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 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.

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

Fear of change creates a comfort trap

Studies have shown that people who become paraplegics after an accident are only slightly less happy a year later than they were before the accident. By the same token, big lotto winners are back to their previous happiness level within a year. When something big happens, good or bad, people soon become accustomed to it. Yet we often act as though we can’t face the prospect of change.

Think of all the people in history, and all who are living now. Such a huge disparity in living circumstances. We can’t imagine living without running water or electricity, yet most people on this earth have lived that way. Nevertheless, we are filled with horror at the thought of personally having to go without our wide screen TV, or our morning coffee or any of a host of luxuries we enjoy every day.

We seem to be wired to hold on to what have, to the point that we can be terrified of losing it.

This fear of losing our financial security or material possessions can keep us trapped in demoralising situations. Probably more people stay in unsatisfying jobs and relationships than take the chance to be free, if it means a risk of financial loss.

Yet those who do take that chance discover two things. First, you can get used to having less money and be just as happy as before. And second, it’s the inner changes that you make – the ones that change how you feel about yourself and your place in the world – that create lasting change in your happiness level.

Why me?

When something bad happens, many people’s first reaction is “Why me?” This is not a genuine question but a rhetorical one; it’s a statement that what happened was unfair and undeserved. As long as we stay in this place of complaining that things are not as they should be, we remain stuck and unhappy.

However, happiness researchers once did an experiment in which they asked people to write about a painful experience in their past. Those who were asked to write about how the event happened reported feeling more miserable after recalling the event. Not surprising – they had dredged up and re-experienced the whole thing.

But those who were asked to explain why the incident happened felt better afterwards. The reason seems to be that they approached the task with a different thought process. Rather than emotionally re-experiencing the event, they used their intellect to try to understand what the causes were. This had the effects of: a) making the event more specific to a set of circumstances rather than something that could happen any time; and b) gave them ideas about how to avoid it happening again. In effect, the exercise helped people learn the lessons inherent in the experience.

There is never a definitive answer to the question ‘why?’ An event has thousands of antecedents, any of which can be deemed as a cause. But often we can point to specific factors that might make sense of why something happened. If these factors are within our sphere of influence, we can determine not to let them happen again; if not, we can decide to simply accept them.

So next time you find yourself asking, “why me?” try seriously attempting to answer the question.

Other People Can Be So Annoying!

You’ve probably noticed that other people can be a real pain at times. Interfering, making too much noise, demanding, whining, doing a sloppy job, messing things up, wanting their own way – other people can find a million ways to get under our skin.

Yet before we react to them, we must look to ourselves to cultivate inner peace. Physically looking after ourselves and leading a balanced life gives us more resilience and we are less bothered by the perceived faults of others. Also, an attitude of love can be fostered for all people, regardless of whether they ‘deserve’ it or not. In fact, often the people who rub us the wrong way are the very ones who need the most compassion, as they have not yet developed inner peace of their own.

Feelings and attitudes are catching. One angry person can fuel anger in a whole room; another person’s laugh can set off a wave of laughter. This is why happiness is a social as well as a private phenomenon.

As conscious beings, we can learn which feelings and attitudes to catch and spread, and which to reject. Self-care and an attitude of love help us to tolerate the idiocy or idiosyncrasies of other people. Then we don’t become part of a negative chain of angry action and reaction but instead become a starting point for the spread of good feelings. This is what social happiness is all about.

Who do you think you’re talking to?

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the fact that we are so connected with one another that even in our private moments we are not islands. Our thoughts are always directed at someone – we think to a virtual listener, just as we speak to an audience with our speech.

In a way, thoughts are our communication with ourselves, or rather, between one aspect of our self and another. There is a verbaliser (I) and a virtual audience (you). The ‘you’ or second person is never neutral, but always has an opinion or attitude. It is to this opinionated virtual audience that we address our thoughts.

It’s especially obvious if we find ourselves repeating the same thoughts over and over – we usually find we are trying to convince someone of something. Often we can identify the person we are trying to convince; the inference being that if only that person would believe us everything would be okay. Of course, it’s not the actual person, but the part of ourselves personified by that person, who needs convincing.

I think this is the reason why it’s so helpful to surround yourself with good, positive people who care about you. These positive souls become the virtual audience to whom you direct your thoughts, leaving you free to come up with better and more useful ideas.

So if you find yourself thinking thoughts that bring you down, a simple strategy is to imagine yourself talking to someone wise who cares about you. Or turn to prayer. When your virtual audience is a Higher Being, you can’t get stuck in that same way.

Start with the physical

Recently I’ve found myself sinking into negativity, getting irritated with people and their perceived stupidity and thoughtlessness and especially their negativity. Of course, it’s not that people have suddenly got more stupid or unkind. The problem is that I am lacking energy, which means I also lack patience and find it harder to be understanding.

I have been working hard and long hours, and forgetting the self care that is so essential to my wellbeing. Eating well, exercise, sunshine, fresh air and plenty of sleep – these are all physical factors that help us to stay on top, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. And of course, socially. It is so much easier to accept other people in all their imperfection, and even find their little quirks endearing, when we are feeling physically strong.

So it’s back to basics. It’s good to remember that when you are feeling low, the simplest answer is to start with the physical. Then the rest can start to take care of itself.

Make happiness a habit

You know how to be happy – you’ve done it many times. So why not do it more often?

To make happiness a way of life, you need routines that promote happiness. You can’t sustain physical fitness from one vigorous work-out; nor can you maintain happiness by doing something about it just once.

Happiness-promoting routines include things like:
– Getting enough sleep and nutritious food
– Exercise
– Practising gratitude
– Doing something you’re good at
– Being kind to yourself
– Trying new things
– Making connections with people. This means being genuine in your dealings with shop assistants or strangers, as well as nurturing your relationships with friends and family
– Doing nice things for people
– Doing things you enjoy. This means things you truly enjoy – not just things your partner enjoys or things you’re supposed to like. If you’re not sure what you enjoy, remember what you used to love doing in primary school
– Having beauty in your surroundings
– Singing
– Playing
– Laughing and joking
– Spending time in nature

These routines take discipline, especially if you’re not used to them. Happiness is not the same as comfort. You feel happier after you’ve been to the gym, but first you must overcome the inertia that has you lying on your comfortable couch. And it can take just as much discipline to stop working and go and play with the kids.

We experience happiness as a mood state, but it’s a way of being that involves our actions as well as our thoughts and feelings. Get the actions right and the feelings follow (and vice versa).