Friday, September 30, 2011

Happiness, Meaning, and Service to Others: Part II

It’s been a very busy week or two for me. We’re putting the final touches together for our annual NAMI San Diego Inspirational Awards Dinner next week, plus I’m preparing for a talk I will be giving the night before. Thankfully my work on the Dinner gave me the starting point for my talk. Following is an edited extract from the draft I’m working on ...

I’ve been on the planning committee for the Dinner three years straight. Over that time, I have been involved in the selection of a total of 18 Awardees. I can assure you, this has been one of the most gratifying tasks I have ever been associated with.

Think of it - a bunch of us sitting around the table having discussions about people we all look up to, doing things we all admire.

A few weeks ago, one of my fellow committee members Julie Benn and I worked on preparing bios of our six current Awardees for press releases and for the Dinner program booklet. The exercise got me thinking - what do all these Awardees have in common?

Father Joe - our Inspirational Person of the Year - needs no introduction (in San Diego, anyway). But I am trying to imagine, to cast my mind back to many many years ago. Here is a young priest who has taken a sacred vow to devote his life to God. And the first assignment he draws?

Making peanut butter sandwiches.

Trust me - I’m bipolar. It’s very easy for me to connect God to peanut butter. But for the chronically normal? Well, it turns out that Father Joe made that connection through a lifetime of service to humanity. The forgotten, the down-trodden, the outcast, those we turn our backs on - Father Joe was there.

Inspirational? Don’t get me started.

(In my talk, I will include the other five individuals being honored.)

Six people. Very different. What, I wondered, did they all have have in common? What qualities did they possess that we at NAMI San Diego found so uplifting, so inspirational?

It turns out I didn’t have to think too hard. It came down to two things: Commitment and dedication to serving others. These are values that we here at NAMI San Diego can especially relate to.

So as well as six people tomorrow, we will also be honoring a set of values.

Now let’s connect values to a life of meaning to happiness. I really don’t know too much about happiness. I haven’t experienced it much, and - I suspect - neither have you. We’re really not built to be happy. Happiness is not well-suited to survival. Depression is much better suited. I experience a lot of all that, and - well here I am - a depressive realist, able to see the world as it is and adapt.

But yes, a bit more happiness in my life would be good. So where can we find people who practice happiness?

That is the question.

In May 2009 I joined the board of NAMI San Diego. I was a bit hesitant. I had had a very bad experience with a mental health board I was on back east. These were miserable people who made the lives of everyone around them miserable, including my own. That was the last thing I wanted. But I was a glutton for punishment and I signed on.

Funny thing about NAMI San Diego. Talk to almost any staff person or volunteer or board member and you will encounter an individual with personal experiences that would tear your heart out. That’s what living with mental illness does to us. Consumer or family member or both, we have been through hell and through hell again.

So - by any standard, NAMI San Diego should be the most miserable place on earth. But that is not the case. Far from it. What is going on?

So, I decided to check out this thing called happiness. As it turns out, I had already written four articles on the topic, so I didn’t have far to look. My first article focused on a study which tracked the lives of a group of Harvard men over a period of six decades.

The man who kept this particular study going for four of those decades, George Vaillant, noticed that those he categorized as “happy-well” were those who adapted in healthy ways to their surroundings. One of these healthy adaptations included altruism - service. Service to others.

But wait, happiness is not as simple as all that. One of the things that Dr Vaillant also found out was that positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. We’re setting ourselves up for rejection and heartbreak.

We seem to like to be stuck where we are, says Robert Cloninger, one of the leading authorities on personality and well-being. Life sucks. We get depressed. Psychiatry calls it a success when they get us back to our normal “life sucks” state.

Has anyone here read the Dalai Lama’s book, “The Art of Happiness”?

The Dalai Lama's message is simple. In essence, says the Dalai Lama, we're unhappy because we excel at all the stupid people tricks. We're attached to our own idiotic desires and fears and anxieties. We can't let go.

The way to get over this - out of ourselves - is by paying attention to others. We signal a willingness to put their needs before ours. We cultivate loving kindness. Next thing we're establishing connections and intimacies. Next thing, we're not as absorbed in our own destructive thoughts and feelings. Next thing we're not alone. Next thing, maybe, there are periods in our life where we are experiencing happiness.

I’m not there yet. I’m still working on it.

Says Martin Seligman, who founded “positive psychology,” we may recraft our jobs to deploy our strengths and virtues. This not only makes work more enjoyable, but may transform routine work into a calling.

Okay, I’m no expert on happiness, but I think you see where I’m going with this. Here I was, working on bios for our six Awardees for tomorrow’s dinner. People we look up to. Achievements we find laudable.

Commitment and dedication to serving others.

Serving others - altruism, putting others first.

Commitment - the courage to change things, to take risks and not just settle for good enough.

Fold our strengths and virtues into it, and suddenly we are talking about a life with meaning. Maybe that is what happiness really is. Are the people we will be honoring tomorrow happy? I have no idea. Do they live lives with meaning?

Maybe this is why those of us at NAMI San Diego can so relate. As I mentioned before, by rights we should be the most miserable people on earth. But you know, when I talk to the staff and volunteers, I hear a lot of stories in common.

People tend to first come to NAMI in a state of need. They are often desperate. They feel alone and isolated. Soon, they may find themselves in a Family-to-Family class. Or a Peer-to-Peer. Or one of our many other programs. They get something out of the experience.

And something seems to happen - they want to give back. They volunteer for NAMI. Suddenly, their life has meaning. They have a calling. It doesn’t stop there. If I’m not mistaken, most of our staff started out as volunteers.

I’m not going to pretend we are all happy and that our lives are going great, but I can tell you this much - when I walk into NAMI I’m with people I want to be around.

Commitment, service to others - funny how we’re drawn to people with meaning in their lives.

A life of meaning. What a difference ...


Save the date:

My Talk
Thursday, October 6, 2011, 6:30 p.m. (Meeting starts, I talk at 7:30)
University Christian Church
Friendship Hall
3900 Cleveland Ave.
San Diego

Details on NAMI SD page

NAMI San Diego Inspirational Awards Dinner
October 7, 5:30pm
Catamaran Resort Hotel
3999 Mission Blvd
San Diego
$75 per person

Details on NAMI SD page


Anonymous said...

dear John, I have been reading your website for years and have gained so much from the experience I am very isolated in my everyday life and you have helped me feel a connection. while writing can be quite isolating, I need you to know that you are definitely making a big difference to people like me. thank you. elise (qld australia)

Anonymous said...

dear John, I have been reading your website for years and have gained so much from the experience I am very isolated in my everyday life and you have helped me feel a connection. while writing can be quite isolating, I need you to know that you are definitely making a big difference to people like me. thank you. elise (qld australia)

Addy Bell said...

Your post reminds me of an experience I had several weeks ago. It was a friend's birthday, and he asked his friends to send him three things: something we wanted him to let go, something affirming about him, and something we would like him to take into the future.

His birthday had a unicorn theme (I don't know what it is with gay boys and unicorns these days) so I went into photoshop and wrote my affirmations on a background of the unicorn tapestries that hang in the Cluny. I was feeling pretty low myself when I started, but felt better and better as I put my friend's affirmations together. Somehow, I felt as if I was also doing the exercise for myself.

I think that when we think about what we admire in others, we feel happier and more at peace because we realize that we're not alone. As we think of the positive qualities that others have, we realize that we also have positive qualities. Finally, we're able to experience gratitude for something, which is damned difficult when you're carrying the burden of a mental illness.

Thanks for this post. I've been feeling isolated lately, and it helps me to know that there are folks out there who are fighting for me.