I’ve been on an ideological journey lately and it’s kept my mind pretty well occupied just thinking about where I’ve been and where I’m going from here. But it struck me the other day that I’m happy. Of course life has its challenges, its ups and downs, its good times and bad times; but when you balance them all out, I’m glad to be alive. I can see brown earth and green plants and blue skies and the orange and crimson of the setting sun. I can hear birds and laughter and music. I can smell coffee in the morning, fresh-cut grass on the sunny days, and petrichor when it rains. I can taste and feel and think and wonder and imagine and laugh. Not bad for a conglomerate of human cells and friendly bacteria trundling together through the daily routines of a surface inhabitant of our little blue dot that keeps whirling around a fiery nuclear reactor in a humdrum arm of a lovely, if unexceptional, little spiral galaxy somewhere in the Laniakea super cluster.
I expressed a lot of emotions as I took the first faltering steps of my change. But I don’t think I’ve taken the time to simply rejoice over the freedom I’ve found in being honest. So this is my happiness post. I’m glad I’m alive, glad I’m feeling well, glad I have new thoughts to think.
Happiness is an elusive creature. It usually surprises you when you’re busy with something else. Sneaking up on it never seems to work. Those who pursue it too brazenly end up lost in a lonely wilderness of pain, while those who concentrate on other things often walk with it hand-in-hand through life’s longest roads.
It’s funny that happiness is so elusive when we’re all looking for it. Surely all that human effort should mean that someone somewhere has found the secret of what it takes to be happy all the time. And yet there’s still so much hurt and sadness mixed into our human world. It makes me think that happiness is individual, each brain needs a different mix of stimuli, you can’t learn the trick of being happy for anyone but yourself.
I wonder if we all try to maximize our happiness by weighing out the pleasure of short term vs. long term fulfillment, but many of us end up unhappy because we weight one or the other too heavily. Either we maximize short term pleasure and live for the moment, but foolishly squander everything we have and walk obliviously into hard circumstances because we gave it no forethought; or else we maximize long term pleasure and drive ourselves frantic making plans, never living in the moment because we’re always worrying over a thousand possible futures, none of them likely. Only the person who manages to find the right balance is more or less happy.
I also think there are different balances where happiness thrives in the different thought structures you use to interpret your world. I’ll use my own mind as an example: I’ve always highly prized consistency, honesty and totality, so when I was fully convinced of my brand of really conservative Christianity, I found happiness in living my life entirely in its light. But since I’ve given up its absolute hold on my mind, I find that happiness thrives in a great multiplicity of potentialities rather than in one all-encompassing certainty.
This is what it looked like before: when I still refused to question the backbone of my conservative worldview, I knew that only the consistency of living in total abandon to its tenets would give me peace. This was the only sensible reaction I could see to the bigness of the doctrines of heaven and hell and eternity, where our lifespans fleet by like a mist, where the smallest choices we make could have immensely weighty and eternal consequences, where God’s glory was everything and questioning that central truth was the road to all kinds of damnation. I finally found my place of peace in that worldview, but it took an extreme form. I remember a moment during my troubled college years when I had the thought that, if my faith was just a sham after all, if I wasn’t a true Christian, then I would still truly rejoice to glorify God’s wrath on the day of judgment, when he condemned me to hell. I would consider it an honor to pronounce him just in passing the verdict. It’s strange, but that sort of absolute commitment was necessary for me to find the place of happiness in my old worldview.
Since I’ve cut the tether, I haven’t really formulated a new strategy for happiness, but I’m finding that it exists in a multiplicity of balances now – it’s not just the one, all-or-nothing way to happiness that I knew before. I think part of the new kind of happiness comes from knowing that there are so many other ways to be happy that I haven’t discovered yet. Perhaps the greater part of being happy is the placid search for new ways of enjoying experience, coupled with the realization that specific sets of joy-inducing circumstances could well be infinite. Something ever so slightly different could make you happy today that’s never made you happy before. And the same thing with tomorrow and tomorrow and all the string of tomorrows following.
As I was thinking about it last night, I had a strange train of thought. I was considering how destructive the sun’s immense power could be, every second a million Hiroshima bombs exploding in every part of its roiling body, enough to reduce our planet to a chaotic swirl of disconnected atoms. But on earth, something amazing happens: we’ve found a way to take all that energy and rearrange it into highly complex and beautiful patterns; and it’s the turning of energy from chaos to order that delights our minds. It’s like our brains are a complex machine designed to take in lots of formless energy and lay it all out in pleasing and symmetrical effects. When we get the balance right, it makes us happy.
Let me explain what I mean a little better: we eat food that grew from the sun’s energy, life performing the amazing transformation of taking excess energy and freezing it into complex beauty, when normally that much energy would reduce complexity to chaos. And that energy pours into our brain and filters through its billions of neural connections on its path to try to discover ever more beautiful and complex patterns to be arranged into. We’re fundamentally designed to turn raw energy into complex patterns. When we have energy to run through our brains, it comes out through our bodies in an amazingly intricate dance of movements that create roads and bridges and buildings, that partition off fields with ditches and fences, that cause plants to grow to feed animals to feed us to give us energy to create more complex life patterns on our world where we’re allotted a certain amount of energy from our star.
I know all this is pretty basic biology, but it struck me with a poignancy that underscored how beautiful and joy-inducing it all is. It made me think. Maybe so much of the sadness and hopelessness in the world comes from when you’re pouring energy into your brain but it’s stuck in a loop where it can’t arrange it in an orderly manner that seems meaningful. It made me wonder if that’s why music has always been so life-saving to me. When everything has seemed so dark in my mind, at my lowest times in the past, music gave me an easy and automatic way to turn brain energy into the beauty of rhythmic movements, toe-tapping, mouthing the words, singing along in my head. I’m not using the energy to feed chaos and confusion by laying it out with no plan; I’m using it to follow a beautiful melodic pattern with my mind and body. Led by my favorite musicians, I’m literally turning an atomic explosion on a star some ninety-three million miles away into a beautifully complicated pattern of movements. That’s pretty impressive, when you think about it. Just by listening to music and drumming my fingers to the beat, I’m creating such ordered complexity as exists in very few places in this universe.
Maybe that’s the real appeal of all hobbies. Dance and drama, art and fashion, the beautiful choreography of sports of all kinds, the logical choreography of political pundits striving to make sense of what the impossibly complex machinery of human nations is constantly evolving towards – maybe it’s all as simple as this: we pour energy into a machine – our brains – that is designed to do one thing alone: create beauty out of energy. When we can find a meaningful way to do it, we’re happy.
As I’m writing this, it almost feels like too much energy got poured into not enough space, so to control it and keep it from doing damage (as that much unguided energy can do), I had to keep complexifying until the energy all ran out and froze into these crystalline streams which are the words on the screen in front of me. I find it satisfying to look back and see the frozen proof of what I turned that energy into. Writing is therapeutic, because there’s literally no end to the ways I can turn it. I can never run out of sentences to write or thoughts to convey.
It makes me happy.