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Should We Search for Happiness?

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Happy thou art not; For what thou hast not, still thou strivest to get, and what thou hast, forget’st.” ~William Shakespeare (Measure for Measure, III, i)

A few weeks ago I saw a movie at my local art-house theatre called “Hector & The Search for Happiness.”  It had gotten extremely poor critic reviews but, being the author of a blog with the title ‘Operation UNunhappy,’ I felt somewhat obliged to shell out the $8.50 (for a matinée no less) to see what Hector’s search turned up.

I had high hopes since it is a British film and stars Simon Pegg, but unfortunately the critics got it right on this one: it was a pretty bad movie.  The main character of Hector is a psychiatrist living a perfect life in London with a perfect apartment and a perfect girlfriend and perfectly-neurotic psychiatric patients in his practice, when he suddenly starts to feel that all that perfection has left his life devoid of any true meaning or happiness.  And so he predictably goes on his own eat-pray-love journey under the Tuscan sun, except he decides to go not to Italy but to China (those Tibetan monks always have good insights)…and then to Africa (to a non-specified country, as if everywhere in Africa is exactly the same)…and then finally to Los Angeles (for a head-rattling visit with Captain Von Trapp), before finally heading back to London for a tidy movie happy ending.

Along the way he throws caution (and wisdom) to the wind, naively placing himself into stereotypical tourist-trap predicaments that endanger his life but supposedly make him a happier guy in the end.  At each lesson-learning turn we see a handwritten entry flash on the screen from Hector’s travel journal:  “Happiness is sometimes not knowing the whole story;” “Happiness is feeling completely alive;” and the ever-helpful “Happiness is sweet potato stew.”  Most annoying in the movie however was the plot point that his perfect girlfriend was also miserable simply because she and Hector had decided not to have children, but that by the end of the movie she changed her mind and decided becoming a mother would magically provide her with the ultimate contentment – which of course brought Hector home from his soul-searching journey and they lived happily ever after.  (Insert much eye-rolling here.)

There was one tidbit in the movie that was familiarly thought-provoking, which claimed that we can’t find happiness by trying to avoid or outrun unhappiness.  And at one point in the movie Hector says “The more we focus on our personal happiness the more it is useless.”  I’ve read this train of thought many times – that it’s pointless to actually and actively pursue happiness, because one you begin to search for it, it will naturally evade you.  Can this be true?

If you start looking at happiness proverbs and quotes by those apparently deemed to be experts on the subjects, you start to see a trend to this topic:

  • “The bird of paradise alights only on the hand that does not grasp.” – John Berry
  • “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
  • “Perfect happiness is the absence of striving for happiness.” – Chuang-Tzu

But if the pursuit of happiness is so useless, then why did our American founders write a Declaration of Independence that guarantees our right to just that?  It’s ingrained in our cultural core to do what makes us happy, and if we’re unhappy, to take steps to rectify it (many very wealthy therapists out there depend on this inherently human struggle).  I think that happiness and the hunt for it is – even if tangentially – what drives every single one of us in all of our actions, whether or not we want to admit that. 

A few weeks ago I was asked to be one of two guest speakers to a university class on the subject of blogging – what is it, why do people blog, what makes for a successful blog, etc.  Our audience was a group of ESL students – people from all over the world that are studying here in America and trying to make a better life for themselves.  The other guest speaker is a coworker of mine in the same office, we’ve worked together for over a year now, but we did not discuss our own personal blogs with each other before the class presentation.  Imagine our mutual surprise when we discovered that both of our blogs deal with the subject of happiness – what is it, why and how do people look for it, what makes for a happy life, etc…  We had to convince the professors and students that we hadn’t planned it that way!

After the class, a young man with a thick foreign accent approached me and wanted to know if my blog story was true: that I had quit my miserable job that was making me sick and consciously left bad things in my life behind in an attempt to be more fulfilled and yes, happier.  He seemed very anxious to know if it had worked – did I feel better, was I happier, was that a good decision?  I could tell he was going through something in his life that was putting him at a crossroads – a place where we have all been at one time or another, no matter what corner of the globe we are from.  Finding our way out of unhappiness is a universal denominator.

