Happiness Is…

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Mar 212015
two happy kids

Simple Happiness – My sister and I, circa 1973

We all seem to know when we’re feeling happy, yet many of us have a hard time finding this emotion when we’re… Just. Not. Happy. We also seem to have many different ideas and strategies for maintaining happiness.

So why am I pondering such a simple, basic, emotion? For one thing, yesterday was: International Day of Happiness. Also, my wife is reading: The Happiness Project, and at a recent family dinner, we were watching the documentary: Happy. That’s a lot of happy, and it really got me thinking about how I personally seek happiness – what has worked and what has proven to be poor strategies.

Being an L.A. resident for all of my life (minus the 3+ year stent in the OC), traffic has played a major role in how well I can maintain happiness. As the SNL sketch, The Californians, lampoons, we tend to focus a lot of our energy on navigating through the crazy traffic in L.A.

So, two weeks ago, when looking into my own strategies, driving in traffic was the first place I explored. My driving style was best described as: Aggro-speed-demon. Not only did I put most of my energy into getting my car to the front of the line (as if all of us are going to the same place) and everyone else on the road were just obstacles to be out driven. When another driver would do something that slowed or blocked my bee-line to wherever, I would fling my judgements of their inferior driving skills. I also kept telling myself – and my wife and kids – that by “venting” like this, I was maintaining some kind of mental balance and that it was all for the better to keep me from road raging and doing something stupid.

For the purpose of my exploration of “happy strategies”, I decided to change my driving behaviors to see if it had a positive or negative effect on my sense of happiness. I figured the easiest way for me to change, was if I switched my driving goal from: getting wherever as fast as humanly possible, to: being as kind and considerate to everyone around me. I fortunately do not need to drive as a part of my job. Instead, I just need to drive to get to my job. I also do not have a strict time that I need to arrive at work (thanks Gravity).

Not only was I still getting to my office around the same time as I did with my Aggro-speed-demon style, but I also felt less stressed out when I did arrive. This outcome may seem extremely obvious to those of you reading this, but you would be amazed at how hard it is to see past your own preconceived notions about something you’re deep in the habit of doing. Keep in mind that I have been driving in L.A. for over 25 years, and though I haven’t always been this aggressive, I have always focussed on getting places as fast as possible (yeah, reading that back to myself makes me wonder how I’ve been so dysfunctional). 25 years has given me a lot of time to come up with justifications.

Believe it or not, I stuck to my new strategy for the past two weeks. I have now also learned that I can get 75 more miles on a single tank of gas. Again, seems pretty obvious when you think about it. What I learned that I found most surprising though, was that I can honestly say that my temper has a much longer fuse than before. Turns out that for every action another driver did that held me up would be another piece of anger/frustration/rage that I would hold onto. I recall that stepping out of my car after those aggro-drives, gave me the sensation of relief. Like, “finally I’m here and that’s over.” Now with a different perspective, I can tell you that that was not relief as much as it was stress. It was stress that would follow me into the office or into my home.

Something else became clear to me from all of this. I realized that judging other people helps feed my own rage. I also found empathy for other drivers on the road. Instead of “What’s your problem! It’s GREEN!” and after passing them, “Stupid!”, I saw: “There must be something else on their mind right now.” That’s it. No need to make any judgements about someone I’ve never met. It also became clear to me that judging a person by a single action or inaction is ridiculous. The most powerful part of replacing judgement with empathy, is that instead of these incidents building up anger and rage within me as they happen, they build up understanding and a deeper sense of humanity. I now feel like I’m driving among other people instead of obstacles.

I wish I could describe this better. It has been truly transformative for me personally. In my case, happiness was often out of reach because of my own anger and rage. I kept thinking that if I could out-drive the horrible traffic, I could arrive happier than if I struggled through it. It is only a struggle if I make it one. I have the power to change this by simply not fighting the traffic. It blows my mind at how simple this really is. Why did I have to make it such a struggle for so long? I won’t linger on that question long. I’d much rather just be happy.