Monday, October 10, 2011


Crude graph made in photoshop.
Happy-ness has more chance to develop/exist if red and blue lines are deliberately kept separated.

I'm pretty sure "happiness" isn't a feeling, or a mood or even solely a personality trait; I think it might just be a measure of the gap one can create between something called "stress" and something else called "capacity to regulate stress response".  So, happiness is an achievement, perhaps, for anyone prone to depression. Here's the reasoning, broken into sections:

Stress is not a fixed thing. It's a relationship one's nervous system has with existence.
Some stress is necessary or the brain will just sit there and do nothing - it won't learn. It won't remain flexible and adaptive.
Too much stress will make it adapt badly. It will impair the brain sooner or later.
Stress is described as an upside-down "U" function - an optimal amount helps one navigate life, if not with pleasure, at least with a sense of success rather than defeat. (I've read and learned much from all the articles in  Nature Reviews Neuroscience: Focus on Stress [2009])

One can manipulate, if not stress itself, stress-ors.. mostly by avoiding them or reducing them or eliminating them. What might be some stressors easily eliminated? Oh, most TV shows, smoking, drinking alcohol, etc.
Likewise, hanging around people who belittle you in any other way, or do not enhance your mental or physical life, is counterproductive, best avoided I find, at least for me.

E.g., I find boredom very stressful.

Freedom from the stress of boredom
If left to myself, I'm not bored. I can find things to do and read and think about. I can watch my brain machinate its way through perceived conundrums. I can plan (although I don't really like to be attached to plans, because plans have to fight a lot of external resistance and get changed as a result, much of the time) and organize (something else I'm not all that attached to) and learn (something I never get tired of) and think (about anything, everything) and write (about anything, everything). Or just breathe and not have to do anything with my brain. Unencumbered.

Social stress, boredom
I find it immensely stressful to be around people I consider boring, and I find most 'socializing for the sake of socializing', boring, so I am mostly a solitary hermit. I've never married or had children, because I find routine (outside my own easily changeable personal routines) extremely boring; the very thought of harnessing myself into a small group of other human primates forever dependent on my personal involvement with them, freaked me out completely as a young woman, so I just never went there or did that.
Now as I look back on life from the ripe old age of 60, I appreciate the instinct that kept me unattached, and the way I chose to combat and navigate but not give into competing instincts, such as wanting to belong somewhere or find 'lasting romance': I did live with someone for three years (ran a simulation of what marriage might be like); nice man, satisfying relationship in most of the important ways (from the perspective of a 22-year-old healthy female), but in the end found it boring and therefore stressful.
Having to continuously adapt to other peoples' needs and wants in exchange for 'belonging' to a domestic arrangement was something I knew intrinsically that I'd never ever be able to pull off successfully. It never looked like it would be a good bargain. I had instinctive fear of the avalanche of expectation that surrounds ordinary social domesticity. My nervous system's threat detectors have been allergic to social norms, and have therefore sounded pretty much continuously, all my life.

