Beads, Hoops, Happiness

Over 150 years ago Henry David Thoreau observed the frantic pace of an emerging industrial society and asked, “But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man….they are sound sleepers.” Thoreau’s America communicated via telegraph and traveled at thirty miles per hour. Yet his image holds true. Modern society is a hectic swirl of people bound to the bottoms of cars and the tops of satellite towers.  The obligations of work, family, and school, joined by the incessant demands of advertising and corporate media create a disjointed lifestyle in which people struggle to find time to breathe, much less live happily.

Philosophers and writers, observing the lack of happiness in an otherwise prosperous society, offer various solutions. The exact details change from author to author, but for the most part, the solution boils down to a change in perspective. The Dalai Lama, for example, encourages readers to cultivate contentment, because “If you have a strong sense of contentment, it doesn’t matter whether you obtain the object or not; either way, you are still content” (1002). Bertrand Russell, on the other hand, reminds readers that, “The happy man is the man…whose personality is neither divided against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying the spectacle that it offers” (999). Both writers encourage people to find a new perspective and to exchange a consumer-mentality for a world-view that embraces gratitude and harmony. Their advice makes sense and echoes the truth of the human heart. On a deep intuitive level most people realize wholeness and contentment lead to happiness. The challenge, however, is reconciling knowledge with living.

A stack of dog-eared self-help novels on the bottom row of my bookshelf offer mute testimony to the disjunction between what I read and how I live. Each time I delve into an insightful book I nod and think it sounds so simple. Happiness is, after all, a perspective, and I can change my perspective at will. All I need to do is induce a radical paradigm shift. Perhaps I’ll have time while I wait for the noodles to boil… In the meantime, I spend a few days reflecting on the wisdom on the Dalai Lama, but the ideas quickly drift out of my consciousness. The trouble is that while it is easy to agree with a theoretical guide to happiness, but it is far harder to incorporate a new perspective into the grind of daily life. Human beings are, for better or for worse, creatures of habit.

Therefore, for most people the path to happiness does not begin with an epiphany or a complete over-haul of their world-view. While various writers and philosophers offer true and insightful suggestions for creating  a happier world-view, most people cannot make that transition in a single step. A more practical approach begins with small, concrete changes in people’s daily routines. Everyone’s situation, motivation, and passions are different, but, nonetheless, I believe hobbies are a great place to start. Hobbies create a moment of self-nurturing stillness amid the din of modern society. Hobbies connect people to their passions, foster creativity, and build communities. In short, hobbies fulfill the psychological and social needs that make people happy.

Modern Americans suffer from a chronic shortage of time. Caffeine-fueled college students and over-scheduled parents whirl through their days in a rush of endless obligations. The hours are cluttered with work, school, doctor’s appointment, meetings, and opportunities. Media exuberates the problem by promising a perpetual stream of stimuli that can be enjoyed indirectly through television or purchased with a small down-payment. Happiness drifts out of reach on the far side of a crowded to-do list. When the long anticipated weekend arrives, many people find themselves too exhausted to enjoy their hard-earned moments of relaxation. The exhausted mind often retreats back into the bright but empty satisfactions marketed by the American consumer culture.

Happiness, in the meantime, lingers in the small moments when obligation transforms into pleasure and worry dissolves into contentment. Being busy isn’t necessarily the source of unhappiness. On the contrary, productive, satisfying work creates a sense of accomplishment and competence. Discontent creeps into people’s lives when their hours are filled with time and energy consuming activities instead of activities that nurture their lives. Therefore, the path of happiness begins when people create time for pursuits that nurture their creativity and talents.

Hobbies like knitting or macramé, for example, allow a person to create something tangible and beautiful in a short amount of time. These types of hobbies can be carried into the waiting room at the doctor’s office or keep a person’s hands busy while watching television. I learned to macramé while confined to the sofa nursing a new-born child. I snuggled with my baby, and then instead of drifting off to sleep or slipping away to scrub dishes, I pulled out my bead box. My craft time became a moment of solace in otherwise hectic days. It was satisfying to create make art from a tangle of twine and a scattering of beads. The happiness of crafting arises from a deep need to bring order to the chaotic world. Macramé, like life, weaves tiny, fragmented pieces into a coherent whole. Macramé became a kind of therapy, except instead of using my mind to solve my problems, I used my hands. My world was still hectic, but I found happiness as I took the time to nurture my creativity.

While the hectic pace of modern life often cuts people off from their creative selves, it also separates them from one another. Isolation and loneliness run rampant, despite the claim that technology brings distant friends and family together. Though Facebook undoubtedly helps people reconnect with high school friends, and Skype allows families living across the country to talk to one another, people still feel lonely. Instant messaging simply can’t replace a hug. Furthermore, technology often ties people to their phones or computer rather than making real-world connections with people near by. One image stands out in my mind as the embodiment of technological isolation: four teenagers sat silently at a restaurant table with their heads bent over their cell phones.

Human beings are social creatures. Our ancestors depended on their communities for survival. Today’s safe and prosperous society makes community less of a life or death issue. However, people are still hardwired to seek out others for security and a sense of belonging. People continue to identify themselves in relation to communities. For example, a man may identify himself as a member of a local Baptist church, or a teenager may identify herself as part of the school choir. Communities also give people purpose, nurture self-esteem, and provide emotional support. These are the building blocks of happiness. Without community, people drift on a sea of solitude where happiness becomes a personal, rather than communal construction. While people undoubtedly are the final arbitrators of their state of mind, there’s truth behind the proverb that no man is an island. In times of stress, crisis, and doubt communities shelter, comfort, and heal their members. The solitary, self-reliant modern American is left alone to navigate a wilderness of troubles as lethal to happiness as any danger our ancestors faced.

Hobbies help people in their quest for happiness because hobbies create communities. Yoga classes, book clubs, and craft shows bring together people with similar interests. People share their passions and their skills, and work together to overcome challenges both in their craft and in their lives. When I took up hoop-dance, I discovered an amazing community of dancers and performers. I learned hoop dance on-line through video tutorials people posted on You-tube. After a couple months practicing in my dinning room, I worked up the courage to haul my huge, sparkling hoop to a local Earthday celebration. Much to my surprise, I was greeted by a small tribe of women hooping near the stage. They encouraged me to haul my gear over to their space where we spent the rest of the afternoon dancing, talking, and teaching each other new tricks. Now I carry my hoop with me almost everywhere and am continually blessed to meet other dancers. Though we live very different lives in very different places, we meet as members of a supportive, welcoming community. I have worked with local hoop-dancers to teach dance to children at the Boys and Girls Club and have helped raise money for an uninsured hoop-dancer battling cancer. Hoop-dance may be an unusual hobby, but it illustrates the power of hobbies to make people happy by identifying with a community and working with that community for a greater good.

John Stuart Mills argued that “Those only are happy…who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others; on the improvement of mankind, even on some art of pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end” (qtd. McMahon 9994). I didn’t begin macramé or hoop dance as part of a conscious attempt to live a happier life. I simply chose to invest my time in activities that caught my interest and brought me pleasure. That pleasure rippled outward, so that years later I look back and see the dramatic changes they made in my mood, daily life, and conceptualization of the world. My journey shows that happiness emerges organically from new habits and the soul-sustaining creativity and communities that hobbies create.