Image by cdd20 from Pixabay


12 May 2020

Dear Gus,

Are you a libertarian?

I have to ask you this straight out because you keep bringing up these ideas that make it sound like you might be a libertarian. For example, in the midst of a global pandemic, you have really lamented the ways in which guidelines handed down by the State of Texas have impinged upon your personal freedoms.

The other day, you wanted desperately to go into a neighbor’s house and play video games. “Don’t you understand,” you said to Mom and me, “All I really value is my freedom and my happiness?”

Libertarian. Right?

This emphasis on freedom and happiness as ultimate values probably comes from listening too much to your parents. (I should caution you against this, but I won't.) We are always telling you, after all, that we want you to grow up to make your own choices, to live your own life, to do the things that will bring you happiness and fulfillment. We do balance this message, however, with the idea that we may know a thing or two about the responsibility that comes with freedom; we may have some insight into the source of true happiness which comes not from our circumstances but from within.

I’m not sure that you’ve really taken to heart the latter part of these teachings, kid. As we talk, you seem to have fixated on this idea that freedom will lead to happiness. But what is the relationship between freedom and happiness?

  • Will greater freedom lead me to greater happiness?
  • Will greater happiness lead to greater freedom?

I doubt that there is such a cut-and-dried, one-to-one correspondence between these two values. Why? Well, experience tells me that the world is never so simple.

For example, we might think that increasing our freedom will lead to greater happiness because then we get to make choices about what we do and don’t do, what we want and don’t want. However, psychological research is now showing that increasing choice also increases levels of disappointment. As our options grow, our worry about whether or not we’re choosing the “right” option or the “best” option grows too.

I’ve experienced this when choosing music to play for us on Spotify. I grew up in a time when people listened to albums of music, not just tracks. When I’m choosing something to listen to, I tend to think in albums. What album will really capture this moment or put me in the mood that I want to be in? When I look at the millions of options on Spotify, however, I get worried. I’ve started to play Wilco, but what if Kate Bush would capture the mood better! Maybe I should add them both to my queue and then put it on shuffle. But I don’t like it when the songs are shuffled! Then I’m not listening to the album. (Plus, that sounds like a really weird pairing!)

What’s the right thing to do?!?!

Of course, there is no “right” thing to do in this situation. Just put on some dang music, right?

The freedom that portable, streaming music offers me sometimes gets in the way of my happiness by creating too many choices. Sometimes, freedom works against our happiness.

You've experienced this too. How many times have you found yourself experiencing "decision paralysis" when Mom and I have offered you a choice? Just last night, in fact, I gave you a choice between watching a movie and having extra reading time. You ended up on the floor, your pajamas halfway on your body, writhing about, saying, "It's such a hard choice!"

If freedom doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness, does happiness create in us some kind of increased freedom?

For me, this seems like a better direction to send our thoughts, but it also feels a bit more difficult to think about. When I am happy, do I feel more free?

¯\_(シ)_/¯

I’m not sure I can put my finger on it, but something feels right about that. When we are happy, our minds are free to move and to notice the world around us. We are open to whimsy and surprise; a certain level of spontaneity becomes available to us. We can go with the flow.

That’s an interesting metaphor, really: go with the flow. The freedom I'm talking about here is not really about being able to do anything that we want, but rather being able to choose to enter into the flow of time and space and just roll with it. We don't have to struggle and fight the current. Instead, we just relax and float downstream, choosing to notice what we want to notice.

Have I lost you here? Yeah? I think I’ve lost me too.

If my intuition is right, though, if greater happiness leads to greater sense of freedom, then the most logical question that we can ask ourselves must be: how do we get happy?

We could take this in a million different directions, Gus, but I want to start with one very simple idea, an idea that keeps coming back to me in different ways during my daily meditation:

What we pay attention to grows.

The more we pay attention to something, the more we notice it, the more we observe it, the more we point to it, the more we say, “Hey! This thing’s over here,” the more it will grow. If we pay attention to all of the negative stuff coming our way, then that negativity will grow and so will our negative circumstances. If, however, we pay attention to the positive in our lives, if we practice gratitude, if we let people and things know how much we appreciate them, then those positive feelings of gratitude and happiness will grow.

Why does this work? Well, what we pay attention to affects our perception, affects how we see the world. If we see the world from a place of gratitude, then we are more likely to find things to be grateful for! If we start our day by believing that we will be happy, we are more likely to make that happen.

So, let’s start by listing some things that make us happy. I’ll go first:

  • the smell of bookshops
  • the sound of train whistles
  • the first cold breeze in autumn
  • the first sprouting leaves in spring
  • the smell of your mom’s auburn hair
  • the way Mom look at you and smiles
  • the flow I feel when I’m lost in writing
  • the fragrance of the gardenias blooming
  • the sun filtering its way through the trees
  • the sound of thunder and rain late at night
  • the shadows dancing across the wooden deck
  • the smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning
  • the sound of your laugh when I catch you by surprise
  • the taste of the choolate cake you baked earlier this week
  • the glide and scratch of a fountain pen across good paper
  • the rush that I feel when I hit “publish” on a new blog post
  • the powerful, marshmallow feeling of a perfectly struck 7-iron
  • the feeling of the wind on my face when we ride bikes together
  • the sound of the baseball bat ringing after you’ve squared one up
  • the sting in my hand when you pop my catcher’s mitt with a four-seamer
  • the excitement you feel when you finish up a three-up-three-down inning
  • the sound of squirrels chasing each other across the fence in our backyard
  • the feeling of cracking peanut shells between your fingers at a baseball park
  • the feeling of accomplishment that comes with scratching something off my to-do list
  • the taste of dark chocolate mixed with a spoonful of almond butter and a touch of honey
  • the feeling of your body pressed up against mine as I read Harry Potter or Percy Jackson to you at night
  • the gentle swaying of the canopy of tree branches high up in the sky, especially as seen from the hammock

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. The more I pay attention to these things, the more I come to appreciate them, the more my mind changes and starts to bend toward those things that make me see the world as one giant object of my gratitude. What we pay attention to grows. If we want to grow our happiness, then we should pay more attention to the things that make us happy. And there are so many things out there that can make us happy.

Now, it’s your turn, Gus. What would your list look like? What can you point to and say, “I love that”?

Keep pointing at it and watch it grow.

Love,

Dad.