January 15, 2007

Posted in happiness, recovery at 1:50 pm by nevavegan

Micro and Macro Happiness

In talking about recovering authentic self I spoke of what will and won’t make a person happy.

I’d like to take this a step further and discuss the concepts of micro (self) and macro (community) happiness.

Most of us think we know what it would take to make us happy, and most of us are probably wrong.

A few years back I was down in the dumps about stuff going on in my life and I thought about what it would take to make me happy. First off I needed a better job and with it, more money. I needed to dig myself out of the financial hole I’d managed to get into. I needed enough money to take some vacations with my husband and have some in savings. We needed an emergency vet fund for our animals, and a bigger home to hold the many animals we’d rescued…

But I was deeply dissatisfied on a whole different level as well. I was waiting for my actual life to begin. I thought I needed to lose some weight before I could look for better clothes to wear.

Part of me felt a little hopeless about that any way, because I could lose the weight and I’d still have the same face, the same hair, the same enormous feet. I’d been telling myself that earning more money was going to make me happy, but how could it when I didn’t like the person I was.

For what it’s worth, I never lost the weight. I kept bobbing between 145 and 150. 145 was my all time high weight in college when I was in recovery and decided that recovery meant eating whatever I liked any time it appealed to me (so long as it was vegetarian—I wasn’t yet vegan then), plus my metabolism was completely wrecked. At 145 both of my parents told me I’d gotten way too fat. I came home to choruses of “you’re too big to wear pants like that.” “you can’t wear shorter skirts when your hips are so large.” Never mind that most of my male friends were always telling me I looked great—all I heard was that I was fat. After that I lost about 20 pounds not through trying but just by not having a car and living a good distance from public transportation. I walked everywhere and carried groceries home for over a mile.

But after I got married and got a desk job and lived in an area where driving was the only real option for me, well those pounds came back and settled in for the long haul. I went to the gym and lifted weights to help my bones. I walked my dogs, but the number on the scale stuck stubbornly at 145, and danced up to 150 for no apparent reason from time to time. So there I was waiting to lose 20 pounds before I could try to be happy, before life could begin.

So I thought I knew what I needed, but I was wrong. What I needed to be happy was encouragement, isolating myself from the negative voices that made me feel ashamed of who I was and how I looked, and I needed to stop the negative self-talk I’d developed. I needed to treat myself like a friend, not like an enemy. I needed a sense of community, I needed to find ways to express my creativity. I needed that thing I’m calling authentic self; because I needed to stop trying to be what everyone else wanted and just start to be myself.

Micro happiness is not so much about changing the circumstances as it is about changing the internal dialogue we have about ourselves. Think I’m wrong? There’s someone out there who has more money than you do, a better job, three healthy kids, vacations in exotic locations each year and is still miserable. There’s someone out there living in a trailer park, barely scraping by and he or she is happy. There’s someone who weighs a lot more than I do and she wears cool clothes and looks good and feels good about herself. I needed to stop listening to everyone else’s opinion and start forming my own positive views.

Case in point: In a jewelry making group we were once talking about our jobs. One by one we all said we pretty much hated our jobs, they made us miserable but were a necessary evil to pay the bills. Then one woman said she loved her job. She worked at K-Mart. She said she loved setting up the store displays, she loved people so she enjoyed helping all the customers that came in. She felt incredibly satisfied if someone came in looking sad or stressed and she helped them with a smile on her face and then they left happier than when they came in. I’m pretty sure I would not enjoy working at K-Mart, but apparently it’s all about the mind set.

When it comes to macro happiness though, the US may be at a disadvantage. Studies show lower rates of depression among the Chicano population in the US, and while there are many theories most center around the idea that Mexican American have more sense of community and tighter family bonds than the rest of us. This may or may not be true, but there’s no doubt that individuals in mainstream US culture are becoming more and more socially isolated.

This past year I anxiously awaited the arrival of my cousins, finally emigrating to the US from Peru after all these years. They had their paperwork in order, jobs lined up already, they were packing up their belongings. Then out of nowhere they suddenly changed their minds. They just could not leave Peru. Sure it was not very safe there and they worried about what jobs their children might eventually find, but they couldn’t leave the beauty of their country, the happiness they found in community and culture. The US was simply too depressing and they couldn’t face it.

Our sense of community, our bonds to others are healing both mentally and physically, but what are we to do when culturally those bonds are discouraged. I remember being in junior high school and being obsessed with my tight little group of female friends. I wanted to spend every free minute with Natalie, Stephanie, and Kim. My mother, in an angry mood, told me I was wasting my time. Friendships don’t last, she told me, these people won’t stand by you in the long run. My father backed her up: friendships don’t matter, people betray you the first chance they have. Cowed by these discouraging words I allowed my mother to decree I could have no more contact with Kim and when I went to a different school than Stephanie I lost touch with her.

Now, so many years down the road, who do I have in my life? I have Natalie, who accepts me just as I am, who has been my confidant and companion since sixth grade, who believed in me and believes in me even when my own family has not. Natalie and I don’t always agree on everything, in fact in many ways we’re polar opposites, but this is friendship formed in childhood that has sustained me through the years. I look at the happy people I know and I see that they have lives full of lasting relationships. I wish I had been encouraged to form those bonds.

Even more so as adults we are deterred from forming relationships. We are transient and more recently deeply and bitterly divided as a nation. We generally don’t know our neighbors and if we do we often find we have little in common. We’re distrustful. Levels of rudeness seem to have sky-rocketed since we no longer need to face our neighbors socially, and since most don’t stick around too long anyway. Rude and aggressive driving have almost become the norm. The news reports on neighborhood disputes between otherwise normal-appearing adults that have turned deadly.

I don’t have much solution to offer. I’m as polarized as anyone. I could not sit down to dinner with bigots and tolerate their hateful views. If someone opposes gay marriage (in the civil sense) then they are not welcome in my home. I am estranged from my family for reasons I do not consider my fault. I know this is nothing new in the history of humanity. People travel to new places, they lose touch with old friends and family. So it’s up to me to keep in touch with the friends I have and build new relationships. Apparently relationships are particularly important to women with research indicating women with stronger social ties experience better health and less depression.

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