Happiness is Relational

What works is what makes us happy, where “happy” is defined in a relational way – that is, where it is not a brief personal elevation of emotion but a solid network of entities each working to ensure the other is better off.

In saying this, I am thinking of Heinz von Foerster’s observation that “A is better off when B is better off.” This is similar to the Golden Rule, which A Course in Miracles suggests is the proper guide to behavior in the world.


A = psychological stress level

is better off when

B = blood sugar level is better off.

Note that this is not a linear progression! It’s circular. When I eat well, I feel better, and when I feel better, I eat well. When I make sure that I am eating in a healthy way, I am better able to manage the various psychological stressors that appear in my living.

A = My son Jeremiah’s band practice

is better off when

B = I relax my (well-intentioned but still pretty intense) focus on Jeremiah’s band practice.

Again, wellness is circular. Jeremiah plays better when he is freer because I maintain a certain critical distance; it is easier to maintain that distance when I see his freedom and hear the music the freedom brings forth.

A = local food safety and availability

is better off when

B = local farms and local means of food distribution are better off.

If you want to ensure that people in your community have access to healthy food, then support local agriculture and cooperative food distribution entities and food banks.

The one thrives when the other thrives. Since you are the one, focus on the other’s thriving – it will ensure your own because you are other unto the other.

[That’s a semantic trick – saying you are both the one and the other – but it’s sometimes a helpful trick, neatly inverting our experience of separation].

The above examples are not dispositive. The broader we define “A” and “B” the more variables come into play. For example, local food tends to be more expensive (which is prohibitive), some non-local food production is better than others, and so forth.

So it’s not an easy inquiry! You’ve got to be in dialogue; you’ve got to be in the specific process as it happens. You have to adapt and respond. You have to accept – in a very specific active way – the relational aspect of your living. And this aspect is far-reaching. Happiness is relational in both very specific local (what am I eating for lunch) and very global (what are we doing about global warming) kinds of ways. The one informs the other.

[And the one and the other are not separate . . .]

I am suggesting that we think about “happiness” more as the functional operation of relationship – an expression of an underlying fundamental coherence, say – than as a personal experience of desirable outcomes / good spirits / et cetera.

I am not minimizing the personal (see the examples above, the first two of which are expressly personal). But I am suggesting that we give attention to how “the personal” is basically a way of organizing an underlying network of relationships. It’s a handy way of making something enormous and complex manageable.

[You can’t see the whole but the whole can see you, and it speaks to you in a language you know].

Thinking relationally makes us happier, and being happier improves our ability to help others be happy, which in turn improves their ability to make others – including us – happy. It is a cyclical process that unfolds in an apparently linear way (like a wheel).

Is that approach commensurate with A Course in Miracles, my (still) spiritual practice of choice?

Well, it is certainly the case that the final edition of A Course in Miracles approved for distribution by Helen Schucman is mostly devoid of behavioral directives. So when I say, for example, that you should grow and raise your own food, join and shop at food cooperatives as often as possible, there is no explicit ACIM textual support for that position.

And yet.

The Golden Rule is the rule for appropriate behavior. You cannot behave appropriately unless you perceive correctly. Since you and your brother are equal members of one family, as you perceive both so you will do to both. You should look out from the perception of your own holiness to the holiness of others (T-1.III.6:4-7).

Now, the course is concerned not with what we actually do but with the premise from which we choose to do it. Its aim is to improve our perception of holiness in our own self so that we might perceive holiness in our brothers and sisters. When this perception is clear and accurate – when we know without confusion or condition that we comprise a single holy family – then our behavior will be loving, nurturing, sustainable and so forth. Perceiving no meaningful distinction between A and B, our behavior will naturally make both “better off.”

We might extend the definition of “family” here to include whales, dogs, otters, violets, maple trees, oceans, nimbus clouds and the moon and the stars and the sun. Doing so is consonant with the ACIM principle that “every part of creation is of one order” (T-7.IV.2:3).

Don’t be tempted by arguments that the world is not real, that the self is an illusion, that aspirin and chemotherapy are magic and you shouldn’t avail yourself of them, and all of that. Those are distractions premised on bad epistemology and misreadings of A Course in Miracles. They are attractive because of their potential to distract. It’s boring and difficult to adapt your eating to a local economy. It’s fun to argue that the self is an illusion! But the former will make you happier, and others happier too, and the latter is basically a funhouse / hall of mirrors / maze.

I am not saying that question of self and world and other and truth and reality and so forth are not proper subjects of contemplation and dialogue. They are. What I am saying is that if you give attention to happiness, then you will be happier, and being happier is actually what you want. And, because you are a kind and loving person (really – you are!), you want others to be happy, too. The right/wrong binary with respect to abstract inquiries has its place but it is not fundamental.

Love is fundamental. Happiness is fundamental. And you already know how to bring it forth, you’ve just been indulging half-measures and otherwise putting it off. If you’d like to try another way, you can.

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