Catching Happiness By The Tail

I’ve been reviewing some old writing, and came across this odd snippet I’d posted back in February:

I was at the petstore today buying cat litter, and saw the HAPPIEST DOG EVER. Everytime he (she?) looked at someone, huge waves of happiness would shoot out and he would wag his tail so furiously that his entirely rear end shook and his paws would skid! I was very impressed, and thought that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be more like that dog. When I got home, my cats were very happy to see me, and spent some time dancing in front of me, tails very high in the air. You can tell how confident and happy a cat is entirely by the posture of the tail. I think I read that cats don’t have facial muscles they can move (I think dogs do) so it’s all about the tail. Tails are very important to animals. Humans don’t have tails, so I guess we just have to smile so much that our bodies shake with glee. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled quite like that, but it’s something to shoot for this year!

I posted this in The Happiness Group, a Google discussion forum I have been reading since early 2005. What strikes me about my post is the tone: it’s direct and unapologetic, and my “inner child” shows through. Where’s the self-conscious, introspective navel gazing that ordinarily fuels my writing? In retrospect, it was rather daring of me to even post it, which is probably why I did—I don’t remember if that was the actual reason, unfortunately.

It occurs to me that the business of being happy takes some courage. Or at the very least, a healthy lack of embarrassment when pursuing it.

Happiness Takes Courage

Happiness is a funny topic. My impression is that people tend to avoid discussing such things out in the open; it’s a rather revealing subject to discuss outside of one’s circle of very close friends. It seems counter-intuitive that people wouldn’t want to discuss things makes them happy, but I can readily identify with the feeling; there are a few reasons that come to mind:

  • The very word happy conjures images of simple joy, which in our very complicated society is sometimes equated with simple-mindedness. Who’s going to take you seriously if you’re happy all the time? The rest of us have Big Problems To Grapple With! To say you want to be “happy” smacks of being escapist, possibly delusional, and obviously not a good candidate for any position that requires scary decision making or a spine…

  • Happiness is associated with the carefree days of childhood, back when we didn’t have any worries. Childhood (and by association, being happy) is like Narnia: we are allowed exactly one visit, and after we leave the nest we can’t go back. At best, we can pay it forward to our own children…

  • When you work in a politically-charged environment, revealing what really makes you happy also makes you vulnerable. You know…information is power, knowledge is leverage, etc. And since makes us truly happy can be very personal, that’s a lot of leverage in the hands of an asshole. On top of that, your statements of happiness are open to misinterpretation and ridicule by the watercooler gang; who wants to go through that?

  • And do I even know what makes me happy? The Mass Media has totally filled my head with plausible fictions: get a significant other, land a good job, get married, buy that house and have a brace of kids, etc. At least everyone else is moving in the same general direction, so there’s safety in numbers right? Unfortunately for me, I’ve never been good about following other people’s numbers. And for some of us, we’re so busy worrying about other people’s problems, we don’t have the time to spend with ourselves and puzzle it out…


p>As much as I’d like to think myself as competitive enough to deal with the world’s complexities…I really just want to be happy. That doesn’t mean I have to give myself a lobotomy: it just means that I have to be active and smart about pursuing it. And brave enough to do this in the face of people who don’t get it and/or are suspicious of happiness. The list of reasons I gave? They just hold us back through fear and doubt.

So the first order of business in 2005 was to jettison those reasons as complete bunk, starting out again from scratch. When I was introduced to the The Happiness Discussion Group (H-Group), what I found especially cool was its emphasis on the positive…without being insipid. Some people, of course, might be suspicious of the upbeat and at-times silly nature of the discussion, and to them I would say this: a lot of the time, we tend to see the world in terms of obstacles and problems; it follows that our attention is focused on diagnosing broken things. While that’s important, dwelling on what’s wrong all the time creates a negative bias in our perception, and that drains us of energy that has to be compensated for in other ways. Thus, it’s even more important to find positive sources of energy in our life; that’s part of what The H-Group is about.

Sharing Resources, Because Sharing is Smart

Another advantage of H-Group is that it’s frequented by smart people who are researching these very topics at places like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Positive psychology as a legitimate area of research, if you haven’t noticed, is on the rise. If you’re sick of all the negative fear, uncertainty, and doubt that gets shown on the evening news, then think of positive psychology as the equivalent reaction to the doom-and-gloomers who are more interested in cataloging the way in which life sucks, with the implication that by being part of life you must suck also! I have no patience for that kind of attitude. Begone!

While having a bunch of academics posting in an online forum sounds like a recipe for boredom, H-Group actually very personable and accessible, written in plain language. Occasionally a general article on research psychology trends gets linked, but it’s just to kick off an interesting discussion. My favorite aspect of the forum is it’s also a little bit silly, so I get to indulge my inner child when the questions are about snow and favorite weather come up. I think it keeps my soul from getting too old to appreciate the cool parts of being alive. And knowing how you feel about the weather actually is surprisingly interesting…what does it say about you? Here’s a quick review of some of the past threads:

Strategies for Happiness, ranging from the silly to the sciency.

Beliefs — knowing what you believe is really helpful in the pursuit of Happiness.

Introspection — sometimes, you got to dig a little deeper for the answers.

Experiential — sometimes, the experience itself is the answer.

With each interaction, I’m a little clearer on what’s really important to me. If “the journey is the reward”, then chasing happiness might be the sporting aspect of a good life. Come play! :-)

UPDATE: The group moderator also posted a list of favorites…it’s longer and more varied than mine!