Sometimes it’s hard to believe that just a couple of decades ago the internet was a relatively new thing. Kids played games on the street instead of online, dating didn’t involve a computer matching algorithm, and hanging out with friends meant that you went out and met them – in person! Today, the prevalence of e-mail, texting, Skype, video gaming and conferencing, online media, and social networking has changed our lives as profoundly as cars and jet planes changed the lives of previous generations.
It’s not just that the methods of interaction are different; it’s the effect that they are having on us as human beings. Despite all this electronic ‘connectivity’ – or maybe because of it – people are feeling more and more isolated. There’s a whole slew of articles and studies out there linking social media especially with increasing loneliness, bullying, depression and anxiety.
But I believe that’s like holding a box of matches responsible for starting a fire. We can’t blame the medium for the message. Social media is intended to be a way to communicate widely and quickly, but so often it becomes a platform for the vain, the mean, and the just plain silly. Real information, intelligent discussion and valuable insights often get lost in the avalanche of posts.
While I’m very interested in interesting things that interesting people have to say, not everything is of interest. As Elaine once said on Seinfeld, “I can’t spend the rest of my life coming into this stinking apartment every ten minutes to pore over the excruciating minutia of every single daily event.”
Now you may be reading this and thinking, THIS is excruciating minutia. I apologize. All I’m saying is, just once in a while, put down the mouse, step away from the computer, and connect – to the offline world.
Oh Lord, I’m tired, it’s time to go to bed
Way after midnight, and the wine’s gone to my head
Lying here upon the shore just listening to the waves
And it’s been a perfect day
These lyrics begin Chris de Burgh’s eloquent lilting ballad, Perfect Day. The first time I heard it was at an outdoor concert. Chris de Burgh was alone on stage and the music seemed to float out from his piano and roll away into the night. It was easy to imagine the scene that he paints, friends picnicking by the sea and lying under the stars singing Beatles songs while he played guitar. And then he tells his love to remember it if they should ever part.
What is it that really makes a day ‘perfect’? So often, I look forward with great anticipation to achieving some milestone or going to a special event, only to find it anticlimactic. And then there are those other times when for one reason or another everything seems right with the world and I’m enveloped with a sense of harmony and peace.
It can happen when I’m with people I love or I’m doing something fun or if I’m outdoors at a beach or in beautiful countryside. Once in a while though, it catches me by surprise – looking up while driving on the highway and seeing the moon rise, huge and orange, against a backdrop of streetlights that just can’t compare; waking to a diamond and glass landscape after and ice storm; or the sound of a summer breeze ruffling the leaves of the silver birch on my front lawn. Reminders that no matter what storms may come our way, in the wondrous and eternal natural world it is always a perfect day.
What is happiness? How can we achieve it? Can we be happy even when things aren’t going well?
These are some of the questions that ‘Positive Psychology’ tries to address. This branch of psychology has become hugely popular in the last couple of decades and spawned a vast number of educational programs, institutions and literature all devoted to finding out what makes life worth living.
Actually, this is not a new concept. People have been trying to figure out how to achieve happiness for millennia. Socrates taught that a moral life was the key to self-fulfillment. Buddha advocated a Middle Path. And Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was basically a roadmap to joy (the word blessed is substituted for happy).
It’s interesting that the American Declaration of Independence lists the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right – not happiness itself. That’s what positive psychology research seems to be finding as well; emotional wellbeing may be partially inherited, but it’s not static. It can change depending on a number of factors such as the relationships we have, the pleasure we feel in doing work or a hobby we love, being close to nature, or being kind and caring about other people – but also not caring so much what other people think of us that we feel embarrassed or anxious much of the time. In other words, it’s a journey rather than something finite and forever.
I believe all of the above factors contribute to a good life, calmness, contentment and a feeling of belonging, but true joy? That’s different. Maybe real happiness is just those elusive moments in time when for any reason – or no reason – we come close to the power of the divine in the world and sense how the world was meant to be.
As Walt Whitman says in his poem Song of the Open Road:
The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged