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  • Writer's picturePhilip J Connolly

An Algorithm for Happiness

An algorithm for happiness – what would you add or what would you take away?

Supporting self-help resilient groups and individuals – some thoughts from an activist on the pursuit of happiness.

February 2021

I am not doing as well as I think I am when I ask myself how happy am I? I have numerous fractured family relationships, I am unemployed but worse than that my body is losing the capacity to make dopamine the happiness chemical. You see I have Parkinsons disease. There are some forty different symptoms you can have and you don’t know which ones you might have or when. I have had the hallucinogenic nightmares, the cramps in the muscles of the thigh and that’s on top of the lethargy, the shakes and the tremor that affects balance. So when I talk about being happy I want you to know that I am doing worse than I think I am but I still have something useful to say. I do think it important not to sound like the donkey in Winnie the Pooh. We can be tigger. We can even just be and I think that just being is something else I am lousy at as well. Sometimes I cannot even be Pooh but just occasionally I can be Tigger.

I used to work in a third tier service whereby disabled people would find their way to me generally after they had gone through welfare rights and then perhaps legal rights. Once I had addressed their grievance I often asked callers what made them happy. The replies were illuminating. Some mentioned being in a supportive relationship even marriage was mentioned; yes it does appear that there is something to being happily married. Others mentioned being of service to others. I am convinced that all human beings want to give as well as receive. Neil Young had it right in “Looking for an heart of Gold” when he sang: “I want to live, I want to give.” Still others mentioned an affinity for an higher power. Again I see evidence for this in the contentment of those people who have a faith but also those who can identify with our expanding cosmos. We are a part of a verdant natural world and a fertile fecundity and that world is continually being recreated. Frequently people would mention the fun side of their disability. I bore my friends by beginning all my speeches with “Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow movers and shakers,” but the point is that it never stops being funny to me. As a child I remember the religious affairs writer Malcolm Muggeridge saying that all humour was a product of the difference between what people aimed to do and what they actually did. He went on to say that this was why sex was the funniest of all human activity. What this means for disabled people and sex I really don’t know but it must be a source of both humour and happiness.

Some callers were both profound and simple in their reasons. Some were curious about everything, it is interesting to observe the curiosity of some of those with a mental health condition or autism. Some have the attention to detail that gives rise to a poetic wonder whilst others could sense our connectivity to anything through a different sense and gain perhaps a disturbing but thrilling sensation.

I well remember the tendency of some callers to comment upon their ability to learn a new adaptation skill or coping strategy. It was these comments that started me on the pathway to resilience and the writings of Siebert, the optimism of Seligman and the happiness studies of Sonia Lyubirmsky. There is a tendency in all human beings to compare themselves to others and rate themselves for how much better they are than someone else. Perhaps one of the qualities of being disabled is that we can often find happiness in making comparisons with former versions of ourselves.

I also remember a blind person who took huge pride in her smart appearance even though she couldn’t see her reflection in a mirror. My namesake Billy Connolly once commented on his whooping of the joy he felt from his crushed red velvet suit. You have to do the things that make you happy and not just think of doing them.

Finally though nothing is really final there is this. Take a risk in a controlled and supportive environment. Then keep doing it. There is a staggeringly good French film about a paraplegic who hires a black personal assistant. At one point he is warned “that type have no pity” to which he replies “that’s why I hired him.” There is a wonderful scene where they go skydiving together. There is more happiness in having the new frontiers than in the old ones.

Happiness is worth pursuing. I don’t really understand why its pursuit is in the constitution of the United States but not ours. There is an emotional pain to being British. When many parts of the world learn you are British they know your pain. But every Brit can absolve themselves of carrying that pain by being both their strength and their weakness, being both pessimistic and optimistic and being both sharing and caring.

In conclusion when you pursue happiness and make a connection pass the feeling on. That’s not difficult to do because other people will come looking for you. Apply your happiness to a mission and you will have an ikigai – a reason to live a long and happy life for. This is what I am trying to do with the launch of the Disability Resilience Network. Fairness yes but there is a route map too. As Sting sang, “I have a creed for every need. I’ll write it down for you to read. So please take heed.” Stimulate my dopamine, make a connection between us, spread a little happiness everywhere.

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