A grain of salt: The happiness project

By Ammi Midstokke
Reader Columnist

Every year, without fail, the new year arrives. With it’s slow, unstoppable force, like blackberry overgrowth, it creeps over us with suffocating thorny truths and optimistic expectations of fruit. We did it again: over-planned the holidays; hit the eggnog too hard; skipped the gym; and forgot that we wanted to learn a foreign language, meditate and drink more water. But thank goodness the gym is offering a new-membership discount.

Ammi Midstokke.

While nature is indeed cyclical and time unstoppable, most of us wouldn’t mind resolving to absolve ourselves of resolutions. Some determined souls have. They say elevated things like, “I don’t do resolutions,” and I can’t tell if they are enlightened or resisting personal growth.

It’s not by coincidence that change is inspired in this season. The death and decay of autumn has brought us to the sleep and regeneration of winter. To use this time to go inward and reflect is natural. Mother Nature is doing the same thing and we will see the result of this in April when the leaves begin to unfurl and the trees take on the new shape of a year of wisdom and growth. 

We humans are rather obtuse and aggressive in our belief that we know ourselves and mandate our rhythms. We bully our way through sleep-, calorie- and screen-deprivation toward purity and a new pant size. We think we know what works for us and spend a lot of time with people who just nod in biased approval as we explain our wise (if not redundant) fail-proof plans for the future. While the season is particularly driven for this now, what with shame and holiday bloat, it is true year round. 

Someone once said that knowledge is power. The suggestion is that when we know and understand things outside of ourselves, we can use our free will to respond to our environment. If we think we know the answers and are pursuing an outcome rather than pursuing knowledge, the result often feels like failure rather than new learning. “This Intermittent Fasting diet works! I read about it in this book titled Intermittent Fasting Works.” 

What if we approached ourselves with wonder instead? What if we pursued external knowledge and observed with curiosity how it impacts us?

Some time ago, I decided to stop drinking alcohol for a year to explore the science behind alcohol consumption. This lead me to exploring the neurological and endocrinological effects of consuming addictive substances. Which led me to researching the socio-cultural implications of an inebriated and lubricated country. When I tried to drink alcohol again, I knew too much. It had lost all its charm and without resolution or deprivation, it left my life. It was a painless process without guilt, self control or rule setting. 

It is the same kind of knowledge that has many of us not smoking cigarettes, not living on fast food and not letting our children drink coffee at night. We know too much. 

This year, I decided I wanted to know more about happiness, which seems to be elusive these days, what with the doom of climate change, political discord, economic uncertainty and a growing list of studies revealing we’ve been doing everything wrong all along. While my life is abundant — I check all the external boxes of resources and privilege, and I eat vegetables and sleep the recommended seven to eight hours most nights — happiness often eludes me. Not because it is not there, but probably because I am not paying attention to it.

The research is available. My bookshelf is quickly filling with the works of Tibetan monks, manuscripts on compassion and service, journals of gratitude and mindfulness. It turns out, happiness is a practice, not a place. It also turns out that the more I learn and know about happiness, the more of it I experience. 

Here’s the beautiful part about free will: You can know anything you want. Whatever your hopes and intentions are for the new year, go seek the knowledge. Then watch in awe and wonder as it shapes the choices of your life. You might just discover that turning a new leaf comes naturally.

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