Optimism or Happiness? You Choose.

Recently, I made a decision to get my daily life in hand by doing one thing: Anything.

I had suffered a long period of inertia (depression, anxiety, low mood, whatever moniker applies), and before I sank deeper, the only way I saw out of the bog was to “stay in motion.”

That phrase literally became my mantra. I didn’t require myself to do anything in particular, to meet any goals or even to be happy about it, I just had to always be doing something. I gave myself permission to be cranky if needed. Being happy about it was too much to ask (though I did stop complaining so much, and I gave up refined sugar — both helped).

This was curiously liberating.

Mark Williams addresses this in both Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, and The Mindful Way Through Depression.  He says that a low mood often requires that you act before you feel motivated to act. You don’t have to be happy about it, and happy doesn’t even have to be the goal. In fact, it shouldn’t be. “Happy” is often the word we use to label the gap between where we are and where we wish we were, and that’s a slippery slope.

I kept so busy doing things that within weeks, I found myself having to make choices about what I could fit into my day, working some freelance gigs, writing a book, knitting new projects, going to conferences, volunteering, learning Spanish, making sourdough recipes from scratch and working more on this blog, among other things.

I discovered that “just doing” creates fields of possibility (which can in turn create its own kind of stress, but I’m not going to get into that at the moment). It also made life more productive, and in its way, happier. In releasing myself from the need to be happy, I found more happiness. Life is weird.

So it was with great interest that I read my friend and colleague Jonathan Feldman’s blog article “Optimism: “I do not think it means what you think it means”.  He says:

Real optimism is when you actually do understand that the world is a difficult place; that all the scary things that you worry about really can happen; that everything you try might not actually work. The difference: you choose to never give up. You choose never to quit. And you choose to take steps to make things better despite the odds being stacked against you, despite life being brutish and short.

Jonathan is basing his view on Burns and other’s views of cognitive behavior training that essentially suggest that your actions can condition your moods/feelings. That is, if you act positively, you will experience more positive feelings (ie. being happy).

I take certain actions – humming, joking, running, taking time to help others – that improve my thoughts, which improve my mood, which buffers the stress, which initiates a virtuous cycle of being better at my work, which makes me happier and more optimistic.

When folks see me whistling, they are confused about causation. They assume the whistling is a product of happiness and optimism. No. The activity creates the happiness and optimism.

I’ve always resisted the positive thinking route to being happy. Maybe because, as I mentioned, it seems like even acting happy is can be too much to ask — and in some ways, it can even push you further into feeling worse. Or, it might be my Eastern European ancestry, or my working-class upbringing that just doesn’t lend itself to being optimistic.

Williams and his colleagues, like Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Relief) would say this is because “positive thinking is just more thinking” — and it’s our endless spiral of thinking that does us in, ultimately.

Yet, I think that Jonathan’s view is not so far from my own (though I would call his attitude one of “gumption” than “optimism”), or it’s just one step to the left. Because I did, in a weird kind of ricochet of not worrying about being happy — just making myself do things — become happier. My activity did create happiness (if not optimism).

Where Jonathan makes a differentiation about direction — happiness doesn’t create optimism, but acting optimistically can create happiness — my extension of the argument would be that we often see “being happy” and “being optimistic” as the same thing. But, they’re not.

Happiness is a thing of the moment. It is something we can feel when we are doing something, and maybe that bleeds a bit into the moments around the doing, throughout the day. It can be sensed in a moment of satisfaction, accomplishment, or just feeling peaceful. We can take a moment to focus on our breath, or to work in the garden, and just be with “right now is okay,” without expecting more.

But optimism is future-thinking, and that’s where, for folks like me, the over-thinkers, the ruminators, and the anxiety-prone, the trouble lies.  I fundamentally don’t trust optimism, though I do believe in happiness. There may be a bridge between the two, but I suspect my brain simply won’t let me cross it — at least not yet.

Wherever you fall, on the side of CBT or MBSR (and there is, of course, MBCT, the Mindfulness Based Cognitive Training, which combines the two), it does seem that any of these ways of correcting our path can lead to a lighter, better life. For me, while Optimism would be nice, Happiness will suffice. (with apologies to Robert Frost). 😉

So, are you happy, optimistic, or both? How do you see them as the same or different?

 

 

 

 

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