The "H" Word
written by Jocelyn:
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I was feeling it at the periphery of my consciousness one morning, looming menacingly at the edge of my mind, about to swallow my day: depression. The morning headlines caused me to avert my eyes. The national news the evening before prompted me to change the channel. The stock market, yecch, the bickering in Congress—it was a migraine waiting to happen. In the fragile moments after awakening, as I tossed the newspaper aside in a moment of self-preservation, it seemed nothing was immune to the power of doom-and-gloom that infected the atmosphere like a virus.
So, after not exactly bounding out of bed, I moved warily into the mood of the day. My joints didn’t hurt, that was great. (“Lower your expectations, and entire new worlds open up,” says a friend.) I noticed the sun creeping over the lanai and spied a tiny rice bird chirping like a maniac in front of a mirror, like Narcissus. So far, not bad. I knew the drill: a pep talk to myself about gratitude, a shower, meditation, my morning smoothie, then settling down to be swallowed up in the black hole of e-mail and the digital world. But when I got to my Inbox, I found an unlikely headline on something sent by a friend: “This is Your Brain on Bliss.” I don’t know where it was published, but the article caught my attention immediately. Written by Matthieu Ricard, a former cellular geneticist who is a meditator and the French translator for the Dalai Lama, it was subtitled: “After 2,000 years of practice, Buddhist monks know that one secret to happiness is simply to put your mind to it.”
“What is happiness, and how can we achieve it?” began Ricard’s excellent piece. “Happiness can’t be reduced to a few agreeable sensations. Rather, it is a way of being and of experiencing the world—a profound fulfillment that suffuses every moment and endures despite inevitable setbacks.” Thus began a most enlightened and enlightening treatise on meditation and spiritual practice as the path to inner peace and “moments of grace,” of confidence and freedom from the ups and downs of opposing, fragmented realities.
I have long called happiness the “h-word,” not with distaste but with a profound cynicism that has been brilliantly justified by recent national events. Longing for the peace and radiance of, say, the Dalai Lama, Eckart Tolle, and now Matthieu Ricard, and the sense of completion that they and other enlightened beings embody, I have looked upon happiness as the sole province of the enlightened, unattainable for mere mortals like me. Proles like me, I thought, muddle through life buffeted between circumstance and luck, timing and effort, gourmet dinners and fast foods. And in times like these, oy vey! It’s like smiling through a root canal.
Later in the day, on the very computer screen which I have empowered to dictate my moods (I am so unenlightened), a related headline flashed, this time on the Forbes website, www.forbes.com. Rebecca Ruiz’s article, “The Happiest States in the U.S.,” reported that Hawai'i ranked second to Utah as the happiest state in the union based on a survey of 355,000 Americans. Quality of life and elements such as physical and emotional health, work quality, and satisfaction were among the criteria, with Hawai'i in the top ten in every category except work environment, where it ranked last, thanks to the high unemployment rate. Similarly, on the same website, David Sutton’s article, “America’s Healthiest and Unhealthiest States,” named Hawai'i second among the 50 states in a ranking of health determinants, and Vermont number one. In a collaborative study of the United Health Foundation, American Public Health Association and Partnership for Prevention, with data provided by ten national organizations, the states were ranked by statistical evaluations of clinical care, health policy, environment and personal behaviors. Vermont was number one for the second year in a row.
Should there be a correlation between health and happiness? It follows naturally, but as Johnny Mathis would say, “It’s not for me to know…” Nevertheless, it has given me a tremendous psychic boost to know that I live in the second happiest and second healthiest state in the union. So what if I rarely go out in the sun and thus have a vitamin D deficiency (wrinkles and fear of skin cancer); that I often forget to meditate, and when I do, my mind is restless; that the “fragrance of peace” that Ricard writes about is generally attainable but elusive to me; and that I am haunted by the restless “monkey mind” of which the sages speak? In Bhutan, where the “gross happiness index” is the prevailing national measure, enlightenment reigns, the arts flourish, and petty grievances like mine must seem to originate on another planet.
Well. It’s the end of the day now, and I am ready to rest my mind and be a part of something bigger, of what John Updike called “that unreachable star hung in the night between our eyebrows, whence dreams and good luck flow.” Tomorrow I will meditate and aspire to practicing happiness. But for now, there are only a few moments left to procrastinate.
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