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117 How do you know when you are happy?

If you choose unhappiness,
that means unhappiness makes you happy.
[proof: you choose it]

Sounds a bit confusing, right?

Successful choice

When I was in grade school the class included a nice boy with some learning challenges. He was very friendly but not always easily understood. One time the teacher found him sitting at the side of the room crying. She asked, "What's making you sad?" He smiled back and said, "No, I'm happy."

The wise teacher did not burst his bubble. She was able to allow an apparent contradiction, letting feelings prevail over logic. She understood the principle of believing people who say they are happy. Indeed, they are telling us their perspective and we can safely believe them.

Adults present a much more complicated problem of understanding happiness. You know my penchant for seeing the happy side of anything-and redirecting my attention when no happiness can be found. My world offers an infinite supply of happy thoughts. The conundrum is why other people don't feast on the same supply.

Unsuccessful choice

Have you also encountered people who appear to ignore the happiness that is available. A young child once eagerly asked for a certain cold cereal at breakfast. When it became clear that that box was empty, she burst into tears and would not be comforted by the remaining selection. If the empty box had not been there, she might not have expected her favorite and been satisfied with one of the available cereals. One might say that it was the disappointment, not hunger, that brought on the tears.

Likewise, I ask adults why they would languish in a disappointment rather than embark on an available opportunity. It is so easy for us to fault the children's feelings when in adult life we continually slip into the same behavior. Ask yourself, do you ever lose energy being sad over something you can't have right away? Have you ever overlooked a blessing because you were looking in a different direction?


We can separate out the truly pathological conditions: taking pleasure in the suffering of self (masochism) and taking pleasure in the suffering of others (sadism). This is not an introduction to medical treatments.

Self-inflicted perception

Here I am addressing the most commonplace relationships we experience throughout our most ordinary days. I direct your attention to the curmudgeon stereotype. Sometimes I fear that there are personalities that have trouble adjusting when everything is right. Such people steadily give off negative signals from what must be internal unhappiness.

That's the convolution that opened today's article. Somewhere the wires get crossed and words lose their simple meaning. Since Aristotle's work, we have been taught that happiness is the purpose of our being. Sadly, there is a world out there inhabited by people who are not choosing consistent happiness.

Genuine choice

I am not promoting superficial bliss. In the statement "ignorance is bliss," the word implies being oblivious of everything unhappy. Instead, I propose to identify genuine bliss with complete happiness, joy, heaven, paradise-the substantial concepts of happiness.

In the adult realm, I am not allowing us the blissful ignorance of denying hunger. If you did not already know it, I assure you now that hunger is common, even in America. With so much hunger at hand, the crotchety old pessimist can easily bring forth abundant evidence for the unhappiness in which he wallows.

Call to action

I am calling you to perceive a positive setting around the word hunger. Let's go back to the breakfast table with the cereal boxes. Some people are so poor that they never have cereal boxes. They never cry because one particular variety is missing. Unabated suffering tends toward stupor and oblivion-in this case, oblivion to what might be. Hungry people might think that state is what life is and lose all vision of happy sufficiency.

Do this!

Now we introduce the garden-variety do-gooder who shouts, "these people are hungry!" Does that make you sad? Much to the contrary, it makes me happy that someone has caught the vision! Being oblivious to shortage is not happiness. It is merely ignorance. When we introduce the coveted favorite cereal box, we do reveal suffering. We address reality head-on. In a temporary sense (awaking an awareness), we even cause the unhappiness. However, that is the fertile moment when the world begins to change.

If you are a mentally withered up critic who can only find fault with the world, you are not my ideal of happiness, even though you may protest that you are nevertheless happy.

Wake up, world, and be happy that somebody has cried out, "these people are hungry." That call to action is our only hope, and hope is my greatest happiness. From that point forward, we set in motion all the positive feelings and energies that attend to the human condition.

Look this way

I have proposed before that we should not spend our time on newscasts of tragedies (article 32). I don't want you to come to me and say, "Isn't it terrible what happened yesterday?" If you will share with me the pain of someone's hunger, I want to hear the happy version of the story: namely, "We are now aware; let us organize to solve the problem."

Our bodies become what we eat (article 61). Our minds become what we think about (article 68). It is very hopeful to be alert to what is wrong, but only if we do so with the positive mindset that awareness is the first step of redemption. I allow you to tell me an unhappy fact only in the context of showing me the happiness of doing something constructive about it.

ENRICHMENT: Questions for reflection and discussion

1. Buddhism is often translated with the word "suffering." I prefer to think of the term as a description of anything that is at less than its ideal state. Alleviating suffering is to bring the world to a higher state. In this perspective, if there were no unhappiness, I would be deprived of the joy of doing something constructive to ameliorate suffering.

Contrast is necessary to definition: if there is no unhappiness, there is no happiness to separate from it (articles 46, 63).

2. We have been asking what news you watch and what you make of it. We might also ask, "Do others perceive you as happy (according to what they see you do)?"

You are always defining yourself in the eyes of others. Observing from their perspective helps you see yourself more objectively. Of course, people differ, and some people will not share your idea of happiness. In spite of that, your apparent happiness carries persuasive value. Your example might win them over.

3. The main article, choosing happiness, assumes that happiness does not happen to you. On the other hand, disaster can happen to you. Therefore, happiness and disaster are different things. Disaster may take away something very pleasant, but it cannot eliminate the character trait called happiness. You are in control of your mindset.

4. At first blush, we might decide to go where happiness is. On second thought, we ask, "Do you find happiness, or do you create it?" Maybe neither word applies; happiness is not a commodity dispensed in discrete portions. Perception or feeling is more subtle than that.

If we think of a happiness account, are you depositing or withdrawing? Are you doing so in your private account and in the world happiness balance?

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