Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Wonky record player

My record player looks a bit wonky but that is how I've been feeling lately. It can be hard to maintain and cultivate happiness. It takes a lot of work, actually. And I am certainly not happy all of the time. Yesterday was a particularly sad day for me. I think it is important to allow that sadness or gloominess but not to dwell on it. I dwelled a bit yesterday but am trying to keep on keepin' on today.

Music makes me exceedingly happy. Here in Turkey we have a lot of music downloaded on the computer but not everything. I miss having my cd books to flip through - I like the tangibility of picking out a cd and putting it in the player. A record has an even more wonderful, tangibility to it.

I don't listen to the radio here (well, not true actually, we listen to the BBC but more of the talk shows than the music programs) so I am totally out of the music loop lately. But my officemate plays songs from one of those sites like Pandora and an artist comes up from time to time that I really, really dig: Brett Dennen. He does lovely stuff and I think his cd will be one of my first frivolous purchases come the fall when we are back in Canada. Discovering new music is a great feeling – as is rediscovering favorite tunes you haven’t heard in awhile.

Music is vitally important for happiness, for me. I sometimes think I am not listening to enough of it lately...

Monday, April 16, 2007

Expectations of Happiness

I have been absent for a few days because we finally took a trip to Istanbul. Above is my rendition of the Happy Bear visiting Aya Sofia. I don't actually think there is a cross on top of it but I am trying to distinguish it from the Blue Mosque in my mind. But this is a post not about Istanbul but about the expectations of Istanbul - or anything, really.

Traveling always brings me great happiness but never when I expect it. I always think that seeing something iconic will bring me happiness – and it does in a way, but not in the way I expect. When I was twelve or just turned thirteen, my parents and I did a three-week, whirlwind tour of Europe. I had ideas about the world then but not that many and mostly when I thought of Europe, I pictured the Eiffel tower. How many times had I seen images of the Eiffel tower by the age of thirteen, I wonder? Who knows but I remember that upon seeing it, I was awestruck but that as we climbed up the stairs, I was disappointed that it was painted brown, not black as I had imagined. Go figure. There I was eating Nutella filled crepes in the shadow of the Eiffel tower and I was perseverating on it being painted brown.

I enjoyed Paris on that trip but things that stay in my mind from that trip that are still vivid and magical for me are those moments of discovery whereupon I saw something I knew nothing about and my expectations could not ruin the moment. Experiencing Venice on that trip was full of magic for me. I suppose I had heard about it but at that age and in my particular circumstances, I didn’t have many conceptions of it. Streets that were rivers, beautiful bridges, and houses emerging from the sea. Not to mention my delight at the shiny purple shells my Mom and I collected at the Lido (a Colorado girl like me had no idea those were just ordinary mussel shells). Other magical moments on that first trip included a train ride in Switzerland and emerging from the depths of the underground in Budapest to see a man guarding a McDonald’s with a semiautomatic rifle of some sort.

That trip taught me quite a bit about expectations but still, expectations color so many experiences even though I ought to know better than to let them interfere. I think it is interesting to consider how our expectations influence our perception of happiness. It is easy to paint pictures in our heads of what will make us happy – the color of the light being just so, the scene a memorable one and so on. But in reality, those scenes never come to pass and it is always some other scene, one you could have never imagined where you sit back and say, “This is really nice.”

In Istanbul, it was awe inspiring to see the inside of Aya Sofia, but I was happiest in Istanbul when eating fresh fish from the Kumkapi fish market and watching the fishing boats come and go on the Marmara. But I had never even heard of that fish market – Istanbul is filled with so many wonderful places and yet, the ones that we enjoyed most were those that were unexpected for us.

An important point about happiness, I think, is that if you expect to find it somewhere, it is impossible to find it there because even if it were there to notice, it would be obscured by your expectations. I think noticing happiness requires letting go of expectations in any area or facet of life. Happiness is always there, waiting to be found or discovered but when you come at it with a template or design of your own – you might cover up the best bits!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Happy Movies

We watched a really good film last night that just made me happy. Not giggly happy, or elated but just plain happy with a small, lasting smile: Stranger Than Fiction. I really enjoyed this movie. It wasn’t a comedy or happy in the way that Mary Poppins or Auntie Mame is happy but it made me smile at the end. It got me to thinking and I have made a list of my Top Ten Happy Movies in no particular order:

1) Auntie Mame
2) Mary Poppins
3) Stranger Than Fiction
4) To Catch a Thief
5) The Big Chill
6) Center Stage
7) The Little Princess (1939 version)
8) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
9) Pride and Prejudice (1995 mini)
10) E.T.

What movies make you happy?

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Bear in the Mirror

I did not have a chance to write much about my thoughts on the decline of joy article so I wanted to say just a few things here. I thought the ideas presented were interesting - especially as a psychologist I have not been trained to spend a lot of time looking at the historical influences on the world but more at the immediate environment of a person (individual) and so I appreciate a fresh perspective. Fresh is good. It makes me happy.

Having said that, I have been struck, living here in the land of antiquity, at the rich cultural tradition of adornment and fashion. I say this because of the beautiful artifacts that I have seen from Greek and Roman times – people were clearly concerned with themselves given the jewelry, perfume and make-up pots that have been uncovered not to mention the statues! And yet, they did not seem to have an epidemic of unhappiness. And looking at the ethnic jewelry from nomadic people in the area underscores how people have taken the time to adorn themselves - even when they have few other possessions. I don’t think the intensification of subjectivity on the part of oneself accounts for the rise of unhappiness as much as the imposition of the subjectivity of others does.

