Someone told me recently that I seem really happy and wanted to know what my secret was. How do I work in the stressful environment I work in, how do I deal with the people I deal with, how do I live in the world we live in, and still be happy? I have 2 "secrets" to being happy. They may or may not work for anyone else, but this is what I do:
1) I follow my passions. I am dirt fucking poor. I live below the poverty line and require government assistance on a quasi-regular basis. I'm one month away from total disaster at all times. I've been stuck here in this state when I really would rather live elsewhere for a decade past the point I had originally planned to leave because I can't afford to move. Why? I have skills in several job categories and could make a decent living. I used to do a job that paid me $25K a year entry salary, with health benefits, 15 years ago and could be quite comfortable if I had stayed there with various promotions and raises over the years. I could move up in my current job into management or equipment/personnel coordination, with either a salaried position or lots and lots of hours at a good hourly rate. I'm poor because I love my job. It's my passion. I don't work in the other industries because I'm not passionate about them. I don't move up into management in my current job because I like, as I usually put it, playing with my toys and getting dirty. I'm merely a technician.
Don't get me wrong, even my lowly technician gig pays me very very well, per hour or day and plenty of people make good livings doing what I do. But I also don't work as often as I should. Sometimes it's because I take time off for my other passions, like relationships or hobbies or vacations. Sometimes it's because I suck at the work-politics game and I don't know how to schmooze the right people to move up the corporate ladder. Sometimes it's because my job is more about who you know than what you know. And sometimes it's because I failed to keep up with changing technology and have trouble finding mentors to bring me up to speed so I can't always compete in the job market.
But the point is that I love my job so much, I'm willing to live in below-poverty conditions to keep doing it. I do what I have to in order to survive, including taking other kinds of work. But it doesn't make me happy. When I'm gigging, I'm happy. When I'm costuming, I'm happy. When I'm dancing, I'm happy. When I'm photographing, I'm happy. When I'm creating, I'm happy, and that's what all my passions have in common - creating something. When I take the time to indulge in my passions, no, to pursue my passions with a ferocious intensity, I am generally happy with life itself.
2) I find outlets for those things that make me unhappy. Like ranting on the internet. Most people who know me primarily online think I must be profoundly unhappy because all they see are my angry posts. But I make those posts in order to get the thoughts out of my head, where, if I didn't get them out, they'd just run around in circles all day, every day. They're like music earworms, sorta. Some people have to listen to that very song in order to get it unstuck from their heads. I have to rant about whatever is pissing me off in order to let it go and get on with my day getting back to the business of being happy.
People who know me in real life first, who then find my online profiles, feel a little jarred at the difference. I don't seem like "me" to them. But if you were to ask most of my coworkers who have either not seen my online profiles or who don't read much of Facebook or Twitter or LJ even if they have a profile there, if you were to ask them to describe me, "happy" is a common descriptor. A boss once quipped something to the effect of not recognizing me without my smile, or if I'd lost my smile, something must seriously be wrong. I don't remember the exact line, but the occasion stuck out in my memory because I had just lost my place to live because I was "always angry" online, even though I'd never had a harsh word IRL with that person and, in fact, had been told when we first met that he had a crush on me because he so loved how often I laughed around him. So when that boss remarked on how being unsmiling was a rare event, it struck a chord with me.
I have periods of depression. I get overwhelmed by stuff and I start to withdraw into myself. I stop reaching out to my friends and loved ones, I stop going out, I start to cry more easily, and I can start to say and do things that, to someone who doesn't know what's going on, may seem out of character because I stop being able to express myself clearly. Being a generally happy person doesn't mean never feeling any other negative emotion.
But, in general, I think I'm happy. I love life and I think it's worth living. I feel that death is the enemy and I can't even comprehend the idea that there might come a day when I'll be tired of life and voluntarily want to end it, even when I think of living for hundreds or thousands of years. I joke easily and I laugh often. Even when I'm in the depths of a depressive episode or feeling particularly down, I know, with every fiber of my being, that it'll pass and I'll be happy again. Sometimes I even willingly indulge in periods of sadness, knowing that it's just part of the range of human emotion and expressing it can be part of getting through it. I never need to be told after a breakup, for instance, that things will get better and I'll find someone new. I know that, and I don't stay sad for very long. I pretty quickly bounce back to being happy. Even when Misty, my cat, died, I was able to be at work the next day, laughing and joking as usual with my coworkers. I'm very much still in mourning for my cat, and I still cry at the drop of a hat when I think of her. But the joking around at work the day after her death was not a mask I had to wear in order to get through my day. I was genuinely happy to be working and to be with my coworkers. And I'm creating a memorial for her, which goes along with my first point about creating making me happy. Sadness doesn't overwhelm me and life goes on, dragging me along with it.
