"What's going on?" my companion in a London cab asked the driver as we happened to swing by Buckingham Palace last week. A crowd of onlookers and media had gathered in front of the gates.
"Prince William and Kate Middleton just announced their engagement," the cabbie said, slightly bored, as if ordering a pint of lager.
I felt a surge of happiness, an unexpected thrill, and blurted out as much. My companion, a Canadian who has lived in London for more than 30 years, harrumphed. "Oh, my mother will be all aflutter," he said laconically. "I could care less. I feel nothing."
Despite the lack of enthusiasm from my cabmates, the mood in the streets matched mine; enough so that some wondered if British Prime Minister David Cameron was in cahoots with the Royal Family in helping to buoy the public spirit (he recently announced the importance of caring about the country's happiness quotient, after all) in the midst of austerity measures for a droopy economy.
A royal wedding is a happy distraction. But how (and if) we react to external events beyond our control is an interesting issue in happiness discussions. That good or bad events can affect our emotional life points to a paradox inherent in being a contented, responsible human being. Or trying to be one.
If you remain unaffected by events in the larger world, well, you're callous and unfeeling, not to mention narcissistic. You lack empathy. But if you let everything colour your mood, one way or the other, then maybe you lack core happiness, or what some experts call "authentic" happiness: You don't have an emotional stability, a built-in sense of well-being, which basically means that you're a rudderless ship, buffeted by every change of wind or current.
Worse, controlling how muchexternal events will affect us has grown more challenging.
In past eras, it was easier to remain isolated. The attack on Pearl Harbor during the Second World War didn't reach the rest of the world until the next day. If you lived in the centre of Africa, you probably were unaware of it for weeks, if not months, if at all.
Not only that; when the news hit it was not turned into an emotionally gaudy circus, sucking viewers into its prurient entertainment. People weren't glued to their television sets or the Internet watching CNN reporters interview a witness, a victim, a survivor, a widow, an official, the more the merrier. No one had to endure the endless loop of footage, amateur and professional, replaying the horror, goading you to feel something.
I have a friend who decided a few years ago not to watch TV or read a newspaper.
"I value the way I think, the beauty I'm interested in," she explained. An interior designer who travels the world, her business is the creation of pleasant spaces, and clearly she sees her mind as a kind of palace, with the need for guards at the door.
I, too, like to think of my mind as a palace of sorts, a special place where I go to retreat; but at its gates is a sleepy sentry who lets everyone in. I entertain them, sit with them for a while and sometimes even invite them to stay for the weekend.
External events can often make or break my day. Some of that - aside from mybeing emotionally porous - is because I have a tendency to look to the world to confirm or deny my hope that it's a good place. Unhealthy?
"We ought to be responsive," says Gretchen Rubin, the New York-based author of the bestselling book The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle and Generally Have More Fun. "We don't want to be completely invulnerable because there's an upside. Feeling moves you to action. And it brings you closer to your community. A terrible event such as 9/11 brought New Yorkers together. And a happy event, like a royal wedding, brings everyone together too."
Others see survival lessons in reacting to external events.
"[They]can help us adapt," comments Ed Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, author and pioneer of happiness science in the United States. "Sadness and fear can help us avoid dangerous situations and look for new solutions or goals." In other words, feeling the world is part of our evolutionary history.
The key, it seems, is how long the uninvited emotions stay in the palace.
We all have a "set point or baseline of happiness," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California and author of The How of Happiness, A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. "It's like weight or cholesterol levels. You can go up or down but you tend to go back to that set point."
The maintenance of the set point, or core happiness, is a matter of practice, experts say. Observe how you react to events. Or, in a Buddhist line of thinking, go farther up the mountain and see everything from a higher perspective, recognizing that if you feel something, whether good or bad, it will pass. Don't ruminate on the negative or upsetting things. Be grateful for what is good in your life.
Ms. Rubin manages her core happiness by knowing what things upset her so she can avoid them. "I have a thing about unjust accusation," she says, laughing. "I can't read Oliver Twist. I can't read Othello. I can't handle it."
With news, she limits herself to taking in information that is her "civic duty to understand." If it's just gossip or emotionally corrosive, she turns away.
I don't believe in the idea that authentic happiness "is like the smooth hum of a luxury car running perfectly," not dependent "on anything happening or not happening," which is how British-based life coach Rob McPhillips describes it. I like a splutter of the engine from time to time.
And who wants to go through life in a bubble of privilege, watching the world pass by through tinted glass? Roll down the windows, I say. Hell, get out of the car for a little adventure. Get back in when you feel like it. Don't get stuck in a ditch.
Not always being in control is more authentic and allows for spontaneous happiness, and yes, sadness too. On April 29, the day of the royal wedding, I'm quite sure I will be obsessively watching, just as I was when Princess Diana married, and when she died, too. I cried uncontrollably at both.
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