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Esteemed Reader: August 2010 

Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:

Be happy with what you have;
to be happy with what you have, you have
to be happy with what you have to be happy with

—Adrian Belew

A light bulb lit in my mind as I sat eating breakfast with my five-year-old son.

“I discovered something.”

“What, dad?”

“I discovered what I have to do to make your mom happy. Do you know what it is?”

“Be happy!” he said, as though it was quite obvious.

I had the familiar feeling of exposed ignorance, like being the last one to get a joke. It was as though he had always known, and was just waiting for me to discover this truth on my own.

And so I’ve been testing the idea, in a variety of circumstances and relationships, and to my astonishment, it’s true. Being happy makes others happy!

The next day, a NYPIRG canvasser arrived at the door while I was making dinner. He had many developments in his organization’s environmental advocacy work to recount. Though I felt supportive, the pressure of responsibilities made attending difficult. But gradually I was able to relax and listen. I gave him my attention until he was finished, wrote a check for a small donation, thanked him for his efforts, and got back to preparations. We were both left grateful and happy.

Of course, this principle is true of all emotions. Feelings broadcast like strong scent. A foul mood stinks. Anger, duplicity, resentment, frustration, and the rest penetrate like skunk musk. And when we are full of delight, that rosy odor clings as well. It is communicated to others by the quality of our gait as we walk by. Even the sound of a door closing, the latch clicking into its socket, transmits the contagious state of the door-closer.

Realizing that one’s state is infectious, which implies responsibility for others, is a downer, and can compound the problem. “After all, how others feel is not my responsibility,” I argue. “And my suffering is important and justified. Others have made me feel this way by behaving so rudely.” But this a trap.

“As long as you go on believing others are there to make you feel good, and that those feelings are for your enjoyment, you remain a juvenile masturbator,” a Zoroastrian priest once told me. “In reality, your emotions are for others.” At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about, but after the conversation with my five-year-old, I am beginning to get an inkling.

The question is how to turn the headlight of the heart from inward to outward facing. When the heart faces in, I am ever-occupied with what others think and feel about me (my contrived notion of myself). When I detect a negative feeling or judgment in another, I feel badly. But for all I know they could have a toxicity-producing parasite, or a nervous tic that makes them appear to frown. Nevertheless I take it personally, and the perceived slight makes me mad—but it is anger at a phantasm.

When feeling faces outward, I am not interpreting others’ behavior so personally. I realize it is not all about “me”. I recognize, in fact, that most people are as self-involved as I am, and almost no one is considering me. They are too busy considering themselves, and are as afraid of my reactions and judgements as I am of theirs. Then I begin to feel something like compassion. Not an ersatz, superior variety but a compassion rooted in the understanding of our common suffering. And then I begin to feel real regard, real openness, and cultivate availability of my emotional apparatus to respond to, and beam that openness onto the person or situation I am facing.

There is nothing esoteric in this. Outward-facing feeling follows outward-facing attention. It is as simple as hearing the cat’s meow to know he is hungry. And hearing his hunger, rising from the seat, moving to the cabinet for a can, traveling to the drawer for the opener and spoon, opening the can, and serving up a dollop of fresh pâté for the hungry feline. He eats and is satisfied. I am satisfied with my work to serve him. The transaction is finished.

There is nothing disingenuous in this. The maker of a meal wants to know her food is good. If it is, tell her. The grower of flowers wants to hear his blossoms are beautiful. Regard them, smell them, and tell him. There are innumerable honest ways to be happy with what each other has to be happy with.

Happiness is a contagion. Let’s start a pandemic!

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