And I think that's essentially why I'm generally happy. I follow my passions and I allow myself to express the negative emotions so that I can get through them and get on with the business of being happy. I remember trying to suppress my negative emotions for a while. I had a very troubled adolescence and, for a time, the only thing I wanted was to stop hurting. But, even in that first depressive episode, suicide or self-harm was never a serious consideration (although I did consider them). I shut off the negative emotions so that I wouldn't hurt. But then, one day, I realized that I wasn't feeling any of the positive emotions either. Well, that's not entirely true. I still felt all my emotions, but they were all very, very muted. I didn't feel strongly about anything. I spent many years trying to turn back on the positive emotions without turning on the negative ones, and I failed every time.
Eventually I embraced the idea of feeling because I wanted to feel happy again. Feeling sad on occasion was just part of the price to pay in order to feel happy. I don't like the idea of an emotional roller coaster. I know some people that swing from extreme to extreme, and I've heard of those who are basically emotion junkies. And I'm not talking about any of that. I just feel happy in a general sort of way, with moments of elation and joy, and, fortunately rare, moments of sadness. Every couple of years I go through a depressive stage, but then I pull back out of it again. To me, depression is not a "normal" state to be in. Like my moments of sadness, it's something I have to occasionally go through, but those moments are like islands dotting a mostly placid but occasionally excitingly active, sea of happiness. I'm not sure I could answer definitively about whether the chicken or the egg came first here, but I believe following my passions and allowing myself the opportunity to express and feel my sadness or anger in a controlled manner, are what cause me to be happy in life. It could be that I have a "happy nature" and that's what gives me passions in the first place, or makes me seek out these outlets for my anger or sadness to expunge them. But when I'm feeling down, if I can somehow find the motivation to get out and dance, or take my camera somewhere new, or get inspired by a new costume design, then my depression or anger or sadness usually lifts. So I *think* the causal relationship goes the other way and it's that my happiness is caused by the things I do.
At any rate, I've found it to be a self-perpetuating cycle. The more I dance, the happier I get. The happier I am, the more I want to dance. Same with work, same with costuming, same with photography, same with picking up some new skill or hobby even if that particular one turns out to be a phase that I drop later and never get back to. Work is where I feel most like "me", where the most number of facets of my personality get to shine at once. Dancing and my other hobbies are opportunities to focus on a single facet at a time; to really give each facet some undivided attention and undiluted expression. Sometimes, that hobby is pure emotional expression, like dancing. I was told not too long ago that he was sorry for staring, but even though he was surrounded by dancers, many in much less clothing than I, he couldn't help watching me dance. I hadn't ever been told that before. I've been told that people enjoy dancing with me, or they are impressed when I do a structured dance that they don't know, like swing or Bollywood, but not that my dancing was so sexy and beautiful that he couldn't help but stare. And he wasn't hitting on me. When he mistook my enthusiasm for dancing with him as a more personal interest, he was quick to back up and tell me that he was in a monogamous relationship. He just genuinely felt drawn to me when I danced and was willing to tell me. I know I'm only a mediocre or intermediate dancer, and that's OK. I dance for myself, for the sheer joy of feeling my body move. I dance as though my body was an instrument to join in the song.
And I think that's what people see when they say they like to watch me dance, because my technical skills are, well, they're above average but not particularly exceptional. Because that's what I see when I feel compelled to watch someone do what they love. I once watched an artist while he sketched me. There was something in his expression, something I can't define, that changed everything about him. When he concentrated on turning the visual signals he received from looking at a subject to a physical representation on paper, he was pursuing his passion. And it showed on his face, and it made him compelling. I think I almost fell in love just a little with him right there because of that expression.
