By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
In the United States Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson tells me that I am equal to all men, and I have inalienable rights to life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. So happiness is like deer or other prey that hunters pursue. People often say I have found happiness—something lost, searched for, and discovered again. The philosopher Bertrand Russell felt that happiness, like an elusive female, could be conquered, so he wrote “The Conquest of Happiness.” I read the instructions in Russell’s book when I was seventeen and tried to apply them with mixed success in my life. I was well into my seventies when at last I came to feel profound happiness, because I realized happiness, not misery, was mine to choose.
You may say that’s astounding; you mean that circumstances and what you possess don’t determine your happiness? Yes, I can create happiness, because I can be in charge of what’s going on inside my head. What we feel and what we think are the only things in the world we are capable of controlling. I don’t say to people, have a good day. I like to say, make a good day.
I’m not going to make a case here for the ways of Pollyanna. Looking through rose-colored glasses you’re bound to stumble and fall on your face. We have available, however, well tested techniques for feeling happy at all times and in all places; moreover, we can remain effective and empowered even when feeling good. Who is more likely to succeed at any task, someone who groans and complains about how tough the job is or someone who goes at it as well as possible?
How about those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Can we maintain peace and contentment when we’re shot full of arrows? It’s possible as shown by martyrs and other fervent believers. The early Christians thrown into an arena full of hungry lions cheerfully met their fortune. Modern-day martyrs of Islam strap on a belt of explosives and walk in the midst of their enemies full of hope.
You may object that you don’t entertain such holy visions to guide your heart and steps. Perhaps you lack the necessary imagination. Our animal relatives lack imagination, also our intelligence, accepting with equanimity all hardships without whining or complaining. They do what they can do to survive another day. Walt Whitman wrote, “I turn and look at animals; they’re so placid and self-contained.”
Okay, but how do we achieve happiness in the midst of disasters in our own lives and everywhere we look? We can do it by controlling our emotions. We don’t want to deny emotions or suppress them into the subconscious; that only causes traumata to fester as Freud pointed out. Yet, we can turn any emotion on or off as needed for an effective life. Who needs disappointment, frustration, or depression while striving for success, even for survival? Turn these emotions off. If you have to swim through an open sewer to survive, turn off your sense of disgust.
Yes, right, but how do we turn off emotions when they are counter-productive, and how do we turn them on when we need them? Ways exist for doing this, such as the techniques of the method school of acting.
Constantin Stanislavski originated The Method at the Moscow Theater; Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner and others expanded the techniques of this school of acting in America, mainly in New York City. The actor elicits a specific emotion needing display in the theater by recalling personal experiences or imagining such experiences. To switch off the emotion the actor recalls or imagines a different scene, such as one of peace and tranquility.
There’s a lot more to The Method than I have stated, in addition to years of training in voice and movement control.
Any improvement in emotional control is bound to have enormous benefits in life. Remember, you’re not out to extinguish your emotions or milder feelings as some people do, in effect turning yourself into a zombie. You want to use your emotions to a better effect. For starters, over-wrought emotion can be very exhausting; cool it. Excessive anger can be disastrous, and so can be fear. Even when the situation is very bad, I try not to go beyond concern about the outcome. After all, in the modern world fight or flight is usually not practical; you just stress yourself unnecessarily.
Stress, when not relieved with physical exertion such as running or fighting, can be damaging because of the effects of excess cortisol and adrenaline on the body. Boredom is also hard on us. When we have no change in our lives, no happenings, we are bored and sometimes seek escape from ennui in dangerous activities. Talk and games with good friends, hobbies, interests, and even plain work drive away boredom. Idleness is more unpleasant than any work, unless you’re an expert idler.
Buddha taught that relief from suffering comes from giving up selfish desires. Give up your narrow selfish interests and look to the care of all sentient beings; you’re more likely to find happiness.
If method acting for emotional control is not your forte, try meditation in the Buddhist tradition. Provided reports from Tibet and other lands in the Far East are correct, you have to admire the feats of monks and yogis. A monk douses himself with gasoline and calmly sets his body aflame in protest for injustice. A yogi rests comfortably on a bed of nails, chanting happily. You have to respect such emotional control even if you don’t care to follow the example of such holy people.
A simple start to the control of feelings is to go through the motions associated with the proper emotion. Smile or laugh, you may trigger a lightening of your heart. Smile though your heart is breaking. Stand with your head up and back straight, self confidence may follow. Show that you care, love may come to you.
Also, we tend to react to the thing on which we focus our attention, not to things in the periphery of our vision. Pick a thing to focus on that makes you feel good, competent, and strong. When feeling low, think of your favorite things.
When frustrated by life, concentrate on the problem you can solve, not on what is out of reach for you or seems impossible to defeat.
When nothing can be done about an unpleasant condition, then accept it with cheerful resignation. Resignation to your fate can keep you happy as the Stoic philosophers claim.
Using method acting, meditation, or other techniques we can certainly improve our mood; at the very least we can avoid unhappiness. Most people make themselves miserable with their thoughts and lack of emotional control. I’m not talking now about positive or negative thinking, a popular topic in inspirational lectures. You can think very objectively, looking straight at the facts, pleasant or alarming and still be content, able to take fitting action if you have learned emotional control. It’s not what you encounter in life that makes you happy or miserable, but how you react to events.
Our imagination often leads us to become miserable when with its help we can more readily be happy.
Unfortunately, many people react to difficulties by becoming miserable, then seeking to escape their misery with drink, drugs, overeating, shopping, shows or books, gambling, sex, or partying. Actually, addictive escapes are innumerable. Such escapes make people even more miserable the following day, angry with themselves and the world, ready to fight with their spouse and abuse their children. This leads to guilt and more escapist activities.
I doubt that feeling guilty leads to better behavior in the future; feeling good does.
Yet, many people indulge in guilt, regret, self pity, envy, jealousy, despair, sadness, even depression. Of course, they claim they can’t help themselves. Perhaps, but what is the survival value of such bad feelings? They conserve energy if it needs to be conserved and keep you from taking risky actions. Disheartened people devote themselves to resignation from effort and success. Feeling worthless, lonely, neglected, abused, or unwanted they waste their lives.
On the other hand, are there any adverse effects to being happy all the time? Commonly, people think that those who are happy don’t strive hard to achieve worthwhile goals because they are content with what they have; that is not so. When we’re happy we have more zest for life and want to be active to realize our dreams. Besides, happiness must include a useful and successful life, working hard for a better world, even tackling difficult, risky, sometimes painful enterprises, such as exploring, inventing, organizing, and improving.
At my age, I use every stick and stone to prop up my mood when it starts sinking. I cannot afford to be sad, melancholy, or depressed; such moods can bring the end for me before it’s due to arrive. When I sense these moods or any unwanted feelings knocking at my mind’s door, I block them, then I extinguish them and I’m happy again.
Some people think we need to be unhappy sometimes in order to recognize and appreciate happiness when it comes to us. This argument is similar to saying that we need pain on occasion in order to enjoy pleasure. We should look to the consequences of pain or unhappiness before choosing our mental state for such a contrast. Pain and misery do harm to our lives as a rule and should be avoided if possible. Poetic or romantic sadness, such as in the Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe, can be destructive if indulged in excessively.
Happiness, however, leads to good things. When you’re happy you smile at people, you laugh with them, and play joyfully. When happy you do better work, you contribute more to the world with your creations. Your health improves with happiness. Heaven is a happy place.