I think there is some truth to the proverbs above.  I think if we focus too much on finding happiness that the search ends up being a possible antithesis to the final objective.  But I don’t think pursuing goals and dreams that could possibly make you happier is a bad thing.  Yes we should be happy with and grateful for what we already have, and for the experiences that have shaped us, but is searching for contentment – no matter how one defines it – really such an exercise in futility?  We can’t be happy all the time, that’s completely unrealistic – I know I’m not.  I’m not unhappy all the time either.  Maybe striking the right balance between both states is the real goal?

Or maybe, as American journalist John Gunther once said “All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast.”  Bon appétit.

perfectbreakfast

 À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

UNunhappy Moments Update (UMU)

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“Devise, wit; write, pen; for I am for whole volumes in folio. ” ~William Shakespeare (Love’s Labour’s Lost, I, ii)

Welcome to a new feature of the operation UNunhappy blog, called the “UNunhappy Moments Update,” or UMU.  Every so often I’ll be doing a brief & bulleted UMU post to encapsulate three recent moments, happenings or events that have made me appreciate life just a little more than usual lately. 

I encourage you to list your own UMU revelations in the Comments section of these posts as well.  Evading those negative crap dodgeballs that life throws at us on a pretty regular basis isn’t easy, so it’s good to take a few moments every once in a while to think about and focus on the positive and actually put it into writing!  (Need a refresher on the definition of UNunhappyClick here.)

So without further ado: (or with much ado?):

  • UMU #1:  By far the best UMU event recently for me happened on Shakespeare’s 450th birthday a few weeks ago, April 23rd; I’m still in awe when I think about it.  I was sitting at work reading about the festivities and fireworks happening in England to celebrate the Bard’s big day, when I suddenly remembered that there was a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio literally minutes down the street from me at the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin.  So off I sprinted during my lunch hour to go check it out, looking forward to peering at it through the glass case as I’ve done with other rare copies before (in England, both at Shakespeare’s Birthplace and in London at the British Museum).  I’d never seen a First Folio here in America though.  If you’re not familiar with the First Folio, it was printed in 1623 (a few years after Shakespeare’s death) as the first complete compilation of 36 of his plays – about half of which we would never have even known about if this Folio had not been printed by men who had the foresight to document the Bard’s words for all time.  Only 228 known copies of the originally-printed First Folio are in existence today, and they are widely known to be some of the most valuable books in the world; First Folios in the last decade that have been auctioned or sold go for between $6-$22 MILLION (!) depending on their condition and completeness.  So you can imagine my complete shock when I arrived at the archive center and was told that yes, not only could I see one of their two First Folio editions, but that I was permitted to – I still can’t believe this happened – check one out, hold it in my own hands, peruse the pages, and read the words at my own leisure.  WHAT?!?  I went through the steps of setting up an account, watching a training video on rare-book care & handling, requesting the items I wanted, watching as a staff member disappeared into the bowels of the archives to retrieve my request, and then waiting at a table in a pin-drop-quiet and heavily-guarded room.  As the attendant approached me with a wheeled cart, I held my breath in disbelief – and then he opened a protective case that housed the First Folio and showed me how to place it on a velvet reader stand.  I lifted history out of the box, and closed my eyes briefly, thinking of the many different hands that must’ve handled this treasure over the past 400 years.  I leaned down to inhale the smell of it – an ancient, earthy, weighty scent.  And then for the next hour, I carefully turned through page after delicate yellowed page, looking for my favorite passages and plays, and straining to read the Elizabethan-English introductions to the Folio and tributes to Shakespeare himself.  I had also checked out a very small 1600 copy of ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ upon the inside cover of which was scrawled in an ancient owner’s handwriting “The folio of 1623 was probably printed from this edition.”  When I told my family later about this experience, my 9-year old nephew Hudson said “Wow, did you freak out of your pants when you picked up that old book?” “No,” I answered, leaning in to whisper in his ear, “but I have to tell you, I did almost cry.”  He looked at me strangely, then announced loudly to the entire dinner table “That book meant so much to you that you almost CRIED??”  Hard to explain to a 9-year old…  I had to get a special permit to take pictures of the books, which I did, but was told in no uncertain terms I wasn’t allowed to publish or print those photos anywhere.  So, the few pictures below are from a public domain site (Wikimedia Commons) of another First Folio (these are not the picture I took), but I wanted to give you an idea of what I was seeing…  What a momentous honor that experience was for me and a very memorable way to mark the occasion of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in my little corner of the world.  (UMUs #2 & #3 after the pictures below.)
Shakespeare FF portrait page (2)

Portrait Page of the First Folio

Tempest First_Folio,_Shakespeare_-_0019 (2)

Title page of ‘The Tempest’ from the First Folio

Catalogue page First_Folio,_Shakespeare_-_0017 (2)

Catalogue Page of the First Folio, listing the plays contained within.

