Ba-dee-ya! An exhortation to be happy.

Do you remember the 21st night of September? I bet you just sang those lyrics in your head as you read them.

Even before Maurice has those first few words out of his mouth, I’m moving my arms and doing a chair dance. September is one of those songs that I am absolutely convinced has always existed. It’s brilliant. Nothing shy of brilliant.  And it means absolutely nothing. Nothing.  It’s just an exhortation to be happy.

Allee Willis, said this of Maurice White: “I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from him, which was never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.” ba-dee-ya.

No one cares that it means nothing. Just as no one ever cared that there was literally no meaning to September 21 either. I’m willing to bet that even after 30 years, you don’t even know all the words. The only reason they matter at all is that it gives us all a chance to hear Maurice sing.

It’s about the vibe.  It’s about how it makes you feel.  It’s musical ice cream: it makes you happy even if the flavor really isn’t your favorite. I love this song for that reason – it just makes me happy, I feel good listening to it. The way Ice Cream feels in your mouth, there’s nothing in this world better.

Compare this with something like Snuff” by Slayer: even if Slayer is your go to, the vibe will never make you feel “happy” (unless you’re a psychopath) and yeah, the lyrics matter for that reason:

“…Torture, misery
Endless suffering;
Pleasing to the eye
To this you can’t deny…”

The world holds so much Snuff, and far too little September.  Its far too easy to be angry – that ignorant social media post, something shocking in the news, that unfair decision at work. What’s a little bit harder is being happy – just making the decision to be happy. To ignore that social media outrage, to remember very little in the news is actually news, that work is only one part of your life.

So today, on this 21st day of September, even if there has never been a 21st of September in your life worth singing or dancing about, hit the play button right now and give yourself a gift of 3.5-minutes of happiness.   Make the choice to be happy.

Ba-dee-ya.

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Untitled: The Contentment of Existence

I started this post in 2012.  I’ve come back to it a few times in the intervening six years, to the point that I’m not sure what caused me to start it, where I was planning to go with it, what my intention was behind it. It had no title – it sat as a “draft” known only as ‘Untitled’ as it sat. Writing is an interesting thing: sometimes it takes ideas years to percolate and come to their own meaning. Ironic, really, that it takes so much time and energy to process these thoughts on being present. Sometimes it’s not as ironic as all that: sometimes its the serendipity of finding relevant ideas in a seemingly unrelated book.  This entry is really the result of persistence, coming back off and on over a period of time – enough so that when the right inspiration came along, I knew how to apply it.

And thus it begins with a question: What makes one happy?  I don’t mean a funny joke, or laughing with old friends.  I don’t mean pleasurable. I mean generally happy.  The kind of happiness that at any one moment of clear presence, you realize you’re smiling or content.  The happiness you feel when you’re alone with your thoughts, no one else around, no media to distract, and you realize you’re happy.

I spend a lot of time alone in my head – to the point that a lot of people think I’m aloof, until they get to know that is an outside wrapper and that I can be a warm, engaging and caring person.  Introverts are often like that: larger groups, where the potential for the spotlight of attention being focused on you at any given time can give you the heebie jeebies, but smaller groups of 1:1 interaction on meaningful, deep interesting topics are energizing.  I think I’ve gotten better about that over the years, but it’s still difficult for me to break the ice.  I’d rather mull ideas over, and get lost in my thoughts.

“Some people make the mistake of thinking that they are being mindful because they are focusing diligently on problems. But if they are doing so while subconsciously bound up with their worries and expectations, with no awareness that they can’t see clearly or that others may know more, they aren’t open at all.”

― Ed CatmullCreativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

In that alone alone time where I do get lost in thought they’re not overly deep thoughts, not pondering the nature of the universe or heavy, complicated concepts. Its actually super easy to just live in that place.  But that’s the issue; its easy. There is no achievement, there is no improvement.

Ed Catmull citing research in his book Creativity, Inc., says that “mindfulness helps us accept the fleeting and subjective nature of our thoughts, to make peace with what we cannot control. Most important, it allows us to remain open to new ideas and to deal with our problems squarely.”  It’s that proclivity to dive inside myself that keeps me from being mindful, and perhaps content. Happy.

Catmull also visits the idea that meditation could actually lessen physical pain by helping people to be in the moment: by being in the moment, you shut off your monkey brain from overthinking and mulling over what the perception of pain should be.  Now, there is a fundamental disconnect between “thinking” and “feeling;” the two don’t necessarily share a vocabulary, and feelings are fundamentally different than rational thoughts, but I do try to think about what I’m feeling.  I spend time thinking about what’s causing me to feel a certain way – it seems almost disconnected, doesn’t it? Like a scientist observing a subject.  And that’s where I’ve been going wrong – I just need to experience, not think about it. Just. Be. In. The. Moment.

While it does seem disconnected, it is important, because its not even really about discovering the why of the emotion, but rather realizing that it’s being felt.  Being present. Looking around, taking myself off autopilot, and observing. When you’re so inclined as to spend that much time in your own head, it becomes very easy to be oblivious to the simplest things going on around you.

When you’ve owned a pair of shoes for a while, you notice a wear pattern on the soles. Yet, it’s not likely that you’ve ever consciously thought about how your feet hit the ground each time as you walk.  Often the greatest release of stress can be just taking that deep breath, coming out from yourself, and looking around; taking in the air, the sights, realizing what you’re doing. Feeling how those feet hit the ground. And you realize, you’re happy.  Content in your existence.

And so there it is: 6 years of percolating these words and the idea eventually reveals itself to be presence.  Not feeling.Not thinking. Not introversion vs. extroversion. Just being present in the moment.

Keeping It Between the Navigational Beacons

Life itself is a process of navigation. Sometimes we successfully navigate the beacons, sometimes we don’t.  Thankfully, in most of life’s endeavors there’s a pretty significant fudge factor.  Imagine if life were strictly a journey from place to place: in order to get to where you’re going you have to be exactly on point and the slightest deviation will put you a significant distance away.  If you have a 1-degree variance from your intended destination, over 500 miles you’d be more than 8-miles off track.  1-degree!  And that’s if you know where you’re going.  If you don’t have a goal, and just roll with whichever way the wind blows, you’re liable to wake up someday wondering where all the time went and why you haven’t accomplished anything you expected to.

Oftentimes though, the carefully planned path is overly rigid.  Sometimes you want to take a detour and see what else might lie beyond.  Plan that path too carefully, you’re liable to wake up someday and wonder about the path not taken.  If your path requires 100% accuracy – perhaps your assumptions are a little too exact, or require full control over extraneous variables for which there is no way you could possibly account – you’re likely to be very disappointed.

And then there’s all the in-between.  All the space between drifting without a goal and being overly structured.  That’s where I’m thinking about when I say it’s a process of navigation.  It’s the voyage toward the ideal goal along the charted path there.  My life has taken some twists I hadn’t planned for, but sometimes resiliency is the better navigator.  It’s getting by the obstacles that get in your way. It’s about having a destination in mind, but being flexible enough that one, or two, or more roadblocks won’t drive you off course.  It’s about paying attention to how much variance is acceptable and how firm your end goal is: maybe you’re 5-degrees off course but you realize that you’re enjoying where you’re going and decide the heading you’re on is better than the one on which you had planned.  Without that reality check, you wind up somewhere completely different than your expectations.

An article in The Atlantic suggests that the conventional wisdom that with age comes increasing happiness, is changing.  The author posits a couple of different potential reasons for this; the rise of individualism, an absence of emotional bonds.  I’m going to posit my own.  We spend an inordinate amount of time planning and setting expectations.  The generations coming to middle age and beyond now were raised with the expectation that they would do better economically than their parents; and it turns out this may not be so.  It’s about navigating the definition of happiness. We spend a lot of time alone, but very little time in introspection.  We know what we want to do, but we’re planning to get there instead of enjoying the here and now.  We have more capacity to touch more people, but less capacity for those meaningful relationships.  We have the knowledge of the entirety of human history at our fingertips, yet our work often needs little more information than how to press a button.  We give ourselves little wiggle room, and in our highly structured lives, we forget that resiliency matters.

I’m gettin’ paid by the hour, an’ older by the minute.
My boss just pushed me over the limit.
I’d like to call him somethin’,
I think I’ll just call it a day.

That said, the substantive body of generational and of “happiness” research suggests we do become happier as we get older.  The dawning of middle age was difficult for me.  I took a hard correction in course, really thought about what I wasn’t getting out of life, and reset what those expectations were.  What I didn’t do was decide it was all crap and throw it in the trash.

I started this post literally more than 4 years ago.  I have little doubt the direction it would have taken then would be substantially different than where I am today.  I cannot remember a time when I have felt more empowered by having a goal, having built a plan with a significant fudge factor in it, and working that plan. I’m happy with my work; I have a meaningful career I worked hard to cultivate and got lucky to have been in a few right places when it mattered.  I never grew up with a plan of what I wanted to do, I was however one of the lucky ones who found something I was interested in early and followed that path.

So how does one keep it between the navigational beacons?  By keeping the channel wide, by paying attention to the general direction, knowing what the journey generally should look like, and keeping tabs on where we are along the journey.  By finding meaning in what we do every day, instead of finding meaning in the ultimate goal.  The goal isn’t worth getting to if the journey isn’t worth having.