Happiness: The Basics

You know, Michelle’s not happy.

A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend who recently went through divorce. She mentioned that in the course of her separation process, someone we both know, pointed to me and my situation and said THAT.

First, WTF. How does someone in another state who I talk to extremely infrequently make a judgment on something so cryptic as my level of happiness? 

Secondly, I turned inward. Am I happy?

If you’ve been following my blog you probably have sensed that this is a question I throw around, of my own accord, from time to time. I am very interested in what makes a good life. Time seems finite—how do I avoid wasting mine? And what’s the end goal? Is there an end goal? 

My family calls this the Deep Michelle and I’ve always been a little embarrassed about it. There’s a voice in my head telling me to lighten up quite constantly. But also—it’s just who I am! I like deep existential questions. I also like dance parties and stupid jokes and rainbows and brightly colored nail polish. 

So I guess I am writing this post to myself and any other reader who may have been tracking this journey of mine and wondering, Did any of this make her happy?

What is happy? 

Happy is a feeling. It’s one of the things I ask about when I am screening a patient for PTSD: Are you able to feel positive emotions like happiness or love? Yes! I feel happy from time to time. It’s happening more and more lately. I notice it when I laugh out loud at something.  I think laughing at myself feels the best—when I do something so brilliant it fills me with delight or so stupid that I can’t help but laugh.  I felt it today when I smiled to no one as stood on my garage roof in pajamas and slippers trimming my overgrown palm tree. Yep! There’s happy again!

How often should one feel happy? 

Psychiatry has taught me that no one lives on Planet Happy. Another thing I ask my patients to do is rate their mood from 0 to 10, where ten is best and 0 is rock bottom. Where do you live most days? 

I raise an eyebrow to anyone who states they live at a 10. Delusional? Manic? Lack of self awareness?  I think most of us want to live between six and eight. We want to hit a ten on occasion, maybe even three times a week, but to live there would be exhausting!  

And we could get picky about which words we use to describe which number. Is ten ecstatic, euphoric, delirious? While nine would be delighted, enthralled, jovial? Eight we call happy, joyful, cheery. Seven is well-fed, content, open-hearted. Six—relaxed, engaged, straight-faced. And at five we’re getting into mildly worried, barely hungry, and I’m-fine-but-my-neck-is-kinda-tight. It drops off from there all the way down to zero, which is either catatonic or suicidal. 

What I’ve learned from asking this question over and over again is that the answer varies depending on the person. Some of us are pleased hitting a ten once a year. Some of us feel we are in a depression if we didn’t get there at all last week. So I think the answer is, You get to decide!

And I mean that literally—no shame however you choose. I purposely avoid writing about happy too much because we have this kind of hyper-pressure on getting it and keeping it. I remember when I was a BYU student there was this culture on campus of smiling and saying hello to people as you passed them on campus. I did this most all the time, because it was my duty as a fucking delightful person.

Did it help sometimes? Probably. Was there a cost to obligatory smiling? Most certainly. 

So I say this with all sincerity. YOU get to decide what your personal goal is for how often you hit happy. And there’s not a wrong answer…unless you picked catatonic, in which case your family will be annoyed by having to feed and toilet you….

Which leads me to my next very basic question—

How do I feel happy more often?

If I knew the easy answer, I would not be revealing it here for free, I would be pointing you to my book for purchase on Amazon, or better yet, from some independent, ultra-kewl hippie bookstore in Portland.

There is no easy answer. 


Okay, but I will let you in on my strange inner life and you can glean from it what you will.

First thing is to stop chasing it so hard. I stopped looking away from the things in my life that were hard and terrible. It turned out I was putting a decent amount of energy into avoidance, convincing myself and the world that I’m fine fine fine! Fine is a state of detachment. Instead of trying to make life look easy, I started to sink into it. To let life be life.

And this brings me to my second experiment—start to pay attention. Open your eyes and look at what is in front of you. My journal is filled with passages about my postage stamp backyard. The orange tree. The tiny birds that come pick the bugs off of it. I still debate in my mind whether I should know what the birds are called. (Eckhart Tolle would say, No, just notice the being-ness of the birds! And my ego is like, You are looking at those birds every day and you don’t know what they are called?!? No winners here. If you care to help, please send a bird book!)

Paying attention puts me in the moment. And most moments are pretty okay if they aren’t being wrecked by my overly analytical, anxious brain. It also puts me in my body.  Noticing the feeling of the sun on my skin, the breeze, the fountain chattering away, light coming through the bamboo.

I have a confession. All these years of yoga and I still never understood how breathing was such a freaking pleasure for these granola munchers. I think it’s because inside of me was a secret yoga competition. Who is the stretchiest, breathiest, zennist yogi in all the land? Sometimes I was competing with that one girl (you know her) or the guy in the back who I’m not really into but I still hope he’s checking out my ass… or even myself at my last yoga class or when I was 19. That’s right, I am fully capable of turning a sun salutation into a full-blown tryout for the 1996 women’s olympic gymnastics team.  I’m coming for you, Dominique! 

But I got over that. And here’s how: I started paying attention to it. I think that’s how it shifted. At first I noticed I didn’t like thinking about how everyone else in the class felt about me. So I shifted over into being competitive with myself. But still, what was this dark cloud over yoga? 

It was me. 

And the watching was the answer. Because if you can get competitive about yoga (which I clearly can), then you can get competitive about the very practices that should be liberating your mind (which I clearly can). I effectively took and take myself out of contention for the Olympic Zen team and put myself in the stands. My job was and is only to watch and listen. 

I watched the competitive thoughts, meaning that they came up, I tried my best to not judge them and let them go. Bless and release those precious, little demons! And what I learned on the yoga mat became meaningful in the rest of my life. 

I began to watch myself at work. While I interact with my son at home. With the dog. With my family. On a date. Watching became my practice. 

This was a natural pathway into happy, because watching is fun! There’s a reason we like to watch shows and movies and sporting events.

Well now my life is a big watch fest! So I can laugh out loud at the dog when he falls off the center console into the back seat because he wasn’t expecting me to make that left turn. I can notice that my nerves are fried—and this moment of reading bedtime stories is too much—and also absolutely perfect. And it can be both at the same time. All this is possible because I am the watcher

It’s like slowing down and tasting your food. The central thought in my head has shifted from I know to I wonder. Wonder!!! What a fantastic feeling! 

Instead of flailing my arms as I drown in life or militantly perfecting my backstroke, I’m sitting in a floaty with the water lapping up onto my legs and feet. The water analogy actually really works, because sometimes I get slammed by a big wave. I’m knocked off my floaty, gasping beneath the hair that’s all in my face when my head pops up above the water. But I remember that I HAVE a floaty. So I locate it and climb back on and continue to watch.

Is that happy? Feels pretty good to me. 

Can we circle back to the initial WTF? You know, Michelle’s not happy…that one?

For years, I showed the world I was happy. I was really convincing—hell, I even convinced myself. I’m sure this is why some people were surprised when I jettisoned the husband. And I’m still a little sensitive about my life choices—I noticed that as I was writing this. They affect people who I love and have loved in a big way.

You know, I spend my days trying to assess patients for depression, happiness, well-being and I get it wrong. Because I’m not a psychic. All I have to work with is what the patient is showing me AND what I’m open to see. Maybe the most powerful lesson from becoming the watcher is this: life is experienced through a filter. We project, avoid, get defensive. We are coded to do this.

The practice of watching lets me glimpse the filter. My job is to wonder, not to know. And so all I will do is wonder about that WTF statement, [I’ll write a blog post about it] and then I’ll let it go. Because the only person I can really know is me and I feel pretty good about her.