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Monday, December 16, 2013

Harvesting Happiness

(cc) Brett Davis.
We’ve all been in frustrating situations such as standing in a long line in a crowded store, caught in highway traffic, and so on. I was in a crowded coffee shop recently. The teller at the register was stressed. The woman making the coffee was clearly upset that she was having to be so busy for so long, perhaps because they were overstaffed. When she called out the drinks that were ready, you could hear the annoyance in her voice. Many of the customers in line were pretty grim too.

When I first entered the store and found my way into line, my initial reaction was to instinctively fall into a similar mode. However, I had fortunately been thinking recently about mindfulness and keeping perspective, so these thoughts were at the ready. I thought about the overall situation I was seeing, and the truth of it was easier by looking at the customers who had already picked up their coffees and were taking their first taste. The overall fact was this: I was in a place where all the people were there getting something they wanted or needed. The customers were all getting nice coffees of their own choosing to enjoy. And even the workers were working in a job that would give them pay they could use when they were off.

Comparing this to the many places where people are starving, sick, dying, suffering from war and violence, and so on – it was clear that many places people would be overjoyed to have a job or have enough sustenance, let alone luxuries like flavored coffees. In actuality, by any objective measure, this was a place of pleasure and good fortune. We were all simply blind to the reality. Even if not everyone there fully appreciated how fortunate they were to be there, it didn’t change the fact that we were all very fortunate. We were people living in a society that allowed us to enjoy this simple pleasure, and everyone was walking out of there with the same benefit.

With that in mind, I began to think about the exchange of pleasures and what a nice thing it was that all of these people were getting their little wishes fulfilled and needs met. But the tricky part is that that you have to feel for the other person picking up their coffee while you are still waiting in line. If you can associate yourself with them, you can feel happy for them – even if they themselves aren’t appreciating their situation. In a way, the fact that we often come to take these things for granted is a testament to our fortunate state.

Think of them the way their mother might have thought of them while witnessing their child receiving a gift. We are all still those same children we were inside, even if the years may have added weight to our bodies and a lot of trivia and cynicism to our minds.

If we can do this, then we may find a wonderful gift of our own in store.

As it turns out, there are little pleasures all around us everyday. You might call this ambient pleasure. But you can harvest this pleasure by placing your sense of self within others. Now I no longer have to wait until I pick up my coffee. I can be pleasured the whole time I am in that environment, feeling happy for each person who gets their own as I see them blowing it with anticipation on their way out. And when I do get up to the register, the better I make the teller’s day, the more pleasure I can reap witnessing that too.

Now, it would be a mistake to confuse mere pleasure for True Happiness, in the deepest sense of the word. But something wonderful happens in this kind of transfer. If I were to simply enjoy a transient pleasure of my own, that would be fine. But that kind of pleasure would be a fleeting thing, and a foolish foundation on which to base my contentment and flourishing in life. But when I feel happy for someone else enjoying a pleasure, this raw ore is smelted and refined into something more profound. Now it has been wrapped in empathy. As such, it has a character-molding effect on my psyche and mental habits. What was a simply mere pleasure for another has become an ego-liberating practice for me – and in that can be a part of the puzzle that is True Happiness.

This is how we can harvest happiness from our surroundings everyday. Now, when we stand in lines our difficulties seem less so as we focus outward and see through scores of other eyes. As we wait for our turn, a smile creeps upon our face as we see others reach the end of their wait. This is one example of the bountiful crop that is simply not available to the selfish.

Imagining experience from others’ point of view takes some mindfulness, careful observation, an active imagination, and contemplation. It also takes persistence and practice to internalize and cultivate this as a habit. But as we come to associate our lot with others’ evermore deeply, we begin to feel directly benefited and harmed when they are. And the motivation to be kind, compassionate, forgiving, and helpful is simply a natural and inevitable side effect.

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