Crazy Happy: A film

Crazy Happy is a documentary filmed in Whangarei, following a group of people with mental health issues as they participate in a 100-day project to promote happiness. At the beginning of the project most of the participants suffered from depression, some to a debilitating degree.

The idea was quite simple: each day the participants had to take a photo of something that made them happy. Once a fortnight the group met and each person had to share a photo with the group and talk about it. The effects were astounding!

This unique approach to mental wellbeing was introduced to New Zealand by Alison Davie, who wrote and directed the film, assisted by producer Zuleika Gilbert.

See a trailer and/or order the film on Vimeo here

When the good go bad…

How is it that so much harm is caused in the name of religion? How can people who do dreadful things look themselves in the mirror and think they are right?

I believe it has something to do with language. Not just the way we use words to justify what we do, but the very fact that we have language at all. Something in the human brain urges us to classify and categorise things. Language gives us names for our experiences; sentences encode our beliefs about them.

Most of us have moments of clarity and understanding, and many people have profound spiritual experiences. If only we could stay in touch with that profound understanding I’m sure there would be peace in the world. But once the moment of clarity has passed, humans feel the need to put it into words and then use the words as their guide. You hello hello hello could say the experience is spirituality
and the words are religion, but it also applies to non-religious situations.

Words can be used to mobilise groups of people. But if the organisation, church or institution does not allow its members to connect with the internal/eternal truth that first inspired the words, they become rules, regulations and policies with a life of their own. I have heard that many organisations that start out with a holistic ideal, over time can become narrow, prescriptive and commercialised as people lose touch with the original aim.

I’ve come to believe that single words like love, peace and kindness are a more helpful guide than sentences. A sentence gives instruction or advice and often contains a value judgement, but a single word invites you to engage your heart and mind as you reconnect with its true meaning.

The shortcomings of rational thinking

I was brought up to believe that ‘rational’ thinking was the best, if not the only, way to get to the truth. Later I came to see that rational thought cannot, by itself, bring new knowledge; it can only confirm what you already thought you knew. This is because you cannot begin reasoning without taking certain ‘facts’ as given. The reasoning then becomes circular – ultimately ‘proving’ your original premises.

Nowadays it’s more widely understood that so-called ‘scientific’ thinking has been steeped in white Western male cultural ideas. We can almost chuckle at the idea that women in the 50s were seen to suffer from ‘suburban neurosis’ or that slaves in the American south who tried to escape had a disease called ‘drapetomania’.

As a child I believed what I was taught and went along completely with the discourses of the day. However, there were moments when my beliefs were shaken.

One was a class trip to the State Museum (of South Australia) to visit the Ancient Egypt exhibition. I was enthralled by the mummy caskets and the gold and lapis lazuli jewellery. A guide talked to us about the pyramids and said that much of the treasure had been lost because of grave robbers. My response was an uncomfortable puzzlement. All the treasures we were looking at had been stolen from the pyramids – weren’t archaeologists grave-robbers too? I could tell that the guide thought it was all right, because scientists who put things in museums were different somehow from other grave robbers. So I thought it must be all right too.

Another time we were asked to write a composition about how to educate the Aboriginal people to bring them up to the level of white people. (I can’t imagine such a topic being set nowadays!) I thought about it carefully and ended up writing two compositions. One gave ideas for introducing things gradually, such as starting with a hairbrush. The other suggested we just leave them be, as they were perfectly okay as they were. For the life of me I couldn’t decide which of my essays I believed, because the first one was clearly the ‘right’ answer as wanted by the teacher and the second was only some silly emotional idea that had come to me from the blue.

A lot later, in my first year of high school, our science teacher brought a brain to school in a jar. She passed it around and we all peered and joked, fascinated. Then she told us that it was a child’s brain. I was suddenly overcome with horror. Somewhere a mother was grieving for her child and here we were desecrating its memory. It was then that I realised that the scientific way of looking at things could make you completely blind to things that are really important.

We need to take notice of our instinctive responses and flashes of insight, for they give us access to knowledge that we cannot gain through reason alone.


Trust and mistrust

If someone doesn’t trust you, chances are it hurts your pride. But when it comes to trust, I think people often get offended by the wrong things. I believe it is up to all of us, all the time, to prove ourselves trustworthy. Other people should never be expected to trust us without our having proved ourselves and we should never be offended when other people ask for proof or safeguards. In fact, we should give these without being asked.

Unlike most people, who get offended when others don’t show full trust in them, I personally feel offended when people fail to prove themselves trustworthy. For example, I am insulted when a shop assistant offers to print out my cheque and asks me to sign it first. To me, it’s courtesy to print the cheque before expecting a customer to sign it – to do otherwise is to suggest that the customer is a fool.

Similarly, I was once in a syndicate where each week one of us bought a lotto ticket on behalf of the group. When it was my turn, I always scanned the ticket and emailed it to the others before the draw so that they could check the numbers for themselves. When others failed to do the same, I felt insulted by their lack of respect. When I brought this up, they were offended that I “didn’t trust them.”

