What can you do to have a good, happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life?
Usually, I navigate my way toward answers in prose, and often poses, but this question is both asked and answered by the talented and brilliant Jonathan Haidt in his book, in which I have been dwelling for nearly three months, The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt explains: …happiness comes from between. Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait.
Haidt’s selling, and I’m buying. Here’s why.
My mother, Eighty-eight, is an irrepressible gift-giver. Do something nice for her, she’ll send you a present. Christmas is in ten months? She’s starting to consider her gift list now. My children’s birthdays approach? What’s her shopping budget? Giving the right gift makes her very happy, and she thinks long and hard about presents and their recipients.
She’s also not good at waiting, once the gift is in hand. Thus, I got my Christmas present, purchased in early October, a few weeks later when I was skidding on a rough patch and she felt I needed cheering up. She wasn’t wrong and I loved wearing the garnet necklace right up to and on Christmas.
Christmas Eve 2012 will be remembered in my family as the year Eighty-eight was in the hospital. She had been in the cardiac unit at the hospital for nearly a week, she was rounding the bend toward recovery, but the doctors still weren’t satisfied with her numbers, so we learned she wouldn’t be released until after Christmas. Ten, Thirteen and I took Christmas to her: a tiny tree, a lit sign that reads “joy,” a stocking hastily assembled at Walgreens. Under her direction, I also wrapped and ferried over all of the gifts she had for our extended family.
Scribbling my instructions on a scrap of paper, I looked up surprised when she said, “And don’t forget yours—I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now—it’s around the corner in my closet. It’s already wrapped.”
“Um, Mom, you gave me my Christmas present.” I fingered the garnets at my throat, “Remember?”
She smiled. “Yes, I remember. Don’t forget to bring the bag from my closet. I’m sorry it’s so heavy.”
Like a kid on Christmas does only an adequate job of describing how I felt when I peeked around the corner in her closet and saw a large shopping bag from Williams-Sonoma. It took me a while to work out that she had gone there in November with my brother. I tried very hard not to think about what could be inside.
In my mind, a perfect Christmas present is something you would never purchase for yourself, is a little bit lavish, and when it comes right down to it you can’t understand how you ever lived without it. When I tore the paper off the box in my lap at the hospital, my mother had scored on my behalf the most essential, lavish purpose-based tool I have ever owned. It brews tea—just that—the perfect cup of tea every single time.
Now, every morning, I fill the magnetically propelled basket with organic Darjeeling. I add 1000 ml of water and set the pot on its electric base. Black tea, 212-degree water, 3.5 minutes brewing time. The machine takes tea seriously. Two months out from Christmas, it’s still a delight when I push the shiny silver button labeled “tea.” Boiling time plus 3.5 minutes later, Eighty-eight, Thirteen and I enjoy perfectly brewed tea.
I think about this machine as I work my healing shoulder back into handstand. Adho Mukha Vrksasana, downward facing tree pose, is never easy for me. The first time I stood on my hands without assistance was in my basement, January 2007. I had been practicing yoga for eight years. I was so excited that I did it again. But ever after it’s a pose that takes determination and preparation—it takes the right conditions. If I’m too tired, it’s not going to happen. If I’m being watched, it’s questionable. If I weigh more than I do right now, it’s too hard to kick up. If my shoulder is injured, I don’t risk it.
So it was with some surprise a week or so ago that I found myself in my favorite handstand spot in my basement, fingertips four inches from the wall, lifting my hips into downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana). Getting ready for handstand I spend a lot of time measuring—the distance between my hands, the distance from my head to the wall, the sense of lift as I come off of my knees and into dog. Walk forward—one leg long and ready to swing, one leg drawn in close and coiled, ready to spring. I adjust my hands and focus on breathing—a deep inhale and an exhale that will help with the lift. Adjust the hands, press into the first finger mounds, check the distance from head to wall again. The first hop is another measure—how’s my kick today? Does it have any umph? The second comes directly after, more force and I try to connect my heel to the wall above my head. Now I’m closing in on ready, more breath, more adjusting of hands, more coiling and lifting, then—sometimes—conditions are right and I lift off and stick the pose.
And it makes me so happy.
I never have any doubt when I’m upside down—headstand, handstand, elbow balance—that our bodies are designed to invert. Working through the
preparation for handstand, and my own particular shifting, breathing, and kicking ritual, I feel the rightness of it all. Our bodies are purpose-built tools, like the most incredible tea-maker that glistens on the kitchen counter, and yoga poses create purpose. When we find our purpose—be it pose, vocation, avocation, parenthood, creative milieu—and pursue the conditions that maximize our abilities, and strive to get better at what we do, we kick and lift off. We soar.
Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, Haidt writes, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.
I know what he means: Cradled in purpose and meaning, we find our way to happy.
The full February moon—the appropriately named Snow Moon—is in Virgo. Someone who knows astrology tells me that this moon, for me with a double Virgo in my chart, creates particularly large energy centered around releasing, letting go, and balancing in order to move forward. Sounds like a handstand to me. May the light shine on you and yours, Rxo