Photo: CC Felix Francis, Thrissur, India
I had to learn to stop saving up my happiness. It just goes bad if you don’t use it when it’s fresh.
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
I have had a tendency to save things.
Clothes. Food. Magazines. Friends.
Music I wanted to listen to, walks I wanted to take.
I don’t mean accumulate stuff. By save, I mean for later. When I encountered/ bought/ tasted/ realized something I really wanted, I would save it for later. The new thing was so valuable that I would put it aside to enjoy when I had time to really enjoy it.
Or I would put it away and save it so that I would not to use it all up.
That walk will feel better after (fill in the blank).
In my most controlling moments, I would not even open the new thing or take it out of its packaging because maybe later I would have somehow earned to right to enjoy it more. Not yet. Get something done first.
This may seem innocuous. Hell, it might even seem prudent, but I can assure it is neither of those. It is a Very Bad Habit.
Use the force, Luke.
I don’t know when I began to sense the dark side to saving up good feelings for later. It took over my spontaneous happiness like a kind of hoarding mistrust.
Some members of my family have a dozen clothing items a year or more old with tags on them hanging in their closets, and it creeped me out one day to notice I had started to do that too, to hesitate to wear things I bought.
If I didn’t need it, why did I buy it? If I wanted it, why was I denying it to myself? Worse, I would often give other people the very thing I wanted for myself, from art supplies to earrings, from free time to love and attention.
And then I noticed that everything from organic cherries to socks without holes in them had come to represent some kind of “reward.” That was the last straw.
By that point, the rest of my life seemed to devolve into areas of self nagging and vicious self criticism, as I tried to find out from myself what it was going to take for me to be allowed to sit down and enjoy the magazine I bought or actually read the book that had come in at the library, instead of “saving it for later.”
I began to wonder how I could ever earn that right, the right to relax.
Built to self-fulfill
Happiness has an odd sort of shelf life. If you don’t let yourself have the happiness you are having at the moment you feel it, it goes bad. You can’t actually save it.
Also: if you let yourself have the happiness of any given moment – and believe me, as a happiness hider this struck me as foolhardy risk when I first experimented with it – if you actually just have the moment, it doesn’t get used up, exactly.
I mean, you know, it does, in the sense that the moment passes, but using it up makes it into part of you.
Not just as a memory, thank god, because I don’t live very happily on only memories, but as a kind of neurotransmitter substance in yourself that gets better at finding more of the substance that made you happy.
The map of happiness
The Dalai Lama says we all have the responsibility to figure out what makes us happy. When I was teaching Four Words regularly at Kripalu, people were more uncomfortable with this idea than almost any other.
What I found was that if I never allowed myself to have anything that made me happy, nothing that made me happy ever showed up in my life.
When I realized how much liked walking in the woods, it was a struggle to just let myself do it. When I did, I found myself talking about it with other people, and soon I had a handful of walking buddies and more opportunities to get out and hike than ever before.
We learn, is all I’m saying, and learning is more than memorizing. It’s embodied. It’s physical.
If drugs make you happy, you take more of them. You get addicted without any special effort on your part, and you turn everything in your life into the resources necessary to get the thing you are addicted to. But it’s not just drug and substance addiction that work this way.
We are physically built to convert pleasure and pain into pattern matching algorithms. Pain and pleasure make our view of the world conform to a map of their existence, and turn us into experts at finding and repeating experiences.
Savor, don’t save
When, for example, in the past I found something that inspired me, I would collect some of it and save it. I would be careful not to play my favorite music very often because I didn’t want to get tired of it. Guess what? I stopped being interested in hearing the music I’d been “protecting” from overuse.
Not only did I not get to enjoy it eventually, I didn’t get to enjoy it at all!
That special dress? (I bet you’re ahead of me now.) I saved it so it would “stay nice” and honey, it’s still in perfect condition and it is so freaking out of date.
Ideas. Yes, even ideas. If you use ideas when you have them, give yourself the pleasure, say, of following an inspiration, reading a book, looking at an art exhibit, going with friends to a party, looking at the sky on a pretty day, it turns out that more of those great inspirations come to you.
When you save that idea for something better instead of doing something with it, I think it must radiate cosmic idea despair and drive other ideas away.
So go ahead and use up your inspiration because you will not grow more of it until you use it. And worse, the inspiration you don’t use goes bad. It gets stale. It loses its inspirational qualities.
Those people you like? Have lunch with them, now. Send a friend a note, play with your kids, just listen to people when they talk. Enjoy what you like about them and it will shape the way you interact in the world so that more people you will like will roll your way.
Save friends for later, and you all become different people. You miss out on life altogether.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.