Memory First_Folio,_Shakespeare_-_0009 (2)

“To the memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR, Mr. William Shakespeare: AND what he hath left us.” – First Folio

Finis First_Folio,_Shakespeare_-_0118 (2)

“FINIS” page of ‘The Comedy of Errors’ – The First Folio

  • UMU #2:  For some reason I got great pleasure out of hearing about the new Star Wars VII announcement a few days ago that Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill would be reprising their original roles in the next movie (due out in 2015).  Apparently it wasn’t a surprise for those true sci-fi aficionados who’d been following the trail, but it was a surprise for me!  I like those kinds of surprises (which are so rare in this spoiler-heavy online world we live in now) – like when Michael Scott showed up in the series finale of The Office…I literally yelled at my TV when that happened.  For those of us that grew up during the first epic Star Wars era (in a time that now feels very far, far away), saw each movie at the theatre multiple times, dreamed of being Mrs. Han Solo (or Mr. Princess Leia), and played with all the original action figures and toys for hours on end, it brings waves of nostalgia over us to realize those movie heroes from days gone by are still capable of bringing it!  Kudos to the producers of the movie for roping all of us 70’s and 80’s kids back into the franchise with this move.  It takes a LOT for me to willingly shell out the insane ticket price at the movies these days, but this is definitely one that I’ll be lining up for. 

S7AR_WARS

  • UMU #3:  Some members of my family try to meet up for a family dinner one night a week.  This past week we met at a nearby restaurant, and when my 3-year old nephew slid into the corner booth and saw me sitting across the table, his eyes lit up, he flashed a big smile, and yelled out “KRISTI!!”  I said “Hey that’s Ant Kristi to you mister,” but my insides went all mushy that he was so happy to see me and so unabashed in his reaction – I love how little kids don’t know how to filter their actions yet and how they pretty much just go with their first-gut feeling.  It’s nice to know that someone is genuinely happen to see you!  And it doesn’t hurt that he’s pretty much the cutest kid on the planet right now…
Nephew Wyatt, 3 years old. Cute & he knows it.

Nephew Wyatt, 3 years old. Cute & he knows it.

Well there you go, this week’s 3 moments of UNunhappy.  Helping to balance the positive and negative scales between the realms of dark and light…and using the force for good instead of evil.  Until next time, may the UNunhappy force be with you too.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

 

Hanging Out My Shingles

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“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together…” ~William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, IV, iii)

So seven weeks ago, I wrote these words in a post called Falling Up For A Change: “It looks like I won’t have a day off for the next six weeks. But it’s a good problem to have, I keep telling myself. And six weeks goes by in the blink of an eye, right? I’m still scared and unsure of what the next months will bring…and, I may even fall down again instead of up…

Silly little naive me. Oh it did go by pretty quickly, in retrospect. And I did take a fall alright – I fell waist-deep into the pool of false mindset, believing that I could work and function at the same no-consequences level of my younger self from twenty years ago.

I did actually have one (unforeseen) full day off during those six weeks of working both jobs. What I didn’t count on was the cumulative effect of all the other days I didn’t have off. Add to that recipe the fact that I worked harder physically in that span than I have in quite some time, throw in a significant mental and emotional stress factor, and out popped the last thing in the world I expected:

Shingles.

For those of you that have never experienced shingles, allow me to describe it: for me anyway, it started about ten days ago as a feeling on my left hip near my waist (hence being waist-deep in that pool I described above, get it?) of the skin having been rubbed raw or chafed but when I looked, it wasn’t. It almost felt like burning heat-rash but there was no rash (yet), and it was extremely sensitive to the touch. Then the next morning I woke up with a very itchy area on my stomach just to the left of my bellybutton. Two days after that, I woke up with the same burning skin feeling on my back, again near my waist.

I finally made an appointment to see the doctor the next morning, and I’m glad I did: that morning I went, the little red bumps characteristic of shingles started popping up on my stomach where it had been itchy before. The doctor confirmed it was shingles and started me on anti-viral meds immediately. The rash has continued to grow and spread but the meds have kept it from going crazy. The weirdest part is that the pain on my back has been by far the worst, but no rash has popped out there (and hopefully won’t). Nerve pain is a trip.

