Choosing Well-Being

There are few topics that I resist more than the realities of aging. But, John Leland’s book Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old shows how mindful choices can improve our lives at any age.

Redefining Happiness

When I was depressed, I remember how just hearing the word happiness pissed me off. But here’s a working definition I’m okay with from “happiness” researcher Matthieu Ricard. Happiness is “not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.”

Two Categories of Thought

A famous discourse from the mindfulness literature divides thoughts (our interpretation of the world) into two categories:

• Thoughts that lead to happiness for ourselves and others.

• Thoughts that lead to unhappiness for ourselves and others.

Both categories of thought naturally arise in the mind. But recognizing how certain trains of thought roll empowers us to choose between riding the rails or switching tracks.

Control Versus Response

Leland writes:

If you believe you are in control of your life, steering it in a course of your choosing, then old age is an affront, because it is a destination you didn’t choose. But if you think of life instead as an improvisation in response to the stream of events coming at you—that is, a response to the world as it is—then old age is more another chapter in a long-running story.

I wrote about how stressful the illusion of autonomy can be, but it’s humbling to think that even the simple act of calling in a prescription refill makes this clear.

Though I may feel that I’m in control when I make a phone call, having that call go through depends on technology, infrastructure, and people who understand how to make it all work. I reacted to the call going through by taking it for granted.

Road construction cut off the route I’d planned to use. I chose to respond by taking another street instead of reacting by writing an angry letter to the city commissioner about how road closures make it difficult for people to get to their pharmacy.

When the pharmacist rang up a drug other than the one I’d phoned in, I reacted by saying that this was the wrong drug. The pharmacist explained that while the substituted drug was not a generic equivalent, it served the same function.

I responded with a “Thank you.”

At least I reduced my potential unhappiness by a third when I took the road closure in stride.

Pain Versus Suffering

A China-born eighty-nine-year-old woman shared her thoughts about complaining with Leland.

“People complain about their health, or they say, today I have to see the doctor… Who can help you? A little pain—just take it and make yourself stronger. Take a deep breath. Try everything to heal yourself.”

There’s an analogy in the mindfulness literature that compares the experience of physical or emotional pain to getting shot with a dart. Complaining to yourself or others about the first dart is like shooting ourselves with a second dart.

Tagging along with my parents when they visited their aging relatives exposed me to a lot of complaining. I asked my mom why her elders complained so much. She explained that it made them feel better. That sounds reasonable, but is it true?

Leland writes: Karl Pillemer of Cornell makes the distinction between “happy in spite of” and “happy if only,” the former being a benefit of old age, the latter a vexation of youth. “Happy in spite of” entails a choice to be happy; it acknowledges problems but doesn’t put them in the way of contentment. “Happy if only” pins happiness on outside circumstances: if only I had more money, less pain, a nicer spouse or house, I’d be happy as a clam.

Full disclosure: the relatives we visited were in their sixties and seventies. They may have made different choices if they’d lived to eighty-nine.

Gratitude Versus Dissatisfaction

Leland wrote about a choice it took me a long time to make.

Crutches severely impacted my grocery cart pushing skills. My partner graciously volunteered to pick up the items on my list. I was dissatisfied when she selected a different brand of Greek yogurt than I’d written down.

A few weeks later, a friend told me she had a surprise for me. She said to close my eyes and hold out my hands. I did. When I opened them, I was holding a small bottle of Egyptian-inspired spices called Dukkah.

She’d bought the spice because dukkha is the original Sanskrit word for the dissatisfaction I experienced by not getting the Greek yogurt I asked for.

From a practical standpoint, I enjoy the Greek yogurt (which turned out to be good) more than I do using the Dukkah spice, but my initial choice of gratitude for the unexpected gift, colored my perception.

Leland cites studies showing gratitude generates positive activity in the moral and social processing centers of the brain. It also lowers blood pressure, inflammation and the stress hormone cortisol, while boosting immune function.

Choosing gratitude over dissatisfaction is a no-brainer.

Past, Present, or Future Tense

Leland concludes:

It takes seventy or eighty or ninety years to learn the value of another sunrise or a visit from a surly grandchild–to appreciate how amazing, really amazing, life is. They only seem paltry because we haven’t lived long enough to see their value, or survived enough losses to know how surmountable most losses are. Simple gifts can be as rewarding as more elaborate ones.

Here Leland doesn’t highlight the real choice. Infants and toddlers are every bit as captivated by these small pleasures as their parents and grandparents.

In a study published in 2010, researchers Matt Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert concluded that about 47% of our waking hours are spent thinking about what isn’t going on.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert write. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

Though memory and speculation have made humans what we are today, they don’t make us happy. Happy young people and old people alike follow the advice of the mindfulness literature and choose to be present.

Ten Minute Exercise

The core concept underpinning all of these choices is that pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. An Einstein-like equation for understanding what turns physical and emotional pain into suffering can be expressed as: S=PxR or Suffering equals Pain times Resistance.

Watch the nine minute video by Jennifer Hunter Improv Comedy Will Change the World  for quick tips on how to reduce resistance in all aspects of life.

For specifics on how the rules of improv relate to physical or emotional pain:

1. Make a connection.

Become aware of what’s happening in your internal and external environment.

2. Listen.

If there is an unpleasant sensation, note its qualities before labeling it as pain. Merely labeling an experience as painful is a form of resistance.

3. Say “Yes and…”

Start by acknowledging YES, there is an unpleasant sensation AND its properties are hotness or coldness…
stiffness or looseness…
fluidity or cohesion….
expansion or contraction…

4. Be in the moment.

Choose to stay in the moment instead of projecting how this sensation will impact your future.

5. Stay flexible.

Remain open to the possible causes and solutions to this sensation instead of latching on to the first idea. If you’re consulting a physician or therapist, reporting the symptoms as objectively as possible will help them better help you.

6. Listen to your inner voice and follow your intuition.

Acting in accordance with your beliefs makes it easier to accept how you deal with the unpleasant sensation. If you choose an option you don’t believe in, you’re less likely to follow through.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.