I kitchen puttered all day Wednesday, making all the things, totally taking pleasure in the comfort, the ritual, the predictability of prepping Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve done this So Many Times. For me, time spent in the kitchen like this is time spent in love. But was I happy? This question arose as I listened to Tara Brach interview Arthur Brooks. I knew about Brooks, The Happiness Guru, from his best seller From Strength to Strength. Didn’t realize he had written a new book, Build the Life You Want with Oprah Winfrey. I found this podcast of such value, I listened to it straight through twice. This newsletter is inspired by the podcast; it’s a great listen if you want to fully dive in.
In case you haven’t noticed, happiness is not rampant out there. A University of Chicago survey that goes back to 1972 reveals that in 2021, for the first time, more Americans said they were “not too happy” than “very happy.” Another 2021 poll reports 49 percent of Americans more optimistic than pessimistic, the lowest since the survey began in 2009. Hello. We’ve moved through a pandemic. We are experiencing the biggest political divide in my memory. We are weekly slammed with mass shootings news. Evidence of climate change is everywhere you turn. The heartbreak of war keeps breaking. And social media, which can be incredibly addictive, is right there to serve up all these doings with a flourish.
Arthur Brooks says it’s not even in all these particulars. It’s the sum total of it. “When you have a chronic drip of stress hormones that come from an uncertainty bred by a culture of fear, you can’t maintain a positive outlook in a society.” It was illuminating to immerse in his neuroscience expertise. And he is also well-versed in Buddhism. His exchange with Tara Brach is brilliant.
I especially loved the concept of the “always wanting more” fraction.
All the things we want
The smaller our personal fraction (wanting way more than we have), the more difficult feeling happy becomes. It’s a happiness cultivation practice to want only what we have, to consider wanting less, to be released from the exhaustion of grasping for more.
Brooks got down to brass tacks toward podcast finale and I put down my spoon in exchange for my pen, curious about the way he was defining my current experience, the pleasure I was generating from cooking. Brooks named three happiness building blocks and spoke at length about concrete ways to build abundance and balance in each aspect.
Taking on just that first one today: enjoyment. Because I’ve been all about pleasure lately and I’m intrigued with the differentiation of pleasure from enjoyment. It feels like a missing puzzle piece. And the neuroscience is so illuminating.
The brain’s limbic system is all about triggering emotional response, especially those gearing us for survival: feeding, procreation, fight/ flight. Pleasure is a limbic system response directing us to “scratch the primordial itch”. In days gone by, this itch prompted us to gather food and eat, mate so our genes would be passed on, run or fight to save our skins. Now that primordial itch has a buffet of modern day pleasure inducing substitutes that range from binge eating to pornography to drugs and alcohol to gambling to (previously mentioned) social media’s fine-tuned dopamine hits. So pleasure in and of itself, he posits, does not necessarily cultivate happiness. In fact, the endless addictive pursuit of scratching the itch can ironically cultivate misery.
According to Brooks, enjoyment is what leads to happiness. And pleasure generates enjoyment only when we scratch the itch with other people. With family. With friends. In community. Enjoyment happens when pleasure pairs with being part of something bigger than our little measly selves. Communion created in the spirit of love gives rise to happiness. And another little piece here: the limbic system has no hard drive storage, but pleasure experienced with others triggers the pre-frontal cortex to memory store.
Now I’m not sure I agree. But I love the inquiry. I engage in several alone activities that contribute to my well-being. Like cooking. Like being out in nature. Like moving in practice. But perhaps they are, by definition, simply pleasurable. Not a small thing! Maybe it’s just semantics.
Toward the end of the podcast, Brooks offered his personal mission:
bring them together in bonds of happiness and love”
and I felt every nerve stand up and shout YES. This really is so what I’m about. It’s why Zoom teaching/learning during Covid was a challenge. It’s why being physically in tune/touch with you in physical therapy sessions sets the stage for healing. It’s why classes, whether 5Rhythms or yoga, even when they are challenging, ultimately lift us and join us in communal bonds of happiness and love.
We are so challenged right now and I’m sticking to this call: harnessing pleasure to the company of others as a direct route to enjoyment. Knowing that every time we enjoy, we open the door toward happier-ness, a term Oprah Winfrey coined. I love this final Brooks quote:
In this vein, I’ll be moving toward happier-ness in Sweat Your Prayers December 3. Maybe you’ve yet to experience the utter enjoyment of moving to awesome music in the company of good people. Total injection happiness booster. SPECIAL: just this Sunday, arrive as early as 9:30; I’ll have rollers and balls and music out there, guiding as needed, the uber-pleasure of releasing those tight spots. In the company of others this is pure enjoyment. Three Saturday afternoons of this enjoyment coming up at Yoga Shala in January.
Not too happy, very happy, optimistic, pessimistic….no matter where you live these days, practice has potential to spark and spread a potion of happier-ness. It’s a powerful way to serve the folks in your world.