plagued him, his contributions to literature are extraordinary. Nonetheless, one can’t help but notice how a melancholy mood must have influenced his writing, evidenced in the dark, shadowy excerpt below:
RHAPSODY ON A WINDY NIGHT
by: T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
TWELVE o'clock. Along the reaches of the street Held in a lunar synthesis, Whispering lunar incantations Dissolve the floors of memory And all its clear relations, Its divisions and precisions, Every street lamp that I pass Beats like a fatalistic drum, And through the spaces of the dark Midnight shakes the memory As a madman shakes a dead geranium.…
T.S. Eliot was not only brilliant. He was a genius. Why then, couldn’t he get a grip on his emotions? And why are these states of melancholy that plagued him most all of his adult life, so much less frequently seen in Mexico?
Karla McLaren, who wrote The Language of Emotion, provides interesting insights into how losing the traditions, rituals, and coping mechanisms from our tribal roots could be responsible for some of our post modern pathology, both individually and globally. McLaren suggests that our predecessors’ ways of learning to survive provided a noteworthy framework for human development worth reviewing. She offers the possibility that a few of the factors, which may cause many of our current human relationships to become so dysfunctional and need-based, are directly related to the lack of emphasis and training on how to really feel safe and secure to the core of our DNA.
McLaren’s theory is that in the post modern world, we lack the broad societal support and preparation (aside from the shrink’s couch, most always after the fact), more available in tribal cultures, with which to move through trauma (anything from a tooth extraction to a gunshot wound). In all of our contemporary sophistication, we have lost our sense of tribal union, and the training, rituals, and support systems that were originally built in to our early history, starting with the clan. This training was repeatedly handed down in order that we could be appropriately prepared for how to deal with the inevitable traumas of early existence. Back then, there were saber tooth tigers. Now, even though we are more civilized, there are other manifestations of disaster that can cause deep upset, and these disturbances, in many of us, go unresolved due to the way our current brains process catastrophe.
In contrast to how we are living now, all tribal cultures had a structure for training their inhabitants on how to live in the world. It went something like this: Learn about possible danger and how to take care of yourself. Go out on your own and face the dangers (even if it is a brush with death)—putting into practice your tribal training whenever the wooly mammoth shows up. Fully experience whatever it is that you have to go through in order to prove to yourself that you can survive (and if you don’t survive—oh well…). Return to the village and celebrate your victory over fear/death, feasting on love and support with family and friends. (It should be noted here, that anything fully experienced, regardless of what it is, will contribute to a “fully resourced psyche (one fully capable of managing trauma and the emotions resulting from shocking events),” which many of us on this planet are operating without. And this unfortunate state, in my view, is a strong contributing factor to some of our individual and collective dysfunction.
After reading Buettner’s account of life in Mexico, it occurred to me that there may be something of a playing out there of the tribal ways described above. Their crime is rampant and the police force noticeably ineffective, “…with hundreds of police murdered each year in ongoing drug wars and rampant kidnappings for ransom. The month I was there, two police chiefs in Nuevo Leon were assassinated, their bodyguard was handcuffed to a chain link fence and shot in the head, and a journalist was seriously injured when gunmen stormed the newspaper’s office.” There’s more, but you get the point.
Here is my theory on how I believe Mexican’s may cope, given some of the background Beuttner provides. Children who grow up in Mexico have to be street smart. They are taught by their parents and peers early on about danger and how to take care of themselves. They learn how to face their fears—daily, frequently having to put into practice the survival skills they have been given. Most everyone belongs to a huge family support system. They have lots of fiestas and siestas. They don’t take much of anything too seriously, or anything in life for granted because of the unfathomable (to us) dangers they live with every day. My simple conclusion? They are conditioned early in life on how to face their fears and insecurities rather than run from them. Therefore their brains don’t get trip-wired or short circuited as easily by the cortisol (a chemical caused by the fight or flight response) released in our human heads whenever we face a threat or danger.
Now, I realize I am likely going to have to do significant research on the topic I just opened up here in order to even begin to prove my point, and that I have made some sweeping generalizations. Having studied human behavior with some considerable focus over the last twenty years, I believe I have just barely begun to scratch the surface in finding access to the real answers on why we humans let our minds hi-jack us into to suffering with such immense and unnecessary magnitude—baffling.
T.S.Eliot, I get what you went through. I have done it too. I have stayed in situations that were less than favorable because I was afraid to go, when I should have bolted for the door. I have also bolted for the door, when I should have stayed, listening to mind-chatter that doesn’t know what it’s talking about. And about the closest thing I got to a vision quest (the tribal version of going out on your own in the woods and facing your fears early on in life) was an overnight at Susie Schnepp’s house, where I could easily persuade Susie’s parents to take me home in the middle of the night if I whined enough.
Scot Peck, M.D, psychiatrist and legendary author of The Road Less Traveled, states that once a behavior is learned and conditioned in early childhood, it is extremely difficult to change as an adult (I know this one by heart). Nonetheless, it can be done (I also know this to be true, though it must be with an indomitable will, as Gandhi once emphasized). And so, back to learned helplessness. If on some level we learn repeatedly that we will not be okay unless something or someone is there to save us, that is what we will grow up to believe. I don’t care who you are or what it is you think you need to save you (be it a man, woman, the government, the stock market or a simple pay check), if you think you will not be okay without it and therefore you believe you have to keep or maintain it in order to function in the world—you will suffer on some level.
Luis, on the other hand, does not seem to suffer, and as far as I can tell, lives his life as close to being self-actualized as any human I have ever met (refer to Maslow’s model mentioned earlier). In his world, the sun is always shining, an attitudinal circumstance, which has nothing to do with his proximity to the equator. How does Luis do it? I am guessing that he has turned and faced his fears a few times, has the support of family and friends (who he frequently mentions in our conversations), doesn’t take life too seriously, doesn’t worry in the least what the stock market is doing, and is just plain and simple—hardwired for happiness (though most of how he got there remains a mystery).
As for me, I still want the sun to shine and I freak out more than I would like to admit. Nonetheless, by exercising that indomitable will of mine—even just a little, I have turned an about face on more than one occasion staring down some pretty significant stuff—with my “hands shaking and my boots quaking” (to quote John Mayer from his wonderful song, “Say”). And just like you, what I have learned, is that I really can shed those anxious fears and imaginations—one by one. Who knows when I am going to completely tip over into the happiness zone like Luis?
Peggy Farmer, Ph.D, author of Exploratory Surgery for the Soul states, “When you quit running the program of the risk-aversion-construct, you will more effortlessly live your life from a place of presence rather than allowing your past thoughts, conditioning, and memories to influence your current experience. Masters are always happy—no matter what. And nothing is more likely to tip you into mastery (self-actualization) than dropping the old programs.
Time to tip.
A final reminder from the late Steve Jobs (Apple Computer Wizard) to keep you on the course:
1. Follow your gut. The people who are crazy enough to make change happen, do.
2. Do not fear failure
3. Embrace competition. It makes you better.
4. Don’t settle
Now then. Go ahead and do something that really scares you (and I don’t mean jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge).
Believing in you,
Thrive, Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, by Dan Buettner
The Emotional Language, by Karla McLaren
Exploratory Surgery for the Soul, by Dr. Peggy Farmer
Happily Ever After…Right Now, Stop Searching, Start Celebrating! By Luann Robinson Hull