You know all those TV commercials you see with burly marines telling you that shingles pain is the worst they’ve ever had? Luckily it hasn’t been that way for me, but it’s definitely not comfortable either. (I’ve known people with much worse cases than me and I have a whole new admiration for you now.) You know those novelty pin-case gift things you see at stores like Spencer’s, where you can put your hand or face in the pins and it leaves an impression? When I sit back against something, it feels like I’m sitting against a panel of those pins and that they’re very sharp. And then every once in a while, it feels like someone’s stabbing me in the back with an ice pick, that’s pleasant. I’ve been trying to go pants-less as much as possible, but that can be a bit awkward.

Shingles

I feel lucky that I caught my case fairly early and got on meds to help with the pain and the rash. I get tired pretty easily and the medication causes some side effects like headaches, but I feel like I may have dodged a real bullet in terms of a more serious case. If you ever start having those sensations I describe above, please get to the doctor immediately! Starting on the meds will decrease the severity of your case and hopefully prevent the lingering long-term pain sometimes seen with shingles. And if you’re over 60, consider getting the shingles vaccine.

I suspected my issue was shingles almost as soon as it started happening, and yet I still waited five days to go to the doctor. I kept hoping it would just turn out to be nothing; I kept saying that I didn’t want to overreact. I knew that shingles in people my age are mostly caused by high stress levels, but I kept telling myself that I hadn’t felt that stressed over the past two months. Yes, I knew I’d been overworking myself at pretty tough levels recently in terms of both time and degree of manual labor without much (if any) rest, but I had definitely gone through times of worse stress in my life without ending up with shingles.

The day after I saw the doctor, I was resting at home and feeding my Twitter addiction when I had the following conversation with a friend of mine that lives in England:

tweet

Did you get that? Read it again. Patricia pretty much blew my mind when she said “That Body/Mind connection [is] so strong but not always obvious.” Yes! Our relationship with time can make all the positive OR NEGATIVE difference in the world…so why do we abuse and neglect it willingly? Why do we push ourselves until the body can’t take it anymore?

In retrospect, I believe I made myself susceptible to shingles because I neglected my relationship with time and allowed myself to get worn down, plain and simple. Getting worn down weakened my immune system, which gave the dormant virus a portal. There’s a reason why the work week is five days on, two days off; we need time to rest, recharge, rejuvenate – but I hadn’t been permitting myself to do that. Both my mind and my body were being stressed beyond healthy levels, but I was refusing to listen. I had ignored my mind/body connection, and so now I’m paying the price. I’m just glad it wasn’t something more serious.

Our bodies are amazing vessels that take years of punishment from us and try to protect us anyway. Our brains deliver signals when the system gets overloaded or when there’s a problem, but we don’t always listen. Why not? I remember when I was going through my last separation and divorce, I chose to isolate myself while going through the process, revealing my distress and pain only to my therapist once a week. My body started revealing signs of the severe stress: hives, fatigue, even these weird squiggly lines in my vision that the eye doctor said were signs of impending migraines and 100% stress-related.

So I’m going to try to do a better job of listening to the signals from now on. And scheduling – I’m not going to work seven days a week anymore if at all possible (my internship ended so I’m getting more much-needed rest while I re-group for future opportunities). I’m going to try to not ignore the things that make me feel more balanced and just better in general. And I’m going to try to not get so upset by things that have upset me in the past (like the insane Austin traffic). Easier said than done, I know. But I know I don’t want to get shingles again, that’s for sure, so I at least have to make an effort.

Shameless plug: my friend Patricia in England (from the aforementioned tweeting) is starting her own business called Well Ahead Coaching. She will be partnering with career-minded women to help them re-engage with their career goals, realign with changed priorities, or reinvent themselves after maternity leave. I know Patricia from college, and I have no doubt she’s going to be an extremely successful life and wellness coach. Follow her on Twitter at @wellaheadcoach and sign up on her website for early bird specials on coaching opportunities (especially you readers in the UK!).

I hope all of you have a wonderfully balanced body/mind week. I’m starting mine out with fresh-baked pumpkin bread, so what could be better than that? It’s not a cure for shingles, but it’s a start.

pumpkinbread

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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