The idea that “there’s something wrong with you if you don’t trust me” is a strategy used by abusers all the time. When society goes along with the idea that the doubter is the one with the problem, it reinforces this form of control.

I would like to see a society where people are taught to prove themselves as a matter of courtesy, rather than one where people’s egos are bruised because trust is not automatically given.

Trust is of course a good thing, but it is meaningless if given blindly. Mistrust is the counterbalance that makes trust worth something.

Dirt and beauty

In 1974 Saudi Arabia was a fabulously rich country, yet its streets were piled high with rubbish. There was no garbage disposal system other than the goats that roamed the streets. The reason? “No self-respecting Saudi would ever collect trash.”[i] Being too proud to deal with their garbage meant that effectively the Saudis were left with cities that made them ashamed.

I think people are like that too. To become clean we have to deal with our own dirt; to be beautiful we have to face our ugliness. Pretending it isn’t there only lets it pile up for other people to see.

When we refuse to acknowledge our own failings, we cannot be genuinely compassionate, kind or trustworthy. The effort of keeping up the facade takes too high a toll; it will not allow us to truly connect with other people. In other words, trying to cover up our failings is a rather ugly trait.

On the other hand, acknowledging our mistakes and wrongdoings instantly changes us. We become humble, honest and open to true connection with others. If we are guilty of an exceptionally serious misdemeanour, we might feel extremely ashamed or racked with guilt – perhaps appropriately so. The worse you have behaved, the harder it is to admit – but the more powerful and life-changing that confession is.

As a counsellor I have worked with people who have done terrible things, but I always admire the fact that through counselling they are honestly trying to become better people. To my mind, just the fact that they are trying actually does make them better people.

This doesn’t mean going around telling people how bad you are; that’s just another way of getting stuck with a label. It’s a matter of quietly accepting your past and present self with all your imperfections and genuinely trying to do better in future. To me, that’s what makes a person beautiful.


[i] This quote is taken from John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hitman, Berrett-Koehler, 2004

Comparisons

Everything is relative. To answer a question like: “How happy are you with your life?” we cannot answer without comparing our situation with some point of reference. If that point of reference is how much poorer we were three years ago, or our unfortunate friend who has just had heart attack, or the plight of refugees in Syria, we are likely to say we are, and actually feel, very happy with our lot.

However, if we compare our situation with someone who has more money, looks or status than we do, or how much more we think we should have achieved by our particular age, we are likely to feel dissatisfied.

Many of the most miserable and unconfident people I have worked with in counselling were beautiful young women at university who, by most people’s standards, had everything going for them. Their problem was that they constantly compared themselves unfavourably with others. This destructive mental habit caused them to focus only on other beautiful young women and to fail to notice anyone who wasn’t in their league. If on a rare occasion a classmate had put on weight or said something silly, they felt temporarily superior to that person – a rather ugly response.

Making comparisons that assess people into better or worse than yourself stops you from being the genuinely beautiful person you could be and is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

Instead, cultivate compassion for yourself and for others. We are all human, fallible and prone to suffering. A non-judgmental approach helps you understand other people and promotes kindness towards them.

And practice gratitude for all that you have. Nothing is to be taken for granted. If you remember that things could be so much worse than they are, you will feel far happier.

Striving for perfection

Humans strive for perfection in so many ways; we want the perfect house, body, partner. A mental picture of how something should or could be gives us something to work towards. Yet we all know that perfection is impossible.

The word ‘perfect’ comes from Latin roots, meaning ‘completed’ or ‘finished’ (like the perfect tense). Perfection is impossible for the simple reason that life involves constant change.

A stunning sunset or a blooming lily can be perfect for a moment, but their very impermanence is part of their beauty. A talented photographer or artist might capture that beauty but it does not make them the perfect artist or photographer; their career keeps evolving.

Conscious or not, we usually have a mental picture of our ideal self and life. We work towards these, often without taking into account two important factors:

First, life is not finished until we die. Once we have created our ideal home, found our perfect job, reached our goal weight, life will soon feel meaningless and unsatisfactory unless we find something else to strive towards.

Second, our mental picture of perfection is not the only one possible. The world is filled with people aiming to be the perfect Christian, atheist, scientist, mystic, artist, investor, wise person, adventurer, fun-lover, athlete, laid-back person. Some people’s idea of perfection is the exact opposite of our own.

What this means for me is that I cannot judge myself or others for not having achieved a particular thing. Instead of setting a specific external goal and striving to achieve it, I am challenging myself to experience as many ways of being as possible. To understand different points of view and why people don’t understand each other. To try to broaden my own and other’s tolerance and peacefulness. And of course, to accept my own imperfections because, like everyone else, I am only doing my best.

Compassion and challenge

For years I cultivated compassion, not wanting to become desensitised to the suffering in the world. At times I felt overwhelmed by all the suffering around me and wanted to alleviate it wherever possible.

