Harvesting your happiness
By Michelle Heffernan
September 26th marks the date of this year’s Harvest Moon. Sun and moon conspire this month to provide more light for harvesting hands. As we race to local orchards to enjoy the last of the pick-your-own season, it seems timely to consider what you have been cultivating in your own life.
While the pursuit of happiness is collectively agreed upon, it is not generally a daily conscious focus. It is too often a vague and broad description of a peaceful and satisfactory life. Yet, it takes only one experience; irrepressible sadness or euphoric bliss and you know the tremendous value of happiness in your life. Happiness is feeling free and alive, rather than just merely existing. How alive are you? Do you know what makes you truly happy? What follows is meant to inspire personal reflection and clarity about your own pursuit.
Start by personalizing it. When your eyes open each morning, which descriptive words best reflect your state of mind? The list of possibilities could include: sluggish, depleted, exhausted, anxious, irritated, frustrated, lonely, sad, snippy, frenzied, worried, woeful, tense, restless, angry, demanding, commanding, content, peaceful, curious, safe, interested, awake, enthusiastic, gracious, light-hearted, appreciative, adventurous, loving, affectionate, authentic or attractive.
This query is not meant to reveal which half of the list best suits or describes you, but rather which combination you are. Are you appreciative for what you have and perpetually worried about the future? Are you depleted and still always giving and extending a loving hand? Are you peaceful yet lonely for someone to share your heart’s desires with? You might consider re-reading the list and circling the applicable words. Regardless if you embody 10 antonyms for happiness or one, it’s important to notice the signals of discontent to help you gage where you’re at.
Your mind experiences happiness in different ways. Happiness in the left hemisphere of the brain includes such things as a fantastic bank account, the test you aced, the competition you won and the completed to-do list. The left hemisphere loves verbal, analytical, rational and sequential information. In contrast, happiness in the right hemisphere is your smile when seeing someone you love, the vision of your wedding day or the panoramic ocean view from a seat on the sand. The right side is visual, spatial and intuitive. It connects us to creativity, aesthetics, emotion and the senses.
Balancing experiences in these two hemispheres cultivates happiness because each side provides different, yet important levels of satisfaction. For instance, take perpetual multitasking. Here the focus is on deadlines, schedules, efficiency and performance. While there is great reward in this type of achievement, the lack of balance limits the experience of a fulfilled life. The right mode of happiness is stifled when you stop tasting the food you are eating or not being able to drive without returning calls.
Discover how balanced you are. Try this Happiness Experiment by making a list of 100 things that bring you a sense of joy, peace and light-heartedness. This encourages balance through analytical list making, while engaging your imagination and senses. So be descriptive. It’s not just cookies; it’s homemade chocolate chip cookies. It’s not birds; it’s birds in the morning. Look at how many things you list and what types of happiness they are. Keep and grow this list over time. Practice them. Ask someone you love to also create one. You will learn invaluable things about yourself and them. This is a powerful experience, especially when shared.
Blocks in the mind
The work of Daniel Gilbert, renowned Harvard psychologist and best-selling author of Stumbling on Happiness, further analyzes this topic. His kiss-the-brain genius clarifies the biggest block to the left-brain’s pursuit of happiness. Much of his work is centered on the desire to control and predict happiness in our lives. We are consumed with the idea of having control over outcomes, because it gives a sense of safety and the illusion that displeasure and pain are avoidable. This is especially dangerous for perfectionists. Moreover, if you take one thing away from this column, do yourself a favor and leave perfectionism here. The perfectionist is a harsh critic that is never completely satisfied because there is always a “but,” “should have” or “if only.” Therefore, the pursuit is endless, because satisfaction is temporary or never fully experienced. Relax. The more the critic in your mind is turned off, the more balanced you become, which magnifies the height and breadth of joy.
Harvesting the heart
Joy has also been the topic of best-selling author and Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen. Her melt-your-heart prose conveys the human experience with gifted clarity. In her book, A Simple Guide to a Happy Life, Quindlen advises readers to simply “Get a life.” Life through her right brain lens is the cultivating and harvesting of loving relationships over a paycheck and a loving home over a bigger home. A real life according to Quindlen is the marveling at and connecting with nature—the view of sky, earth and animals instead of your cell phone.
Perhaps a tipping point has happened for you. Perhaps one is at the threshold of your life. Clearly happiness is vital, and its meaning is yours to define and create. So focus on it, notice when it arrives, learn to gage and balance it. After all, to live without joy is to merely exist. To live joyfully is to feel alive. Become more alive. Be inspired to nurture happiness in yourself. The harvest season beckons us to consider such things as summer fuses with fall. Just look out your door.
Michelle Heffernan is the founder of Artista, a healing arts practice for mind, body and spirit. She holds degrees in design and Creative Arts in Therapy and is a professional member of the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association. She is also a consultant for Synergy Counseling Associates in Albany, where she facilitates wellness through expressive arts for adults, children and adolescents. She can be contacted at healingARTS@nycap.rr.com.