Fibromyalgia and Happiness

“People are made happy by one thing and one thing only-pleasant sensations in their bodies”, Yuval Noah Harari

What is happiness? Sometimes I think I have been seeking it my entire life and it still often eludes me. I want to be happy. I have worked at it. I meditate, have done yoga and chi-gong, I even have coloured in books (the newest craze), made quilts and listened to joyful music, all said to enhance creativity which is thought to be integral to being happy. When I was young and religious I prayed. It made me fearful, not happy. I have looked at amazing skies, October foliage, a calm lake and enjoyed their beauty, but I do not often experience the peacefulness that happiness is said to bring. Is the feeling of being at peace the same as feeling happy? Some of the happiness experts say that if you smile often enough it will entice your brain to believe you are happy. I smile often when around others and many would consider me happy. Maybe, then, I do experience happiness, which differs from peacefulness. Perhaps it is so fleeting that it escapes my attention?

We all bear our scars. I have a close family member who has Multiple Sclerosis, is engaged in life, has fun filled outings with friends and is an upbeat, self- defined happy person. She does not lament about her lot in life, but is able to find joy in her everyday activities in spite of living in a wheelchair. Has she been programmed in such a way that she can overcome difficulties that overwhelm others to the point of despair? She does have a strong support system of friends. Is that her secret? Or, is it that keeping busy prevents her from dwelling on her disabilities?

Dr. Edward Diener the psychologist known as “Dr. Happiness” has the view that those who have a strong support system of family and friends are the people who report being the happiest. However, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky found that processes of social comparison, self evaluation, and personal perception as well as genetics and circumstances comprise the gamut of happiness. Conversely, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly , a psychologist, suggests that people need to find difficult activities they can do and do them more often, that is, doing meaningful work and keeping busy. It can be seen that the happiness experts vary in their suggestions as to what compromises or enhances happiness.

I have a wonderful support system of friends and family, and a loving spouse. There are many enjoyable moments, but is that happiness? I have anxious days and nights, filled with pain and low energy, with worry about my abilities and perhaps loss of independence. One suggestion I read about was to change the ways in which one walks, that is, to take purposive long strides, swinging one’s arms. I can’t do this as my walking is difficult and painful, particularly following a hip replacement four months ago, and especially when I try to take long steps. As a short person I have never walked that way. So? I should walk in a way that is awkward for me and smile often even when in pain from fibromyalgia and then I will be happier?

I am still confused about whether or not feeling peaceful is the same as being happy? Is happy just a temporary state that one can measure about how much happiness s/he has in a day? Does the weather and time of year affect one as dramatically as some suggest?image1-29

This is an extraordinarily beautiful time of year where I live, but it will soon be grey November, a time when there is so much darkness and which is, for me, a sad time. Am I then living in the future and not enjoying the moment? October is a wonderful month. The weather is cooler, the trees are turning magnificent colours, it is Thanksgiving (for Canadians) as it is harvest time, plus the air is fresh. It is a time for reflection and hunkering down for the dismal November month with bare trees and cold harsh winter (not so for my Australian and New Zealand friends!).

Is it my fault I don’t consider myself an unusually happy person? Was it the past trauma I experienced or is it genetic?I have been reading a most extraordinary book by the historian Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens  (2014). He writes:

“There’s no natural selection for happiness as such- a happy hermit’s genetic line will go extinct as the genes of a pair of anxious parents get carried on to the next generation” (p.386).

Well, as I end these musings today and watch the waning of lovely October, I realize I had both: a pair of anxious parents, and a great deal of past trauma. Together these two nature and nurture traits have produced me with the   highly sensitive nervous system- this “central sensitization” which produces anxiety and difficulty with living in the present.

I will keep on with mindfulness meditation (although I know that MM is not intended to bring happiness but to pay attention, on purpose, to our thoughts and to live in the moment) and walk as much as I can and even more importantly I will do the things that bring me happiness in spite of the challenges. Either way I will have the pain so why not combine with those activities which are joyful? After all happiness is fleeting and varies from minute to minute.

“evolution has moulded us to be neither too miserable nor too happy,. It enables us to enjoy a momentary rush of pleasant sensations, but these never last for ever. Sooner or later they subside and give place to unpleasant sensations”, Harrari (p.386).

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6 comments

  1. Nancy says:

    Ah Barbara, it’s so good to hear from you again! I too often wonder about happiness. I thought I was doing pretty good until a few weeks ago when I started therapy again. The therapist told me how negatively I’m thinking so now I’m feeling worse than before I started therapy! From past experience, I know this can be the case, so I just keep going on. Trying to reach “that place”. That happy place as opposed to this abyss I seem to be living in. The mind is a very powerful tool. It protected me from the trauma I had to deal with as a child but it hasn’t served me well as an adult because I can’t flip the switch. So I too have been thinking a lot about happiness and what exactly does it mean. I don’t have a good support system but that doesn’t mean I can’t be happy. At least not in my book. So, as I work on the electrical switch in my brain, I’m “happy” when I get little kisses from my dog. I’m “happy” when I see my grandkids. I’m “happy” when I see the people I love happy. So my life, and my brain, may be far from perfect, but these little happy moments that light it up make every day worth it. ~ Nancy

  2. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Thank you Nancy: It has been a struggle writing more than I have for the past four months. But, I read the reader’s comments very faithfully.
    Like you I am happy. or more to the point contented, when my loved ones are happy (whatever that means to people, as the definition seems obscure to me).Good health is also a multifaceted concept. Many we know seem to have great disabilities yet define themselves as healthy. Right now I think if I were able to walk a city block without pain I would consider myself healthy, yet perhaps that isn’t a good yardstick! Instead just getting up in the morning knowing that my loved ones (in particular kids and grandkids) are doing okay and able to walk as much as I can, is ‘happy’. Happiness comes and goes but even the least happy of us experience little snippets of joy during our days. I am greedy- I want more.
    Saying to someone “Be happy” is weird. How can we tell someone to be happy? We either are or we aren’t. Right now I am! Sunny day helps!
    Barbara

  3. Bonnie says:

    Thanks Barbara, so well said!
    It’s like your reading my thoughts.
    Let’s hope we find more joy every day, thanks for sharing…it helps

  4. Ellen says:

    Thank you Barbara, I enjoyed reading this. I agree that happiness seems elusive. I find that all emotions come and go, ebb and flow throughout any given day – whether sadness, fear, anger or calm. Recently I have been practising more gratitude for the things I already have in my life. Like you and Nancy say, this can be small and fleeting things like a bit of sunshine – but focusing on, and saying ‘thank you’ for it seems to breed more gratitude! Ellen

  5. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Thank YOU, Ellen: Your comments are so upbeat. Yesterday was gloomy and rainy and dark. This morning it is cool but sunny. I am always struck by how the weather affects me so dramatically. I am grateful it is Monday (my favourite day of the week as I find Sunday to be a melancholy day?!) and the sun is beaming. I actually managed a 15 minute walk, stopping once or twice to give my lumbar spine a rest from the pain. However, I felt I had accomplished something early in the day before the fatigue of later day. Small victories are lovely!
    B.

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