Sunday, September 30, 2012

Happiness is Being at Peace With Yourself

I'm amazed every time I see a movie or read a book where a character does something immoral, and then goes down to the bar, drinks a glass of whiskey or what-have-you, and complains that they're not happy.

To clarify: it surprises me that they're surprised.

To apply this to real life, haven't you noticed that the meanest people you know are the unhappiest? That the dishonest people are always twitchy, expecting to be double-crossed at any moment?

My mom always said this is because we naturally expect people to do what we do, and that's definitely part of it.

But everyone is born with a conscience. Some people manage to kill their conscience so entirely that they can do wrong without even a slight twinge, but most of us live in a gray moral zone of constant discomfort from all the small 'white lie' type wrongs we do.

It is impossible to do wrong and feel right. You don't need to murder someone to agitate your conscience. You don't need to commit any black sins or crimes against humanity to be tortured by the still small voice inside of you that whispers "You know better than that."

My wisdom teeth are coming in, and sometimes I get a little piece of food stuck there, way back at the back of my mouth where I can't reach with a toothpick. The pressure is so small that I can hardly tell that it's there, but my mouth is sensitive enough to feel the pain of something not right. I catch myself rubbing my tongue against my back teeth over and over until my tongue is raw and almost bloody, until finally, at last, the small speck of whatever it is - this happens most often when I eat nuts, which is why I avoid crunchy peanut butter - comes loose. Then, even though my tongue is still sore and raw, I feel a moment of relief, and relax muscles I didn't know where tense. Everything is right again.

That is what a guilty conscience is.

Guilt and happiness are opposite states of being. You cannot be happy when you're guilty. You may be guilty, and have a moment of pleasure, but that is not happiness.

Now if it were easy to always do the right thing, or if no one was ever tempted to do the easy wrong thing instead of the hard right thing, I would feel no compulsion to write this series of essays on happiness. Maybe I would write about sentient earthworms instead. (I have.)

When I have a hard day, I tell myself that it has been a 'trying' day - I've been on trial, tested to see what I will do when it's not easy to be happy. Anyone can smile when the sun shines, but can I be happy when it pours? (Incidentally it rained three days this week, and my umbrella made me very very happy.)

This week was a trying week, and what was on trial was my honesty. Three separate incidents occurred that tested my honesty under the pressure of 'if you do nothing, no one will know.'

Incident one occurred at work, when I realized as I was about to mail a check to a vendor that I had entered it incorrectly in QuickBooks, and the check was for the wrong amount. The difference was so small that it's doubtful the vendor would have tried to get us to pay the difference. I could have sent the check as is, and 'no one would know.'

If I hadn't caught the mistake, it would have been only an accident, and not dishonest, but as soon as I heard the words 'no one will know' whispered in my ear, I got up, printed a new check for the correct amount, voided the old check, and asked my manager to sign the corrected check because I had made a mistake. A small embarrassment and inconvenience to save my honesty.

The second incident was scarier, bigger, with more teeth. I realized that because some additional service had been requested, an invoice to a customer was more than double the original quote. I guessed they wouldn't be too happy about that. But I already had the credit card on file; I could have avoided an uncomfortable conversation by charging the card, sending the receipt, and then dealing with it when and if they called. But I wasn't comfortable with that; it was like a piece of nut wedged in my teeth.

I called the man who had requested the testing, and then emailed the card holder, explaining the change in the invoice total and offering him the opportunity to change his payment method if he preferred to use a different card.

I hadn't heard anything back from him four days later, and I felt that honor was satisfied, so I charged the card and emailed the receipt to the cardholder, again with a note telling him to call if he had any questions.

I got an email back saying he had already called and discussed the charge with someone else, and he was fine with it.

(How often do we stress about these things only to find after the fact that there was no need to?)

The last incident, which really put the cap on the whole week and convinced me that there was a deliberate theme to this series of trials, was when I scraped someone's bumper while parking. There was someone blocking the main aisle, so I didn't have as much room to turn as I normally did. I thought, oh, there's not enough room, I better park farther back. Then I thought, nonsense, I can make it, and I'm tired and worn out and I don't want to walk from the back of the parking lot.

I should have listened to myself the first time.

I got out and inspected the damage, which was small. Barely two inches of scraped paint. Considering the age of the car, and the number of dents on the fender, it was barely noticeable at all.

My neighbor (who was still blocking the aisle in her car) saw what I was looking at, and called "Oh, just leave it. He'll never notice."

I left a note with my name and number explaining what had happened. I haven't gotten a call. Considering this happened several days ago, I really doubt that call will come.

It doesn't matter whether he calls me or not. What matters is that I chose to be honest, even when there was no benefit to do so, and no penalty for ignoring the issue.

When I think of that, I feel a soft peace inside me. I say soft, but I don't mean yielding. It was a trying week, but I proved my honesty to myself. Next week, if my honesty is tried, I will have even less hesitation in doing what I think is right. If my honesty is tried this way every week for the rest of my life, soon enough I will have a sense of honesty hard and sharp enough to cut through any lie. And just like buying an umbrella before it rains, it makes me happy to strengthen my honesty before I'm actually an important person, faced with actual moral dilemmas that seriously affect other people. (Nothing I just recounted constitutes a moral dilemma. I knew what the right thing to do was. It just wasn't much fun to do it.)

Do what is right, and happiness will follow. Continue to do what is right, every week, and in time you will find that it is not as hard as it was when you began.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Happiness Is a Muscle in the Heart

This is the first of a series of essays about happiness that I've been talking about for forever (okay, six months) and finally decided to write so that I can talk about something new.

Yesterday I called my aunt with big news.

"Guess what!"


"I just bought my first umbrella!"


We both laughed, but it was another one of those times when people laugh when I'm at my most serious.

Purchasing my first umbrella was a solemn occasion. I tried out almost every umbrella Walmart had available. I opened and closed them to determine their size. I considered somberly the difference between a small umbrella that folds up to be shorter than the length of my shoe and an old fashioned cane-shaped umbrella that can double as a weapon in times of emergency. I contemplated colors: polka dots on white, polka dots on black, stripes, tropical leaves, leopard print, pink, turquoise, and even clear plastic so you can look up through the umbrella and see what the rain looks like.

I selected a compact black umbrella (size XL, for Jumbo Family) that will blend nicely into the dark of night when I finally begin my ninja career. It will also cover me and my backpack with lots of room to spare.

Now I have an umbrella, which delights me. At first I thought this was because I'm easily delighted - which is certainly true. But it's not the whole truth.

I'm easily delighted because the happiness muscle in my heart is strong.

Just like anyone can sprint downhill, anyone can be happy when everything is going well. But it takes a lot more stamina and endurance to sprint uphill. It takes training to be genuinely happy over a new umbrella.

But the happier you are, and the more often that you're happy, the stronger that happiness muscle gets. It's like lifting weights.

For example: It's late September now, and in Texas it's still fluctuating between upper nineties and high sixties, but in another month or two winter will be upon us. Wind. Storms. Rain. Cold. But as long as it doesn't actually rain sideways (which is not something I would put past the weather around here), I will be nice and dry. Hooray for umbrellas!

Now I could wait to be happy about being cold and dry instead of cold and wet until the bad weather starts. But why wait to be happy later when you can get a head start today?

If you can find happiness in a new umbrella, you can find happiness in almost anything.