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Are you happy?
I mean…really happy?
That can be a tricky question to answer. Try this: close your eyes, and imagine a happy person. This can be a person from your life, or from a movie, a book, or whatever. See what they look like. Imagine what they do with their time. Feel what they might feel.
Now, compare that to what you look like, do with your time, feel.
Are you happy?
Let me ask another question:
Did you think of a real person?
Or a fictional one?
Early this year I set a goal for myself to focus on happiness.
I’m not a natural pleasure-taker. I can tend to drift toward focusing on my work, my responsibilities. I can get wrapped up in my thoughts and forget to focus on the here and now. Experience more pleasure is a consistent and recurring goal.
So I built a system. Each day, a text would come in, asking:
Are you happy?
And I would respond back: a 1 for yes, a 2 for no.
Early on, I found I was actually happier than anticipated. Yes, there were some 2s in there, but generally, I was doing all right.
Mid-way through the year, I was ready to throw my entire life away and start over. I was miserable.
Not because anything terrible happened. My marriage, my kids, my work…all were more or less as they had been.
It was a mystery to me. I had no idea why I was feeling so down.
And then it hit me:
I was miserable because I asked.
Iain McGilchrist is a British psychiatrist and writer who explores the difference between the two hemispheres of the brain. In his book The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist argues that the left hemisphere is primarily responsible for analysis, while the right hemisphere is responsible for synthesis.
In other words, the left hemisphere is focused on the individual parts - it dissects.
Dissection, of course, is not a bad thing. Without it, we’d know a lot less about how biology works. Understanding the component parts of a thing helps us to understand how everything comes together.
But dissection can’t help us understand a living organism…because in the process of dissecting it, we’d be killing the thing we’re trying to study.
We need analysis. We need dissection. But inherent in any left-hemispheric process is the illusion of separateness - the idea that the thing we’re looking at is composed of component parts that can be taken apart.
But certain things - dancing, love, falling asleep, happiness - can’t be divided up into component pieces. That’s because the thing we want to get at emerges from the dynamic interaction between these elements. Take the interaction away and you lose what made you interested in the first place.
The ant colony is a good example of this. Together, ants do incredible things: wage war, use tools, colonize their neighbors, build elaborate structures.
But none of those behaviors is present in an individual ant. In fact, each individual ant is, well…stupid. They are capable of very little, indeed.
You can’t cut open the ant and “find the instructions” for tool-making or war. None of that exists at the level of the individual ant. These behaviors only emerge from the interactions of the colony.
Are you happy?
Take an internal inventory. What do you feel?
Maybe a bit tired. Hungry, perhaps? Or irritated because of something at work. Or, maybe you were just enjoying a coffee and staring at a beautiful sky.
Here’s the rub:
Regardless of how you are feeling, the moment you stop to analyze that emotion, you will feel…
This is because you are no longer feeling at all; you are not present in the embodied moment. Instead, you are analyzing; you have removed yourself from the context of your surroundings and are attempting to view your life through a disembodied, rational lens.
Again, nothing wrong with this…unless you’re trying to figure out if you are happy.
Analyzing your happiness guarantees your happiness will not be present when you check.
It’s like trying to get a glimpse of how your shadow looks from behind; every time you turn around, it changes.
Happiness is felt in the moment, in context, in the fullness of an embodied moment. That means that, by definition, it is destroyed by analysis; the two cannot exist simultaneously.
This doesn’t mean you can’t be analytical and be happy; rather, it means that you can’t analyze your happiness and be happy at the same time.
And if you’re the type of person to put that data into a spreadsheet and ruminate on it (*cough cough*)…well.
Let’s just say feedback loops are powerful things.
COOL THINGS TO READ:
A particularly fun bit:
Until the 1970s, everyone knew French wines were the best in the world. Wine seller Steven Spurrier challenged the top French experts to a blind taste test of French vs. Californian wines. According to CNN:
The finest French wines were up against upstarts from California. At the time, this didn’t even seem like a fair contest — France made the world’s best wines and Napa Valley was not yet on the map — so the result was believed to be obvious.
Instead, the greatest underdog tale in wine history was about to unfold. Californian wines scored big with the judges and won in both the red and white categories, beating legendary chateaux and domaines from Bordeaux and Burgundy.
The only journalist in attendance, George M. Taber of Time magazine, later wrote in his article that “the unthinkable happened,” and in an allusion to Greek mythology called the event “The Judgment of Paris,” and thus it would forever be known.
“The unthinkable” is, if anything, underselling it. One judge, horrified, demanded her scorecard back.
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