Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Infectious but immune?

This morning I asked, echoing Frederic Lenoir: Is happiness contagious? His answer is unequivocal. "The happier we are, the happier we make those men and women around us."

But I'm not so sure. The imprecision of language, the inevitability and frequency of misunderstanding, the sheer improbability of mood-syncing (and the utter likelihood of sinking) among us "higher" primates makes the transmission of happiness problematic at best. Domestic life in any small tribe of subjectively-complicated humans confirms this time and again.

We had one of those episodes here ourselves last night. One of us said x, another said y, a third (who'd have said he was at that moment in a happily-harmonized state of contentment) made the mistake of then saying aloud exactly what he thought about the infelicity of that exchange, and the downward spiral of miscommunication predictably preempted what should and could have been a cozily-shared happy family evening at home.

Why is it so easy to infect others with a bad mood (or just a bad moment) and bring them down? Why is it so hard to spread the joy? Well, if it was easy we'd all be so happy all the time, we'd never even know or notice. Is that it?

Possibly. What I concluded while pondering the "contagious" question and pounding pavement this morning was simply that none of us can manage anyone else's internal state. All we can do is endeavor to act consistently with our own intentions. "Be the change" etc., as the wise Mahatma said, and be patient with one another. We're all works in progress.

(If I'd walked longer I might have come up with something less cliché.)

The thing is, there seem to be lots of tormented creative geniuses in the world who never attain anything like the degree of happiness they spread. They're carriers, not themselves infected. Cole Porter and Charles Dickens were the hypothetical examples this morning, but I didn't know either of them and couldn't really say whether they were happy or not. Suppose for the sake of reflection that they weren't. In that case, happiness doesn't rub off of happy people but is a fresh creation. Gonna think about this some more.

People are always quoting that statement from Tolstoy about happy and unhappy families, and usually then contradicting it. I don't know. I do know that shared happiness beats solitary happiness, but is generally harder to conjure. But maybe that's just me.

Younger Daughter's greatest unhappiness seems to come from dental appointments. She begged me to accompany her to her cleaning appointment this morning, "so you'll be able to stop them if they hurt me." She actually texted while in the chair, with me three feet away: "this is torture."

But as students are always insisting, when we talk in class about the problem of suffering: if we didn't suffer we'd not recognize its opposite. I don't really buy that. I can't deny, though, that it is always a great happiness to get out of whatever place we associate with pain.

A couple other thoughts crossed my wandering mind during this morning's walk. I'd yesterday finished T.C. Boyle's new novel The Harder They Come, about the razor-thin line between ideological purity and infectious violence, among libertarian tea party types. Some anti-social anti-gov'mint ideologists may be immune to the violence of their own rhetoric, but too many are not. I'd like to infect them all with a big shot of stoic pragmatism.

And I thought about When Books Went to War, which celebrates the drive during WWII to put pocket-size books of all sorts in the pockets of GIs, to strike a blow for freedom against the book-burning Nazis. I'm struck, sadly, by how relatively fewer contemporary soldiers would be as enthused to read in the trenches and barracks as so many of "the greatest generation" were. My impression is that GI Joe nowadays would rather play a video game simulating war, than read something genuinely uplifting and diverting and soul-saving.  I hope I'm wrong.

And one more thought, that I've often entertained while hoofing it around the neighborhood but may not have shared: how often a walk that begins in a state of flatness and one-dimensionality, reflecting a subjective mood or a bad digestion or whatever, ends with the world's depth and multi-dimensionality restored. Today again, around the 45 minute mark or so, the trees and clouds just seemed to leap at me. It's always a happy surprise. I wish I knew how to bottle and sell it. All I can do, really, is talk and write about it. And be glad I'm not myself immune.

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