Thursday, November 5, 2015

On Happiness

This post is not my usual fare. It's personal and it's not even about meat.

In the spring of 2014, many things were coming together for me. Areas that had been stuck were moving forward, particularly in my intellectual / career life. My love life was improving, too, though there were still important difficulties. The most exciting thing of all was that I had found, applied to, and been admitted to the Recurse Center, a computer science program in New York City.

I arrived there in the beginning of June for the happiest three months of my life before or since. I was living independently in a tiny dorm room in Manhattan just north of Houston. It had few amenities, and only shared bathrooms. Yet I loved it. It was a 15 minute walk to the Recurse Center. I loved to start and end my days with a refreshing walk through the city, and despite its reputation, I found the people I passed to be radiating good cheer.

I always arrived at the Center early to gather my thoughts about what I learned the previous day, and set my focus for the day ahead. I programmed, read tutorials, went to presentations, and wrote about what I was doing every day as an exercise in transparency. I stayed until bedtime. I felt independent, free, creative, and competent, and I attributed it all to New York and the Recurse Center.

A miraculous thing happened. Halfway though the program I met an extraordinary person with whom I fell madly, helplessly in love. I hadn't been looking for love. Love was the furthest thing from my mind, because I was focused on my creativity, and was too happy to want for anything. But finding it took me to new heights of joy.

When I returned to Boulder, I returned to unhappiness, and I believed it was situational. You see, I'd been practising resentment and blame for my life circumstances for years, for everything from the geographical location I was unhappy with, to my professional stagnation, to the mundane responsibilities of life. This was so unlike me. I have long believed that if something was worth doing, it was worth doing well, and more than that—it was worth actually enjoying it! I believed that having made a choice of action, one should take it on as fully as possible, putting in all of one's heart. But I wasn't doing that, and I hadn't been for some time.

I was making a big mistake. I was letting circumstances dictate my happiness. Now don't get me wrong. I am a material being. There is nothing more spiritual than taking delight in the present reality of the material world. It was good to allow New York City and the Recurse Center to fill me with happiness. It was right to take pleasure in my friend and lover, Sean Baker, who touched me more deeply than I've ever been touched, physically, emotionally, and intellectually, and with whom I have shared the most intimate of moments over fine things and crass things alike.

The mistake was to depend on these things for my happiness. If I can be happy in a dorm not much larger than my current bathroom, then I can find joy in Boulder, Colorado. In fact, it has surely been a continuous effort not to enjoy such a beautiful city, an effort that was worse than a waste. Today I talked to a man who moved here but two weeks ago from L.A., and instead of launching into my caveats and complaints, I simply told him what I liked about it, and I meant it.

The biggest mistake of all was to depend on my lover for happiness, for in him I saw my only salvation from the rest of it. So I forwent nearly everthing else I loved, in order to spend every possible moment with him, so as to bask in my delight of him, to get my happiness from him. This was not only unfair, but just plain backwards. The whole reason we were able to connect in the first place, was because I was radiating joy. I had something to give. I was fun and easy and emotionally self-sufficient, and the point of being together was to mutually amplify our joy into more joy. If I want to be happy, all I need to do is embrace my creative desires, surround myself with things that give me pleasure, and be the amazing person I know I am in my heart. And then, like during my stay at the Recurse Center, I will be happy, independent, free, and a magnet for miracles.


  1. Amber, I could read this every morning as inspiration for the rest of my life. You are a spectacular human being. All the love to you (and from you, too).

  2. True north as not a place "out there" nor a star to be found, but that which comes from within, even when all seems far from right with the world or the inevitable challenges, sorrows and losses we are faced with in this life arrive, as they always and forever will. True north within - not a static state or attribute which may simply be found, but one which must be identified anew, nurtured and created/connected with again and again. Love to you.

  3. I would disagree about the relevance of the city. Its not the amount of empty physical space that precludes happiness, I don't really need more than a small space to enjoy my personal area. However I would say there are psychologically meaningful differences in a densely packed city full of people, culture, architecture, and the numbing isolation inherit to sparsely populated suburbs.

    Its small and big things: just seeing people on errands and being able to walk to a destination vs house-car-store-house living of a suburban layout. There's a dehumanizing aspect of the suburbs that eliminates public spaces and reduces your participance in society to being defined as nothing more auto oriented consumerism as the only human interaction outside your relatively isolated home.

    In a city you're intimately psychologically connected in the layout, the neighborhood, the community, public spaces. In a suburb you're just in a big empty bungalow on a grid of empty disconnected places mostly navigated in isolation in a car.

    Thats not even getting into the longterm viability of the resource use/demands of this stuff. One can find happiness in a cell if they're attain the right mindset, but I think you discount the importance of the physical reality of the urban fabric you live in.

    1. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to clarify!

      It is absolutely true that for *me*, in myriad ways, NYC is more conducive to happiness than Boulder, and that studying computer science all day is more conducive to happiness than being a housewife. There is no question.

      But the point I didn't underscore quite enough is that letting conditions have strong enough influence to knock me *out* of happiness, is foolish passivity.

      I think that slurping up the happiness that is easily attained, because it's right there in front of you, is a *great* thing to do when it is there. In fact it would be a waste not to! At the same time, I know full well that when things are less obviously, less immediately giving me pleasure, I can take joy in other things. There are plenty of things to focus on that make me happy, and I honestly can enjoy many mundane things.

      Most of all, I think that maintaining happiness under a variety of conditions is the best way to getting more and more opportunities for easy-happy conditions. At the very least, it puts you in the right head-space to notice the good stuff. When you are open to pleasurable things, when you are seeking happiness, you find it more easily.

  4. CS is awesome, I'm just a huge stickler for urban planning jazz though. Happiness is I suppose a state of mind. Boulder has been growing pretty fast for decades, but one day I want to get to NYC, pinnacle of the human stew.

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  6. Is there such a thing as "running-average-zero-integral-of-happiness"?

    I think it must exist, because happiness is serotonin, and unhappiness is something else, chemically -- and both seem to need to be exercised (maybe)..

    If so.. isn't our choice space reduced to refining the picking of the reason for obligatory happiness/unhappiness?

    Is there truth about Nirvana, as the state of zero, being the ultimate desirable point of existence?

    Sorry for being so.. dense, but these questions have been brewing in my head for a long time, and your post provided the required context for them to come resurface..

    1. Hi, Kosyrev!

      I'm still learning, but my current thinking is in pretty much complete opposition to this.

      I can't get onboard with any philosophy that discourages desire. To me, desire is the essence of life. Most people feel happy when their desires are fulfilled, and unhappy when their desires are unfulfilled. That's why some traditions recommend detachment from desire, because then you are not flung around on the waves of conditions you can't control.

      So my current thinking approaches the same problem with a different solution. If you can cultivate happiness in the face of desire, embracing the desire, whether or not it is fulfilled, then your happiness does not depend on current conditions.

  7. Thank you so much for this, Amber. I stumbled upon your blog and this post today, after months of depression following a move back to the states after living in London for three years. I have certainly allowed myself to believe that my circumstances need influence my happiness, and have succumbed again to sugar, my long-time nemesis! This was just the inspiration I needed to treat my body and mind with love and joy.

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