August is Admit You’re Happy Month. We didn’t even know it existed, but it was just odd enough to spark questions, one of which we posed to our resident faculty happiness expert, Ira Israel. His response included a word that sparked even more questions: “Weltschmerz.”
“Weltschmerz is difficult to translate, but the sentiment of this 200 year-old German word pertains to one’s inability to experience joy because other sentient beings are suffering,” Israel said. “Given the ongoing pandemic, increasing divisiveness, and societal unrest — in addition to regular climate disasters — just reading any newspaper or social media feed could engender a wicked case of Weltschmerz.”
Israel just wrapped up the wildly popular Cultivating Authentic Happiness summer workshop (find out what they said about it, here). He will lead an encore fall session, September 13–17, 2021. We asked him to tell us more about Weltschmerz and feeling happy at this challenging moment in our lives.
By Ira Israel
Do you feel guilty about being happy when you think of all of the people who have suffered and died during the past year?
And is this rational?
The roller-coaster ride of exploring this inquiry often concludes with the realization that happiness is a choice. A glass observed as either half full or half empty depends on the viewer, not the glass.
Buddhism teaches us there’s an unsatisfactoriness to human consciousness is commonly referred to in contemporary psychology as a hedonic treadmill. We are constantly searching for happiness, but once an object of desire is sated, it is quickly replaced by another desire. The joke that I recount in class is: “If sex were so satisfying, you would only have to do it once!”
We can all agree that enduring happiness is elusive, but if you (consciously or subconsciously) feel guilty about being happy, that would definitely exacerbate the elusiveness.
Thus, given the horrors of the quotidian news cycle, you should ask yourself if you are experiencing some form of survivor’s guilt? And if so, how can you remedy or at least alleviate it?
Let me ask you a hypothetical question: when you see a glossy airbrushed photo of Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts smiling on the cover of People magazine does your mind say, “Oh, they are rich and beautiful, they must be happy!”? I find it fascinating that the preponderance of people ascribe happiness to outer portrayals when most of us believe and know that happiness is an inside job. And yet, the subconscious has its own logic, which, if analyzed consciously, isn’t very logical. Wealth and beauty may provide for a wider range of opportunities, but both come with their own costs.
When your mind compares your life to the lives of others, the basic assumptions that it relies on are often false. If you read the scientific studies in Sonja Lyubomirsky’s “The How of Happiness,” you will find that there is little correlation between money and happiness.
So if we apply this conversely to Weltschmerz and how the pain of the world could affect our own happiness, is it not equally possible that we choose gratitude instead of guilt? All of us will definitely experience pain and unsatisfactoriness at some point in our lives, but doing it preemptively based on the current pain and suffering of others is akin to deciding that the glass is half empty.
Choosing practices that are scientifically proven to keep us at the higher ends of our happiness spectrums — yoga, meditation, loving relationships, eating and sleeping correctly, expressing gratitude etc. — should keep our glasses half full and help combat Weltschmerz. Allowing the continuance of Weltschmerz or guilt over feeling happy will keep our glasses drained.
If you have already taken my workshop, then you know that being of service to other people — particularly those less fortunate who are immediately experiencing pain and suffering — will result in your glass overflowing!
The sooner that we are able to update the operating systems known as our minds, the sooner we will alleviate any guilt for being happy we may feel during our current crises.
Learn more about Ira Israel.
“Remembering to be as self compassionate as I can and praying to the divine that we're all a part of.”
“Prayer, reading, meditation, walking.”
“Erratically — which is an ongoing stream of practice to find peace.”
“Try on a daily basis to be kind to myself and to realize that making mistakes is a part of the human condition. Learning from our mistakes is a journey. But it starts with compassion and caring. First for oneself.”
“Physically: aerobic exercise, volleyball, ice hockey, cycling, sailing. Emotionally: unfortunately I have to work to ‘not care’ about people or situations which may end painfully. Along the lines of ‘attachment is the source of suffering’, so best to avoid it or limit its scope. Sad though because it could also be the source of great joy. Is it worth the risk?“
“It's time for my heart to be nurtured on one level yet contained on another. To go easy on me and to allow my feelings to be validated, not judged harshly. On the other hand, to let the heart rule with equanimity and not lead the mind and body around like a master.”
“I spend time thinking of everything I am grateful for, and I try to develop my ability to express compassion for myself and others without reservation. I take time to do the things I need to do to keep myself healthy and happy. This includes taking experiential workshops, fostering relationships, and participating within groups which have a similar interest to become a more compassionate and fulfilled being.“
“Self-forgiveness for my own judgments. And oh yeah, coming to Esalen.”
“Hmm, this is a tough one! I guess I take care of my heart through fostering relationships with people I feel connected to. Spending quality time with them (whether we're on the phone, through messages/letters, on Zoom, or in-person). Being there for them, listening to them, sharing what's going on with me, my struggles and my successes... like we do in the Esalen weekly Friends of Esalen Zoom sessions!”
“I remind myself in many ways of the fact that " Love is all there is!" LOVE is the prize and this one precious life is the stage we get to learn our lessons. I get out into nature, hike, camp, river kayak, fly fish, garden, I create, I dance (not enough!), and I remain grateful for each day, each breath, each moment. Being in the moment, awake, and remembering the gift of life and my feeling of gratitude for all of creation.”
“My physical heart by limiting stress and eating a heart-healthy diet. My emotional heart by staying in love with the world and by knowing that all disappointment and loss will pass.“
Today, September 29, is World Heart Day. Strike up a conversation with your own heart and as you feel comfortable, encourage others to do the same. As part of our own transformations and self-care, we sometimes ask for others to illuminate and enliven our hearts or speak our love language.
What if we could do this for ourselves too, even if just for today… or to start a heart practice, forever?
Sign up for the fall edition of Cultivating Authentic Happiness.