My high school sweetheart is a performer. He is never better than when he is performing. He is always amazing. His passion for his art is one of the reasons I fell in love with him in high school and one of the reasons I continue to love him to this day, even though we are no longer romantic and not even the slightest bit romantically compatible. Back before I realized my stalker was, in fact, a stalker with Nice Guy Syndrome, back when he was just my best friend, I would sit at his feet or hours and watch him play music. His preferred instrument at that time was guitar, but he could play anything except piano (for some reason, he couldn't put the two hands of a song together on a piano). He put his soul into his music. I loved another guitarist too. He was blind, and he interpreted the world primarily through touch and sound. Which meant that his playing was exceptional because it was the very essence of how he experienced life. Not coincidentally, I met him at the same time that I met my high school sweetheart. In fact, my first introduction to them was the guitarist playing accompaniment to the performer singing. Two such passionate boys expressing themselves through their passion - it's no wonder I could never really choose between them, and it was only circumstance that kept my relationships with them separated by a decade. tacit
is passionate about life itself, and consequently is one of the 3 or 4 happiest people I have ever known. My Darling Boy also has many passions and is one of those people whose very presence in a room make it seem brighter, as though the sun through the window just came out from behind a cloud at the moment he walked in. He's passionate about flying (he's a chopper pilot) and rigging and music and, like tacit
, about life itself.
I surround myself with passionate men - men who are intensely, maybe in some cases obsessively, interested in something that makes them happy to experience. I find this trait to be more compelling in a person than any other trait. It might not be sufficient, on its own, to sustain a meaningful relationship with that person, but being passionate about something is a necessary element to being able to love them, for me. That's the best thing that anyone can do to attract a romantic partner, or even friends, y'know - be passionate about something. People who do interesting things are interesting people, and others are attracted to interesting people. It doesn't work if you just try to do something with the goal of attracting a mate. You have to actually feel passionate about that thing, and your passion will make you attractive - far more attractive than any nice clothing or nice car or slick pick-up line will make you, and it'll last longer than a superficial sheen's attractiveness too.
So, if you're still searching for the meaning of life and how to be happy or make your life look the way you want it to look when it doesn't, that's what I suggest you try. It may not work for you. Unlike those self-help books like "7 Tips Of Successful People" or whatever that try to boil life down into a series of steps guaranteed to make you rich, good looking, and happy, I'm not saying that my method will work for everyone. But if you don't know where to even start looking, I think these two things are good to try. Find something to feel passionate about and pursue it, and find an outlet and allow yourself to express the negative emotions every so often. I'm not saying to revel in sadness or self-pity or anger. I'm saying that repression of negative emotion may result in a difficulty or inability to also experience those strong positive emotions that are necessary for passion and happiness.
You may need to learn how to feel sadness or fear or anger, and consequently how to manage and get through it, before you can feel passionate about something else. A lot of people try to manage their bad feelings by orchestrating their lives largely to avoid feeling bad feelings. Then, when something inevitable comes along to make them feel bad, they lack the familiarity to recognize the early warning signs and the tools to manage it productively. This can spiral, I think, into a never-ending cycle of always feeling bad and not knowing how to feel happy anymore.tacit
says that life rewards the path of greater courage. I think that's essentially what I'm trying to do with my two happiness tips. I'm certainly not claiming to never fail or fall off the path. But I think it takes courage to feel bad and to get my hands right up in those bad feelings like mixing bread dough and really examine those feelings and deal with them. And I think it takes courage to leap head-first into an endeavor, which is what I feel that "passion" is - feeling so strongly about something that I just leap into it, giving myself over to the creative process and rolling around in the joy of creating. Passion, even though it's a positive emotion, can be scary. It can put us in a place of vulnerability. It can leave us open to criticism, condemnation, mocking, and separation. You have to really put yourself into whatever you're passionate about, and a negative reaction about what you're doing can feel like the most intimate, fatal, of attacks. But being passionate about something, at least for me, means that I can't help but to leap into it.
So I think my reward for pursuing my passions and for exploring and expressing the negative emotions is that I feel that I am generally happy with life. I am rarely without romantic or sexual partners, except by choice, I often have a handful of people I can count on to be there for me when I need someone, and I enjoy life even when others might look at my situation and think it looks hard or uncomfortable. My life, overall - the big picture - looks mostly like it does because of deliberate choices I made to make it look this way. I'm not "lucky" to have multiple partners, or to have any specific partner. I have these relationships because I arranged my life in such a way as to make these relationships possible. I'm not "lucky" to be working my dream job. I made choices that allowed me to pursue my dream job, and those choices have had some consequences and drawbacks that are part of it. You can zoom in on any part of my life or history and find low spots or difficult spots or places where I didn't make the best choice in hindsight. But when I pull back and look at my life as a whole, I'm generally happy with it, and the places on the timeline where I'm the most happiest are the places where I expressed my two tips the best. I don't think that's a coincidence.