I am sometimes so busy with other people’s problems that I neglect the problems my family experiences from time to time. I guess it’s the proverbial territory where the doctor’s family are ill, the mechanic’s car broken, and the plumber’s pipes are leaking. A while ago my son came into the kitchen with the kind of unhappy face I only get from my most depressed clients. The therapist rather than the father in me kicked in and I had to ask: are you happy with whom you are my boy? As expected from a twelve-year-old he didn’t get the question and thought I was referring to his rights at home. At that age happiness means getting everything your heart desires and his answer clearly proved his age.
For some reason some people never get past that age when it comes to happiness. If the level of your happiness is related to the degree in which you have what you desire, you haven’t aged beyond twelve as well. The degree of happiness spread throughout the world hasn’t changed in the last 200 years and yet most of the things we value in our time did not exist for 75% of that time. Think 100 years ago; there weren’t any computers, microwaves, internet, cell phones, and most of the things we own today. Most people didn’t own cars, houses with electricity, or any of the basic services we know today, and yet they were just as happy – maybe even happier that we are. It stands to reason that all things we value in our day do not bring you happiness. The question is – what makes you happy if those things aren’t it?
Positive Psychology, a fairly new wave in the humanities, asks this same question and came up with a few interesting answers. Martin Seligman, one of the fathers of positive psychology finds happiness in the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life. In this three he combines two older and opposing views; the individualistic view that concentrates on the self, and the altruistic view that concentrates on the community. The pleasant life is achieved if you enjoy friendship, nature and bodily needs. The good life is achieved if you discover your unique strengths and use them creatively to enhance your life. The third and ultimate form of happiness stems from the meaningful life and that is when you use your unique abilities to make your fellow-man happy.
If you apply the above to our lives in the gay community it means that a life in the closet, where you meet nobody else, will never reach the ultimate stage of happiness. In fact you would not even reach the second stage. A closet life, even a closeted gay life that only operates at pick-up spots after midnight, can only serve bodily needs and therefor reach the pleasant life. A good life where you celebrate your strengths as a gay person can only happen if you are out and proud. The ultimate form of happiness however, can only be reached if you use your strengths and abilities as a gay person to serve the gay community and finally the gay/straight community as a whole.
The strength of positive psychology lies in the fact that it moves beyond mental health to the happy life. Psychology has always strived to heal psychological disorders; it concentrated on the disorders. Positive psychology concentrates on health and not on illness. It teaches how to reach true happiness and not just how to be okay. Many gay people are stuck in how to fight for our rights, how to fight homophobia, how to get rid of the disease. Positive psychology shows us a way beyond the fights to authentic gay happiness.
In short – stop fighting for your individual rights, use your energy to find your unique abilities, and start to use them to build our community. I think we are not there yet and maybe that is one of the reasons why so many gay people are depressed and unhappy.
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