Is happiness scaleable?
If you poke around on the Internet you can find some dandy forms to measure ordinary happiness. Similar to the charts you see in a doctor’s office to indicate levels of pain, or in elementary schools to help children name emotions, there are certain sets of smiley faces designed to help you express your happiness on a readable scale.
adjective: scalable; adjective: scaleable
able to be scaled or climbed.
able to be changed in size or scale.
(of a computing process) able to be used or produced in a range of capabilities.
“it is scalable across a range of systems”
able to be measured or graded according to a scale.
You can measure enough pasta, your carpet, or your dog in five easy steps, but how easy is it for us to size up our current emotional state in order to make a solid decision about how to proceed? Be it joy or sorrow, a crowd on a beach or someone’s chump behavior, is it possible to expand our heart for “increased use” or learn just when to say, “no thank you?”
Can we scale up for more joy or scale back for less input?
This morning I fielded a difficult phone call with someone I love. She called me because I had texted a morning greeting. She knew the door of my attention was open. (I love how subtly a little text can work like that. “Hi! I am here!”)
What ensued was a long description of what is going on for her. I mirrored what I heard back to my loved one and let the conversation run on for a while. As I listened to her, I heard how hard it is for us to measure what is enough and what is too much in many social settings. In any given hour, we all handle a barrage of information through our senses and our hearts, that beloved and crucial sense organ. We are constantly in the act of deciding what to take up and handle, what to save for later, what to table indefinitely, and what we must flat-out ignore for the sake of our sanity (like divorces of celebrities for example.)
Emotions, including the full-scale of happiness, are what land on the pages of my journal in my morning writing.
My daily pages are the first place I go, after prayer and meditation. If I get lured in to someone else’s emotional seas before I do my daily pages, I will likely drown in their drama before returning to the dry land of my own as-yet-unexplored territory of today. My daily practices mean that I am more readily available to my own needs and worries, and can handle them without extended effort. When my pages reveal what I want and need, I am in much better shape to ask for those things. This is something I gain in my daily pages. A sense of this, not that.
But, as a mother, as a woman, wife, sister, friend, mentor, aunt, cousin, teacher, and all the other ways I relate to my humans, it is deliriously tempting to make another person’s urgency my emergency. My daily pages become more life-preserver and launch pad, rather than dumping ground. Or maybe, on my pages, I sort through the dumping ground of my mind, pick up what is mine and therefore discern what is useful and necessary. I commit the rest to the compost of time. And I am clearer about what help I can offer without drowning.
Learning how to scale myself internally, when I feel enough in any one situation or when it is time to make a different arrangement, seems like such a basic skill, but as I mature, it is a skill I hone daily. Especially now that my children are away at college and the urgent needs of my beloveds at home narrow to those of my partner of 26 years and our visiting pet snake. All of a sudden, I have a whole lot of attention to pore on my own pursuits.
This is a good thing. And a scary thing. This week, I approach the idea that my Armenia project may in fact, will in fact, become a reality, rather than a far-away never-to-become-real-dream. I have to look at the ways that I scale my own happiness.
The prospect of bigger success scares me.
I grew up with a very limited range of happy. Growing up in a home with active alcoholism meant that I had to constantly scale and rescale what was enough, or good enough. I had to figure out attention, love, participation, friendship, and safety on a very particular scale. My inner dreams of bigger things, more, more, and more of all of those experiences of love, friendship, and attention, were always calibrated against what I had…for which, I was told, I must be grateful. I learned early to scale back my expectations of joy and happiness, to take the slice of the pie of life that was offered me and not ask for more. This means that I have grown in to a woman suspicious of success, because I never really had it. I learned to be wary of dreams coming true because that just does not happen for girls like me. I don’t know what being first feels like. I have had, and do have, an amazing marriage and through this union with my husband, I have experienced joy and happiness, fulfillment and meaning, as I have never known. Every day a new path opens, different and wildly rewarding.
But as an individual, I have not really known what it is to have a big dream and have that big dream come in to form. I have started to build dreams of my own, not related directly to my marriage and our family through the work I do here on this site, through my writing and art making, and through my teaching and presenting.
So as my Armenia project gives all the signs of being a viable birth of a dream come true, I have to calibrate-or learn anew what it is to scale up my happiness, fulfillment, and challenge.
I learned from my mentor and friend Regena Thomashauer, whose new book, Pussy: A Reclamation came out last week, that when you reach your upper limit of happiness or fullness-or in her words, “havingness,” you cup your hands together and say a prayer “Thank you Goddess, I will take more.” This prayer is very different from the gratitude with “my portion” that I was expected to have as a child.
How do I know when my “havingness” has reached an upper limit?
I have learned to read this signal like a beacon on rocky shores. When I am at the edge of my upper limit, my FEARS take center stage in my mind. This week, when I learned that it is likely I will raise nearly all the money I need to fund my project, ALL of my fears came to dance on my head. Suddenly, I was searching for “likelihood of earthquakes in Armenia in 2016” and wondering what bad could happen to me in Gyumri. I was sure this idea of The New Illuminations is a rotten one. Who am I to think I could have a positive impact on a group of women who deal with the patriarchy as I have never ever experienced? Just who do I think I am, so big for my britches?
I reached out to my friends, cried over tea with Janet and admitted that the fears had arrived. Then, out of the blue, Sigrun, of subrosa.com posted this in her blog:
“The solution is not to push the fears away – pushing worries and fears takes a lot of energy; exactly THE energy you need to create. But when we let ourselves know and name our real apprehensions, their power tends to diminish: and we can focus more on our work.
Anxiety in a creative task might also be a sign that will and control are giving way to something fresh & original.
Janna Malamud Smith calls it: THE FREIGHT OF WORRY, EVEN DESPAIR, THAT ANY DIFFICULT WORK CARRIES WITH IT.”
Well, I got me a freight of worry all right. But I also have a freight of hope. This is difficult work, dealing with an empty nest, raising funds for an artist residency, nearing the editing stage of my manuscript. And I say, “Thank you Goddess, I will take more!”
I have a request of you.
Would you please consider putting my Armenia project and me on your prayer list or on your altar?
Would you tuck us in to the wall in your garden where the sun arrives every morning, fresh and alert?
I need a boatload of prayer to complete my fundraising and prepare to fly to Yerevan on October 30.
I also need a measure of prayer to simply mother and love my kids from a distance,
to teach my students with integrity and joy,
and to continue to nurture my writing and art work
as I stand in my very real vulnerability.
It is hard to scale happiness.
Women have learned to measure it by the thimbleful, making decisions that when this or that is accomplished, then we can do the thing we’ve held out for. So many women wait years to scale up their happiness, waiting until the kids are in school or that promotion is handed out or your partner makes up his mind about his job.
I told my loved one on the phone this morning that knowing what is enough for me today and acting on that, while also keeping present in my prayers and actions the next big step for my dreams, these are my habits of happiness. So is asking my friends for support, this Rampant Sisterhood.
These habits all rise from being very clear and present to the munificence of the present moment, all the enough I do have, food and electricity, donors and readers, friends and collaborators, love and more love, that flows in and out of my life every single day.
This awareness of gratitude feels very different from what I learned as a child.
How about you?
What about scaling up your happiness today?
What would that look like?