Picture Your Unhappiness in its Underwear

I was writing some six-words on Smith Magazine the other day. I do this now and again as an exercise to get the creative juices flowing. There are a series of themes, and I try to write in as many of them as I can in less than 20 minutes, writing in a free form, stream of consciousness style.

When I got to the category HAPPINESS the first six-word to jump to mind was: “Picture your unhappiness in its underwear.” This one drew a nice response, which began me thinking about whether this advice might have actual merit–as opposed to being a non-nonsensical statement that might at best function as a Zen koan.

As I thought about it, three legs of the stool came to mind.

1.) Have a sense of humor. Anger and sadness have a hard time taking hold if one can manage a good laugh. I’ve found that being able to dance personal tragedy into comedy has been a great coping mechanism. One does have to be conscientious about not becoming a snarky person. One risks beginning to see the world through a crap-colored lens just as a means to comic fodder (or from a martyrdom complex.)

Perhaps even if one can’t formulate humor, one can still use laughter. There’s a system called laughter yoga that is based on the belief that you can create the same range of physiological responses from “forced” laughter as one does from spontaneous laughter. It’s a sort of chuckle pranayama (breathing exercises.)  While I don’t know much about the system, I can believe that it has merit based on what I’ve read about human emotions.

2.) Lay the source of your unhappiness bare. This sounds simple enough. One must know what is making one unhappy in order to turn that frown up-side-down.

That being said, human beings have an astounding ability to attribute all negative happenings in their lives to external factors. Like politicians, we like to take responsibility for what is going right (regardless of whether we are responsible or not), and we love to place the blame for failure firmly elsewhere (even it it’s mostly our fault.) This may be an evolutionarily-hardwired coping mechanism, but it can keep one in the doldrums.  If one continually says, “He makes me so mad” or even, “His actions make me so mad,” then you’re forfeiting control over your emotional state. Jerks and bitches might be an intermediary cause of unhappiness, but ultimately one’s own perceptions and responses lead to the negative emotional state.

This is where the hard work of mind training comes into play. Instead of being swamped by negative thoughts, one has to recognize them early, find the root cause, and recognize that our desire to for things to be a certain way is ultimately what makes us unhappy. We may want people to think we are smart or beautiful, and intimations to the contrary (whether intended or not) make us fume.

Don't be an angry monkey!

Don’t be an angry monkey!

One of the few things I remember explicitly learning in high school was about what our psychology teacher called a “gestalt of expectations.” Like most ideas one remembers though only taught once, I remember it because it had a memorable story attached to it. The story goes like this: “A man is driving through the desert in the American southwest. Now, out in the southwest, gas stations can be few and far between. So the man runs out of gas, and realizes that the station he passed 20 miles back is his safest bet because–contrary to what he had thought– the next one going forward might be another 50 miles.  So he starts walking. It’s hot. He’s hungry. He’s thirsty, and only has some lukewarm water that’s getting hotter by the minute. The backs of his hands and his face are getting sunburned. He starts thinking about how the little two-pump gas station is going to gouge him. He realizes he’s desperate, and so he figures the attendant is probably going to sell him gas at $6 a gallon, a bottle of cold water for $8, and don’t forget the jerrycan at $20.  These thoughts and the heat keep making him madder and madder. Finally, he gets to the station, and the attendant comes out and say, ‘Oh my, Mister, you must have had a horrible time.’ And so the man on the verge of heat-stroke punches out the attendant, a kid who only wanted to help him out.” Once one starts attributing one’s unhappiness to external sources, one can easily mis-attribute unhappiness because one thinks one knows what is in the minds of others, when really one doesn’t.

3.) Unhappiness, like standing around in one’s underwear, is–at most–a temporary state. As Taoists have been known to suggest, one’s darkest hour is a time to rejoice, for surely it will  get better from there. The only way one can remain in a perpetually unhappy state is to carry it with one long past its time. Just like the only way that can always be rained on is if one carries around a complicated mechanism with a showerhead and tank and keeps refilling that tank so that the shower never runs out. Otherwise, the dry season will come eventually.