On my desk sits a jar I am filling up with small slips of paper. I read about this exercise, among others, that are part of a growing field of happiness studies.
Every day, you write something that made you happy on a piece of paper, put it in the jar, and then at the end of the year, you empty the jar, read all the slips, and remember all those good things. You need not write momentous things on these slips of paper. Ordinary moments of happiness, such as a good conversation or good food or a walk, are all worthy of mention.
This is a variation on keeping a gratitude journal, writing down, say, three or five things you are grateful for every day.
I think these exercises are exceedingly helpful in training one’s attention on what’s good.
Even more interesting is an exercise called “What Went Well,” discussed in Martin Seligman’s book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. Seligman is a professor of positive psychology and he’s at the forefront in the study of what makes us feel good emotionally.
In “What Went Well,” you write down three things that went well today and also WHY they went well. I like this even better than just noting what was good, because with this exercise, you can assert some agency and understanding of the event.
Example: what went well today is I had a good chat with a neighbor while walking our dogs. Why did this happen to me? It happened because I took the time to get out of the house and I was open to talking to a stranger.
It’s not, then, such a random event. Happiness has something to do with choice.
As I say, there’s a burgeoning scientific and popular literature of happiness studies. For example, in February, UC Berkeley announced results of a study showing that positive emotions, especially those derived from taking in the awe-some beauty of nature and art, lower one’s levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which cause the immune system to work harder. Elevated levels of cytokines are associated with a variety of diseases.
Focusing on what’s good, and taking in experiences that increase one’s warm and fuzzy feelings, are flat-out good for health.
This is good news. It can also be ideological and problematic.
One of the canards levelled at cancer patients is to “just be positive.” If you just think right, feel right, you’ll make it, you’ll survive. This is enormously offensive to many of us who’ve had cancer because the implication is that we may have caused our own cancer by being “stressed out,” or “negative” and that those who die were somehow just not good enough patients, not good enough at “staying positive.”
There’s a kind of hyper-individualism about this that obscures much of what is at play in an individual’s health and in public health crises. I’m not saying that the happiness researchers want to disguise broader factors, but rather, that there needs to be a balanced awareness when we consider how good positive emotions are for health.
We know that poverty is bad for people’s health because poor people get the short end of the stick on every imaginable measure of healthy living, from food, to medical care, to good working conditions, time to exercise and relax, time to ponder feelings of gratitude.
We know that environmental pollution is a major factor in disease, especially cancer, and that it may be easier to avoid toxins if you’re well off.
Happiness studies and exercises are appealing because, in a world where we have little to no control over scary phenomena such as poverty, war and global warming, at least we can do something with and about our own psyche.
I’m all for that. I just don’t want to lose sight of all else.
I do not believe I’m in remission because I had positive thoughts and spent a lot of time walking in nature. I believe I’m in remission because I’m well off enough to have been able to afford the insurance and medical treatments, including severe pharmaceutical drugs, that arrested my cancer. I feel great right now because of conventional medicine and all of the integrative practices that support it.
I do not believe that I need to feel happy and in awe of nature all the time in order to remain healthy.
I wonder about the jar of happiness notes I’ll have at the end of the year. I am subversive enough to want to challenge the exercise. If I write down only sweet little moments each day, I will have at the end of the year a distorted picture of what went on. If I add to my slips of paper the challenging things I go through, perhaps with a spin about how I met those challenges, then I’ll have a more realistic view. I like that better than remembering only what is conventionally seen as good.
The Buddha is widely reported to have said, in his first sermon after enlightenment: “I come to teach about one thing, suffering and the end of suffering.” Of course, he taught much more than that, and we’ll never know exactly what he said 2,600 years ago. But the quote is instructive because it means that suffering and the end of suffering are suffused with each other.
If we seek only positive emotions, we will live in denial and we will miss the terrible beauty of the full range of experiences. Contentment is available even when all is not well.
One of my most vivid memories of my time during chemotherapy was a late morning when I felt physically and emotionally wretched. Sunlight was streaming in through the kitchen window, and I danced with joy to the music on the radio.
Granted, it was the Grateful Dead, which always lifts my spirits. But still. Joy co-arises with grief and all the rest.