It's Thanksgiving here in Canada; it seems appropriate to include the fact that every day of my life I'm grateful that since I had to come into existence in the first place, with such strong personal proclivities in the second place, it was into a culture and era that permitted me, a woman, to retain control of my own physicality, in particular that physicality residing below the waist (...and enjoy it too, when/if I wanted..).
Most important has been social autonomy. I was born at a time when I learned I had the right to bodily autonomy, enjoyment of physicality, to wear whatever was/is comfortable, sensible shoes, no make-up. Or, on the other hand, the right to dress like a female caricature if I felt like it. Which I did sometimes, mostly in order to escape notice, to blend in, feel more invisible and be able to 'compete' successfully. Not that I ever won any prizes for looks, or captured any trophies of any other kind (a vision comes to mind of a marriage partner mounted like a deer head over the mantle, but more likely a spouse would be sitting on the couch, quite alive, watching sports no doubt..)
In most cultures on the planet, girls are groomed from birth to adapt to the fact that they are destined to become someone else's reproductive livestock, uteruses with arms and legs, that their humanantigravitysuits are not strictly their own - that instead, they do not have any right to enjoy ownership of their bodies, specifically from the waist down, ever, and usually not the space between their ears/above their eyes, either.
My family gently hinted at this, but never did I feel coerced toward enacting such a role. My life was mine to live however I chose - my body, all of it, was mine to do with as I wished, and the culture of the 1960's and 70's that surrounded me as an emerging biological woman made it real.
For this freedom, which I realize now is a true happiness, I'll be forever grateful to my mother. I think my dad probably had more restrictive, more male-biased, protestant-tent-religion-based, traditional views on the matter, but my mother, a lapsed catholic who never displayed any ambition beyond keeping a home and raising a family, somehow still managed to keep enough space open for me to run away through, out to 'freedom from family'. She has probably never really reflected on why she did that. I certainly have disappointed her in almost every way imaginable from an interpersonal or social point of view; I'm pretty sure she likely expected her oldest daughter to heave to eventually and contribute my share to the planet's overpopulation problem; but I never did - instead I took total advantage of the opening out into the brave new feminist-hardfought-and-won world of female autonomy, and sailed away.
On the other hand, it may have been that she just didn't care; I think the fact her first-born happened to be female, not male, disappointed her, and so it didn't really matter to her what I turned out like, as long as I didn't do anything too egregious like end up an unwed mother or in jail. Still, I remain grateful that she wasn't as overbearing as she could have been.
I did not copy her life, only half her genome. During all the years she spent on care and feeding and cajoling and 'training' (as she called it), and encouraging me at schoolwork, I also absorbed years of watching her be content with cooking/baking/cleaning/laundry/hanging clothes out on a clothesline/enjoying herself in the evening by knitting/crocheting/sewing/doing petit point/etc., reading "ladies'" lifestyle magazines (the only reading material that ever made its way into our family home, beside my dad's Commonwealth newspapers), and.. found it utterly boring. I repaid her maternal investment by not reenacting her existence.
Some judgey little part of myself, some mirror neuron biological part, no doubt, feels (weirdly to me) bereft, and despises me for what it considers selfish ingratitude, based on my having not replicated family life. But the rest of me forgives myself and moves along, knowing full well it would never have had a chance to surface at all, had things not gone the way they did. Plus, I spared all my unborn children the fate of having a mother who would have found child-rearing utterly boring and probably intolerable. I spared them the chore of existence itself. I spared them having to put up with someone as capricious and depressive as I, from being their mother. I saved myself (and them) a lot of stress. Furthermore, I made a colossal forward payment on my own carbon footprint by not replicating any more people.

Learning how to increase this has also been found to help to widen the proposed happy-gap.
It's something I'm finally getting around to, now that I know how crappy (opposite of happy) life can feel when this capacity diminishes. The single biggest ingredient of maintaining this capacity is regular exercise, so I'm led to believe.
Now, I haven't been exercising on a regular basis long enough to find out how I and me and myself will adapt to it - for now, it's still a stressor and therefore has not widened any discernible gap. But  I do have faith it can, and will, based on a bunch of stuff I read about the endless benefits of exercise on physiology and brain health, and that it's never too late.
For the moment, I'm content that I finally discovered a place in which I can exercise with minimal psychosocial stress from exercise itself. I mean, there's still the issue of having to be in the same room as a bunch of other women, and having to put up with music I don't enjoy (this is Weyburn; country music about neon signs and green tractors etc. is mixed up with Katy Perry and Lady Gaga; on the plus side, it's a women's gym, so I have not noticed any loud head-banger music).  In spite of minor distractions (music which I could avoid if I wanted by using an iPod or something) it feels like this is some sort of turning point for me, that someday soon I could actually enjoy exercise (i.e., not find it boring, or nociceptive), and instead of going through life just reducing stress at one end, I could increase the happy-gap from the other end too.

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