Bob Dylan Helps Me Recognize a Paradox of Happiness

How to be happier.
July 20 2009 6:15 AM

Bob Dylan Helps Me Recognize a Paradox of Happiness

As I’ve thought about happiness, I’ve been struck by the many paradoxes of happiness . I want to Be Gretchen and accept myself, and I also want to perfect my nature. I want to think about myself, so I can forget myself. I want to lighten up, but also take myself more seriously.

I’ve discovered another paradox of happiness, and it’s one of the most important: I want to create my own independent happiness, apart from other people, so I can connect with other people.

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This paradox started to become clear to me as I reflected on a haunting passage from Bob Dylan’s strange, brilliant memoir, Chronicles: Volume One . He wrote: "I looked at the menu, then I looked at my wife. The one thing about her that I always loved was that she was never one of those people who thinks that someone else is the answer to their happiness. Me or anybody else. She’s always had her own built-in happiness."

This is what I’m striving for—to have my own "built-in happiness." An emotional self-sufficiency. Not to depend on other people to boost me up or to let them drag me down.

However, it’s true that ancient philosophers and modern scientists agree that a key—perhaps the key—to happiness is strong relationships. Other people matter to our happiness. If you have five or more friends with whom to discuss an important matter, you’re far more likely to describe yourself as "very happy." Having strong relationships lengthens life (even more than quitting smoking!) and cuts the risk of depression. Even a brief interaction with another person tends to boost your mood—this is true for introverts as well as extroverts.

And when we’re with other people, we affect each other’s happiness. Emotional contagion describes the fact that we "catch" good moods and bad moods from each other. (Unfortunately, bad moods are more contagious than good moods.) Married people are very affected by each other’s happiness; a thirty percent increase in one spouse’s happiness boosts the other spouse’s happiness, while a drop in one spouse’s happiness drags down the other.

But more and more, I’ve been trying to resist emotional contagion, and also the impulse to allow someone or something—most often, my husband, my children, or my work—to have a big impact on my happiness. I try to carry my own atmosphere of happiness with me. As Goethe said, "I am the decisive element. ... It is my daily mood that makes the weather."

This paradox leads me back, yet again, to the Second Splendid Truth :

One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself .

By working to maintain my own "built-in happiness," I’ll be better able to help the people around me to be happy. My happiness will lift them up. Plus I won’t be a happiness vampire who sucks happy energy from other people or who craves a life-blood of praise, affirmation, or reassurance to support my happiness. (Ah, my struggle to rise above gold stars continues.)

But to have my own "built-in happiness" is a challenge. Have you found any good ways to keep yourself emotionally self-sufficient, without isolating yourself?

* This is FABULOUS: a reporter for the TucsonCitizen.com is launching a Tucscon happiness-project group on that website . I can't wait to see how it goes.

* Speaking of happiness-project groups, if you'd like to start a group, sign up here to get your starter-kit.

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