By that I mean that I don’t think we tend to reflect that much more on ourselves than at any other point in history. But I think that we know so much more about everyone else. This means that we are able to compare ourselves with everyone else. With the ever increasing amount of information available, it becomes easier and easier to gain a sense of where one stands or not, within the world. No longer do I just look at the people immediately around me to place myself in the fashion world (which let me tell you, in Turkey, I am practically a slob!) – I can look at what is happening around the globe. I know that people can be billionaires because I have heard of Bill Gates. Otherwise, it might never even occur to me that someone could have so much financial wealth. I don’t think what we face is the result of too much inward reflection but the result of too much outward reflection.

And, as Sandra pointed out, the degradation of familial and social ties does not help the situation at all.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Historical Rise of Unhappiness

Barbara Ehrinreich has published a book: Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy from which snippets of an excerpted article in The Guardian are taken from. Ehrinreich argues that beginning in the 17th century, there was an epidemic of depression across England. She points out:
The disease grew increasingly prevalent over the course of the 20th century,
when relatively sound statistics first became available, and this increase
cannot be accounted for by a greater willingness on the part of physicians and
patients to report it. Rates of schizophrenia, panic disorders and phobias did
not rise at the same time, for example, as they would be expected to if only
changes in the reporting of mental illness were at work. According to the World
Health Organisation, depression is now the fifth leading cause of death and
disability in the world, while ischemic heart disease trails in sixth place.

She talks about the plethora of books, videos, information, and research trying to identify the causes for depression as she cites evidence for a decline in ritual celebrations:

But to my knowledge, no one has suggested that the epidemic may have begun in a
particular historical time, and started as a result of cultural circumstances that arose at that time and have persisted or intensified since. The failure to consider historical roots may stem, in part, from the emphasis on the celebrity victims of the past, which tends to discourage a statistical, or epidemiological, perspective. But if there was, in fact, a beginning to the epidemic of depression, sometime in the 16th or 17th century, it confronts us with this question: could this apparent decline in the ability to experience pleasure be in any way connected with the decline in opportunities for pleasure, such as carnival and other traditional festivities?

And very likely the phenomena of this early "epidemic of depression" and the
suppression of communal rituals and festivities are entangled in various ways.
It could be, for example, that, as a result of their illness, depressed individuals lost their taste for communal festivities and even came to view them with revulsion. But there are other possibilities. First, that both the rise of depression and the decline of festivities are symptomatic of some deeper, underlying psychological change, which began about 400 years ago and persists, in some form, in our own time. The second, more intriguing possibility is that the disappearance of traditional festivities was itself a factor contributing to depression.

I think this idea in the decline of festivites in a truly intriguing one. I think of how much I love Christmas and Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July precisely because of the festivities and the gathering of people and this argument makes sense to me. Another argument has to do with an intensification of subjectivity or self awareness during the 16th and 17th centuries which I am much more skeptical of but it is still something to consider.

Historians infer this psychological shift from a number of concrete changes
occurring in the early modern period, first and most strikingly among the urban
bourgeoisie, or upper middle class. Mirrors in which to examine oneself become
popular among those who can afford them, along with self-portraits (Rembrandt
painted more than 50 of them) and autobiographies in which to revise and
elaborate the image that one has projected to others. In bourgeois homes, public
spaces that guests may enter are differentiated, for the first time, from the
private spaces - bedrooms, for example - in which one may retire to let down
one's guard and truly "be oneself".

So highly is the "inner self" honoured within our own culture that its
acquisition seems to be an unquestionable mark of progress - a requirement, as
Trilling called it, for "the emergence of modern European and American man". It
was, no doubt, this sense of individuality and personal autonomy, "of an
untrammelled freedom to ask questions and explore", as the historian Yi-Fu Tuan
put it, that allowed men such as Martin Luther and Galileo to risk their lives
by defying Catholic doctrine. Which is preferable: a courageous, or even merely
grasping and competitive, individualism, versus a medieval (or, in the case of
non-European cultures, "primitive") personality so deeply mired in community and
ritual that it can barely distinguish a "self"? From the perspective of our own
time, the choice, so stated, is obvious. We have known nothing else.

I think there is truth in this given that our society lends itself to the inventions of ipods etc. But there is no such thing as a free ride:

But there was a price to be paid for the buoyant individualism we associate with
the more upbeat aspects of the early modern period, the Renaissance and
Enlightenment. As Tuan writes, "the obverse" of the new sense of personal
autonomy is "isolation, loneliness, a sense of disengagement, a loss of natural
vitality and of innocent pleasure in the givenness of the world, and a feeling
of burden because reality has no meaning other than what a person chooses to
impart to it". Now if there is one circumstance indisputably involved in the
etiology of depression, it is precisely this sense of isolation. As the
19th-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim saw it, "Originally society is
everything, the individual nothing ... But gradually things change. As societies
become greater in volume and density, individual differences multiply, and the
moment approaches when the only remaining bond among the members of a single
human group will be that they are all [human].",,2047969,00.html