(Reposted from my Boot Camp for the Bonus Years, 2015.) In which somebody is mean to me, and I am sustained by rote phrases to a painful situation.
This week I magically applied lessons from a course on the Science of Happiness to shift myself from despondent to normal in a twinkling. Normal for me means happy, by the way.
I’d been pretty relaxed about the UC Berkeley course I was doing. Yeah yeah, I knew all that! None of the content was new to me, and I certainly didn’t enrol because I was unhappy.
Then something bad happened
Somebody in my circle made an astonishing remark (twice) that felt like a whack on the face. Their perception of our relationship was one I couldn’t recognise and felt I could not bear. I spent the rest of the day stunned, like a zombie. And yes, dramatically unhappy.
My first thoughts: This is a statement they can never un-say, and it changes our relationship forever.
My second thoughts: At least it’s good that I know this. It explains a lot. I’m less confused. Now that I know how they feel, I will be better equipped to cope with reality.
All very well. Not bad going, I suppose. But at this stage — still not happy, not by a long chalk.
Keywords flash into action
Next evening on the way home from dance rehearsal, a friend and I were deep in conversation. Suddenly a word popped into my brain out of nowhere: Resilience.
Then keyword number two popped: Compassion.
What happened next: a happiness coup
Within two seconds, truly, I felt happy again. Happiness rose like a phoenix from the ashes of happiness. (Should be a bluebird, not that hawky-griffony sort of creature.)
Instant happiness. Easy as turning on a light. This cannot be! I still can’t understand.
Even weirder, my happiness level has not dropped since that moment when I was all lit up within. I still am a bit shocked, but I’m no longer horrified or hurting. Instead I’m quietly empathising and sending compassionate thoughts out to the same person who for a short time loomed so threateningly in my world.
Keywords came straight from course materials
Actually, those two words didn’t come out of nowhere. They came straight from the short, low-key online course I was doing. Certain concepts and practices around happiness were fresh in my mind.
What still puzzles me is that when I needed them most, the right concept (Resilience) and the right practice (Compassion) suddenly jumped into my consciousness unsought. What a brain! Retrieval was instantaneous and even verbalised. You’d swear I wasn’t a day older than 74.
Phrases in the brain: learning to the rescue
Each keyword came packed with other phrases attached. In that lightning transformation, a sequence of thoughts popped up in rapid succession —I could almost hear myself thinking these words: “Resilience. Oh yes! Gotta drop this right now. Rumination is bad for you. So you wanted yes and you got a no? Let it go. You still have a beautiful life. But what to do?”
And then: “Compassion. Of course! That person is hurting. They told me so. They said it twice. It must be true for them. I can’t change that. Do compassion meditations. Step back and listen. It’s not about me.”
New coping tools can be learned
Life is not painless. Life hurts now and then. How to cope?
In the past, I’ve made huge efforts to distance myself from painful experiences. To achieve a happier perspective on my divorce, for instance, I invented tricks like drawing cartoons and stumbled towards other happiness practices by accident, trial and error.
Apparently I have now pasted certain coping strategies into my brain. Books and articles and this course on the science of happiness have clarified what works, how it works, and how to apply these winning strategies.
Looking back over the few bad times in my life, I appreciate what I’ve learned since then.
Even so, surely it’s not normal to leap straight back into happiness with the lightest of mental gestures? Maybe it was nothing to do with learning. Forget the phoenix. Maybe I was touched by an angel.
Image from La Litteratura Espagnola by Angel Salcedo y Ruiz, 1916. Public domain.