I always wonder what is happyness for a really cool guy (or gal)? I believe he is different from most of us. He sees things differently. He acts different too. He doesn't carry the emotional baggage most of us carry. He’s unlikely to be a positive thinking junkie. He is aware that just thinking positive doesn’t make negative positive. In fact, thinking positive thoughts in a bid to suppress negative ones only makes negative thoughts more in-your-face. This is a cognitive fact.
Try this for a thinking cap. Now DO NOT THINK about a PINK elephant, a RED polar bear or an BLUE chicken. Let it sink in. How did it go for you? Did a picture of a grey elephant, a white polar bear or a brown chicken pop out of your mind? Unlikely right? How about this...do not think negative thoughts! How did it go? I presume not thinking about them weird colored animals (or negative thoughts) makes thinking about them even more irresistible?
How many times do you have to tell a child not to touch that or press that button and he would still do it anyway? This is no different from an adult. And a really cool guy knows this most intimately. He knows that positive thinking is no more effective in suppressing unwanted thoughts as believing that closing your eyes in broad daylight means that the world has suddenly gone dark for all. He has learned this too well and has given up trying to avoid negative thoughts altogether.
On the contrary, he confronts it like the Greek stoics. He learns to embrace negative thoughts in the same way he does with positive ones. This is in line with this illuminating quote, “Pessimism, when you get used to it, is just as agreeable as optimism.” (Arnold Bennett) Sometimes, doing the sensible thing tends to be counterproductive. Here is what I mean by taking a page off the really cool guy's handbook. You see, I can tell my son to replace negative sentiments with positive ones but in doing so, I may be delaying the inevitable. We do not live in a bubbled world of positive fantasy. My son needs to know that every thought, whether negative or positive, carries a message about him and the world around him. I can teach my son to embrace negative thoughts and learn from them.
Of course, I will tell him to be hopeful and don’t give up. But I will not sanitize his mind with the bleach of positive thinking all the time. I want him to be practical about life and to accept reality, the good and the bad, as they present themselves in his life. My son will have to understand that there is no rainbow without rain, no rest without industry, and no love without sacrifices (and no positive without negative). I can see the really cool guy nodding most sagely at this point.
Here is another happiness lesson from a really cool guy and it is captured in the words of a famous psychotherapist, Albert Ellis, “musturbation”. Yes, you heard it correctly the first time. But the key word here is the first four letters “MUST”. This is unfortunately how our world is wound up and the really cool guy will not want any part of it. This urge is irrepressible. We cannot resist it. We must and we must. We must plan. We must be goal-oriented or directed. We must protect ourselves financially, physically and mentally in the future. We must work doubly hard, invest relentlessly, maximize profit, optimize costs, hoard, store up, succeed academically, secure that promotion, be someone, do something, and yes, accentuate the positive at all times.
The laundry list goes on and on. This basically sums up the definition of success in this world. Of course, there is nothing wrong with making goals and achieving them. It is what we are put on this earth for. This is not what the really cool dude is rebelling against. His ire is more zeroed in on the whole MUST-urbation process.
When things become a “must,” there is little left for the “maybe not” or “let me think about it” or "you go ahead". The really cool guy is concerned that we as a human race have unwittingly enthroned or glorified the relentless chase for everything and have therefore forgotten to stand back once in a while to smell the coffee or hummus. Our life is thus being hijacked by the frenzy of goals-mania and the ransom is our blind subservient to it. I guess the metaphor that we spend most of our life climbing the career ladder only to find it leaning against the wrong wall is an apt description of this musturbation process.
Alas, this is the first folly of men, that is, the folly to mistake happiness for the prize at the end of our pursuit rather than to accept things as they are and to enjoy them in the state as they are. Somehow, we unthinkingly surrender power to whatever we are enslaved to. And we are unfortunately enslaved to a mentality of pursuing happiness in the way the world has conditioned us to. One philosopher John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything in life, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” This is so subtle and true.
No material success can be achieved with careless abandonment. It has to be focused, intense and mostly hardcore-driven. Everything comes with a price. We have to give before we can take. But the problem here is that we pay too much over a lifetime just to discover that the price paid doesn’t justify the prize earned.
For a really cool guy, I would expect him to see things from another angle or perspective. He is of course not someone who is risk-averse or goal-avoiding but he would be more reflective about putting all his “devotional” eggs in one “material” basket. He knows that obsessive planning only idealizes his future; it doesn’t realize it in the way he had planned. Essentially, his mind is on the larger picture. He would not forget what is truly important in life and he would remain faithful to them always.
The third and last happiness lesson from a really cool guy is this: Embrace vulnerability. To do this, the cool guy would have to surrender the urge to control everything. Men have struggled with this since time immemorial. We need to be in the cockpit of circumstances. We need to know that we are fully suited up for the future. We need to have a handle on all things so that we frantically keep unpleasant shocks of life at bay.
But like a ball, trying our darnest to submerge it in water only causes it to bounce up with equal reactive force somewhere else. The effort to control it all is again counterproductive. Albert Ellis once said, “If you accept that the universe is uncontrollable, you’re going to be a lot less anxious.” A really cool guy understands this well and he accepts that what is inevitable is inevitable. Death is one such inevitable event. Failure is another. Disappointments, pain and betrayal have all taken their queue to make their prompt appearances in our lives. They will come somehow and at some point in time.
The funny thing is that the harder we try to control our lives by building a high lead wall to shield us from the pain and disappointments of life, the greater the impact will be when they do come a-knocking. Our denial of it only makes it worse. In a situation like this, I would expect a really cool guy to adopt a stoic approach to living, that is, he would live with a calm indifference toward his circumstances. His desire is not to build a bomb-shelter to hide from circumstances he has no control over, but to embrace them as lessons. In other words, his only control is to learn from them.
Deep inside, this really cool dude knows that he will not fully enjoy and treasure life without overcoming the pain that follows doggedly in its heels. For isn’t it true that life’s pleasure has no depth without the preceding sorrow to deepen it? He also knows that the only security in life is the security of resilience and the only certainty is uncertainty; the kind to be embraced with hope and not inoculated against.
Here is a poignant reminder from CS Lewis on embracing vulnerability in love, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung, and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no-one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round your hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
I have come to the end of what happiness means to a really cool dude. I picture him wearing tempered sunglasses most of the time not because his future is too bright, but because he sees things in a more nuanced, realistic and contextual (though no less hopeful) way.
And should he live with an unspoken philosophy of life, it would be in these wise words by philosopher Martha Nussbaum "To be a good human is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertainty, and on a willingness to be exposed. It's based on being more like a plant than a jewel: something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility." Cheerz.
* Image of a personal friend "baywatching."