It’s easy to be dismissive of all the articles on happiness these days. They make you feel shallow: There are so many problems in the world, and we’re talking about happiness?
But, of course, happy people are more likely to vote, to be environmentalists, to be good parents and good coworkers. We’re not talking about just being bubbly and cheery; we’re talking about a sense of satisfaction and a deep sense of joy.
And, of course, happiness is good for the planet because unhappy people are more likely to be consumers, using up the world’s resources and polluting the environment. After all, commercials are designed to make you feel unhappy with your life. With a constant diet of commercials, you’re more likely to spend your time in a shopping mall, while happy people are more likely to live sustainable lifestyles.
Americans have always thought, “If I were rich, I’d be happy. If I just were successful enough, I’d be happy.” But the research is clear: Money and status don’t do it. Caring and community are the big, important values of happiness
There are some little things that can make you happy and help you break out of the trance of the consumer society. Here are some of my favorites.
Years ago, in the early days of the women’s movement, I used to teach a women’s class at North Seattle Community College called “Identity and Self Esteem.” I would have students make a list of 10 things they liked to do. And guess what? It was a really difficult assignment!
The women simply didn’t feel they had a right to enjoy themselves. The women measured their lives in terms of service, in pleasing others. They felt selfish if they just did something for pure pleasure, guilty about doing something that wasn’t productive, like cleaning the kitchen or vacuuming.
Today, a lot of women would still have a problem with compiling such a list, but now, the reasons would be different. Now, there’s too much obsession with career success, with getting ahead.
But simple pleasures are important because they allow your true self to emerge. Simple pleasures — things done for their intrinsic value — are clues to your talents and abilities.
Most of all, they help you escape from stress. For instance, there’s nothing I like better than sitting with a cup of tea, reading my detective story and dozing off.
Along with simple pleasures goes the idea of something being “good enough.” Perfectionism undermines enjoyment. Perfectionists often have a difficult time enjoying something they’ve purchased because they keep thinking that if they’d only looked a little further, they would have found the perfect thing.
Further, when they do something, they’re usually critical of it, and so they often feel like they’ve failed. They need to learn how to say, “That’s good enough!”
Simple pleasures and feeling that something is “good enough” can lead you to get involved in activities where you experience the feeling of flow, a concept developed by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s being so caught up in something, being so absorbed, that you lose track of time. Being totally absorbed is deeply satisfying.
At the top of the list is spending time with other people — in particular, joyfully coming together to celebrate life. That’s what we experienced this year with the Seattle Seahawks, of course. How wonderful it was to jump with joy as we watched together!
Is there anything else in our lives that gives us that experience? What other things can we do to capture the sense of joyful community?
That question reminds me of a book by Barbara Ehrenreich, called “Dancing in the Streets.” Ehrenreich says that human beings had a natural impulse to celebrate life by dancing in the streets, but that throughout history, this impulse has died out. But maybe it hasn’t really died out; maybe it’s just been repressed.
Ehrenreich argues that the first thing any ruler wants to do is squelch people’s impulse to dance in the streets because people who dance in the streets are people who can’t be controlled.
Can we develop lives in which we experience simple pleasures, a sense of flow and a sense that we’re “good enough”? Joyful community embodies it all!
CECILE ANDREWS is the author of “Living Room Revolution: A Handbook for Conversation, Community and the Common Good.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.