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The Phantom Happiness Limb


Owls make me really really happy. 

The day I left my job and the week that followed were one of the happiest of my life. All that freedom. All that control. Seeing work politics and low pay behind me and fulfillment ahead of me. All that potential glory to days well spent. Pure elation.

And then it stopped. I found it confusing, and then I found it kind of embarrassing. Here I have this great opportunity and I’m not happy. What a waste. And what a selfish human being I must be to have this space for happiness and squander it with sadness.

Basically I was expecting that I would defy the laws of happiness. Sort of like hoping that eating donuts every night will get me to a healthy weight defies the laws of dieting.

Psychologist Dan Gilbert has a Ted Talk called The Surprising Science of Happiness. On the Ted Radio Hours’ happiness show, he said, “The human brain isn’t built to sustain a single feeling [like happiness] over the long term.”

Happy events have an extremely large impact for an extremely brief amount of time. So I felt all of that elation and it was true emotion, but it couldn’t last. Eventually I went back to my baseline, which, this experiment is teaching me, isn’t actually very high.

“The amount of happiness we feel is in part in our hands...It is wrong to say that we have no control over our happiness. It is wrong to say that we have complete control over our happiness. We have some input into how happy we will be. And it has to do with how we frame events. We can learn to see events in a constructive and positive way,” says Gilbert.

I’m realizing that I have bad happiness habits. So the part of happiness that isn’t in my hands is the chemical part. But the part I do have in my hands, has never been worked. I can’t even say it’s atrophied because it’s sort of like a limb I never knew I should or could be using. All those phantom limb feelings and you realize, “Oh shit, that’s not a fantom. That’s actually a third arm.” It’s my happiness arm. Who knew it was there. Who knew I should be giving it some weights and asking it to do reps.

The part of happiness that we can strengthen needs reps. And just like dieting, it isn’t a quick fix.

“There is no secret. It takes work, and it isn’t hard work but it’s work that you have to put in religiously over time,” says Gilbert. It takes being present moment. It takes being grateful. It takes exercise and sleep and health and community. It crosses other areas where I’m not necessarily at peak performance. But today, which is a start, I will ask myself when I’m feeling negative, “Is this the part of happiness I can control or is this the part I can’t control?” And if it’s the former, I will try to flex that teeny tiny unused arm and practice.

And what does any of this have to do with art? It has everything to do with art. Because when you’re choosing art, only you are choosing. You have no outside help. So not that there aren’t people encouraging you, but it’s only you and you alone who can do the work. That work is harder to do when you’re sad all the time. It’s harder to pour yourself into something, have that something turn out crappy, and not feel totally crushed by your inabilities. And when you haven’t practiced the tools to create a good happiness baseline, it can be easy to feel totally defeated in your work and in your life. Because when you do art full time, your work suddenly is your life. And apparently, it’s going to take some skills beyond the pencil and brush to make it a healthier happier one.

Time to flex happy.

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