A couple of years ago I attended a seminar with Caroline Myss, a spiritual leader whose books I had been reading. I was prepared to be enchanted by wonderful truths pouring from her lips, but the biggest impact came from a minor incident during the day.

Caroline asked the audience whether there was anything they thought they deserved. One young woman stood up and said she deserved to be loved. In a scathing tone, Caroline answered, “No, you don’t! Who should love you? Why should they?” Then she carried on with her talk. A few moments later she stopped and looked at the woman, now sitting down again. “Why are you wearing sunglasses?” she asked. “Because I’m crying!” “Oh,” said Caroline and turned back to her talk, never to mention it again.

I was horrified. That poor woman! She had been set up to be humiliated in front of a crowd of people. She was crying and this supposedly compassionate person didn’t even care. I would never have done something like that.

But further reflection showed me what had gone on there. Caroline was exposing a basic spiritual truth: that we do not deserve anything and should be grateful for whatever we are fortunate enough to receive. Most likely the woman in the audience felt unloved by her husband or mother and felt sorry for herself. Caroline was telling her that her sense of entitlement was making her unhappy; not the other person. And the irony is that if she had shown compassion at that moment, it would only have confirmed the woman’s sense of being hard done by.

I realised then that we all have our own journey and that it is necessarily a hard road. Sometimes cushioning someone’s pain can prevent them from learning to deal with things themselves. This incident also released me from a sense of duty to carry other people’s pain. I still believe compassion is very important but I now know that I am not responsible for easing all the suffering I see.

As well as teaching me these important lessons, Caroline Myss gave that woman an amazing gift that day. I fully trust that after the initial humiliation, she emerged stronger and happier for the experience.

Power and humility

In our daily lives there are people who have a certain amount of power over us (our employer, landlady, teacher) and people over whom we hold positions of relative power (our children, employees, students). To maximise social happiness, power must be used wisely and with humility.

I remember one work situation where my boss started giving me advice about how to live my life. Her advice was kind and well meant, but totally inappropriate for me. Having authority over me in the workplace, she had crossed the line into thinking she had authority over my life decisions and finances. Because of her position, it was difficult to challenge her without compromising our working relationship. This was a valuable lesson for me when I became a manager myself. No matter how I much might think I know better than a member of staff, I need to be careful not to put them in a position where they feel they have to agree with me.

In an even more dramatic situation, I once worked in a large organisation where the boss had so much power that she seemed to think she was godlike. She once took me aside for a private talk in which she told me that my first loyalty should be to my employer (meaning that I shouldn’t speak up if I disagreed with her). My personal belief was that my first loyalties should be to myself, my values, my professional code of ethics and my clients, before my employer. I think any decent employer would agree with that list of priorities. My sense was that this person saw herself as a cult leader and anyone who didn’t idolise her was perceived as dangerous. This is at odds with good employment practice, which should welcome healthy debate and actively recruit the opinions of professionals and workers.

Everywhere we see people abusing what little power they have as a way of making themselves feel big. But with humility we can instead see positions of authority as a chance to serve our fellow human beings. People love being treated with respect and a good boss or teacher provides a wonderful role model to keep the circle of happiness going.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

We say that actions speak louder than words – and indeed they should. But in actual fact we have to be extremely vigilant in order to avoid simply accepting what we are told.

Our human brains seem to be wired to process information quickly and efficiently by slotting it into pre-existing sets of beliefs. Something we are told can provide a quick frame of reference, through which we process our future experiences and observations For example, if someone tells you, perhaps more than once, that they are a firm believer in giving to charity, it’s likely you will take them for a generous person and completely fail to notice when they repeatedly dodge the office whip-round, or walk past the street seller on Daffodil Day. Their words will have had more impact (in your mind) than their actions. I’m guessing this is because it takes only a second to passively accept what they say, but a bit of time, effort and suspended judgement to take in the truth for yourself.

Most of the time I think we live in a kind of virtual reality, where our mental picture of the world bears little relation to what is actually going on. This phenomenon has more than one layer:
– Words are given more credibility than actions
– Written words are given more credibility than spoken ones
– Numbers are imbued with even more credibility still

Good lawyers win more court cases, not because their clients are more often right, but because they use words convincingly. In most workplaces it’s not the quality of your work that will get you a promotion, but how well you’ve documented what you’ve (supposedly) done. And coloured graphs showing percentages and success rates will often be taken as the ‘facts that speak for themselves,’ when really they indicate only what can be measured and quantified – a tiny fraction of the overall experience. (Around 7%, actually, since, as 48% of people know, 65.3% of statistics are just made up on the spot.)

How can we release ourselves from these false mental representations of the world? The answer lies in simplicity. Stillness. Awareness. Slowing down. Just being. Let go of mental clutter and the truth will shine through.

I believe it will take a lot of us to make this a daily practice before our society stops rewarding spin above true contribution. Meanwhile as individuals we can choose to opt out of society’s shared delusions and begin to live more deeply and honestly. All it takes is the courage to value the truth above other people’s representations of it.