Relationships, Warm Puppies, and Happiness

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May 3, 2023 by libroshombre

            A four-panel Peanuts comic strip by Charles Schulz that was destined for immortality ran on April 25, 1960.  First Lucy Van Pelt (“for whom the word ‘crabby’ was practically invented,” according to Wallace Bain, the Santa Cruz Sentinel arts editor) sees Snoopy and smiles; she walks up and pets him; then she gives him a big hug and smiles broadly as he lays his head on her shoulder, and she walks on saying “Happiness is a warm puppy.”  Bain notes that “the core message there was if even sour little Lucy can find happiness in the simple things, why can’t you?”  That’s been reaffirmed recently in my household with the arrival of a warm, fat, 9-week-old, little standard poodle named Pluto who awakens bounding and full of joy.

            “Most of us spend much of our waking hours either trying to find happiness or to hold on to it,” Bain wrote, “and the methods to get there are as diverse as the colors of the rainbow – flower gardening, tai chi, Xanax … But the Buddhists will tell you that happiness is not something to find out in the world. It’s a way of perceiving the world in front of you. Happiness can really be measured by the distance between what you expect from any given situation and what you really get. You can’t always control the latter, so the only way you can be consistently happy is to re-examine your expectations and adjust them accordingly.”  

            Charles Schulz made many millions of readers happy when they read his daily comics, the re-runs of which continue to shed happiness 23 years after his death and his final Peanuts strip.  Nicknamed “Sparky” by an uncle after Spark Plug the racehorse featured in the Barney Google comic strip, he and his father – a barber, just like Charlie Brown’s dad – ritually read the Sunday color comics together.  Unsurprisingly, shy, retiring Sparky, “from his earliest memories, knew that all he wanted to do was ‘draw funny picture,” according to his biography on the Charles M. Schulz Museum website.  Ripley’s Believe IT or Not” ran one of his drawings when he was 15, and with his mother’s encouragement, he completed a correspondence course from the Federal School of Applied Cartooning.  Within days of each other his beloved mother died from cancer and he was shipped off to basic training in the army. After returning home to Minneapolis following WWII, Sparky’s first comic strip, “Li’l Folks,” ran for three years in his local St. Paul Pioneer Press.  It featured “precocious children with large heads who interacted with words and actions well beyond their years.  On October 2, 1950, after he reluctantly agreed to change the name to “Peanuts,” it began running in seven papers which had expanded to 2,600 when Sparky retired in 1999.  Two years after his iconic puppy hugging strip, he was asked to produce a book of “happiness is” aphorisms titled “Happiness Is a Warm Puppy.”  Macmillan Dictionary defines aphorism as “a short statement that says something wise and true,” and he doubted he could generate a book-full.  But his comics were filled with wisdom and simple truth, and one day Sparky, a fundamentally happy person, sat at his drawing table and when he arose an hour later he had more than enough illustrated aphorisms. 

            Here’s a happiness test from a article last January titled, “Researchers Have Followed Over 700 People Since 1938 to Find the Keys To Happiness. Here’s What They Discovered”:  “Which of the following choices would make for the most pleasant train ride possible: … spending your commute keeping to yourself or striking up a conversation with one of the unpredictable strangers in the seat next to you?  Many of us would choose to sit back with our headphones in because the thought of having to converse with someone we don’t know is scary.” Dr. Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-author of the new book ‘The Good Life’ wrote that “We assume the worst,”  and he added, “We seem particularly bad at forecasting the benefits of relationships … A big part of this is the obvious fact that relationships can be messy and unpredictable. This messiness is some of what prompts many of us to prefer being alone.”

His book uses the aforementioned question to illustrate how we expect social interactions to be negative based on the uncertainty that comes with connection.”  His book cites an ongoing Harvard study that has followed the lives of 724 students (and about 2,000 spouses and children of the participants) to find who found happiness in their lives and how.  From the evidence gathered from questionnaires every two years, health exams every five years, and in-person interviews every 15 years, one thing “became irrefutable: strong relationships most accurately predicted people’s happiness throughout their lives. They are ‘intrinsic to everything we do and everything we are,’ the authors write.   Now, that doesn’t mean you must strike up a conversation on a busy train car to have a happy life,” but “easily, and subconsciously, we bypass the chance to connect when swept up by the hustle of life … ‘It’s not that accomplishment isn’t important and satisfying. It is,’ Waldinger says. ‘But when we sacrifice our [relationships], that’s when we end up regretting it, and living a life that isn’t as good as we might have’.”

            Fortunately, Waldinger added that “it’s never too late to improve your relationships, whether it be a new friend or someone we reconnect with from our past.  Our social lives demand exercise. ‘Social fitness’ is the ability to take stock of your relationships and work on them through time … It’s never too late to start finding that time to carve in a quick weekly phone call with someone you miss and appreciate … For people who want to make new connections, Waldinger suggests putting yourself into more positions where that may be possible.”  There are few better places to do that than at our public libraries that are staffed and frequented by intelligent and interesting people.  And it’s packed with millions of fascinating, adventurous, and creative people in its books, especially the classics, books that are so well constructed and whose characters and authors are worth befriending they reward re-reading.  It’s no secret that Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series is my best-loved novel (all 7,000 pages of it), and I’m currently on my 6th or 7th re-reading because, as Italo Calvino said, “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”  Such works are being written regularly, and by “classic” I don’t mean “old,” necessarily.  An incomprehensibly enormous amount of happiness has been generated from reading books for those open-hearted and -minded enough to allow it. But it’s not the words that engage us, it’s the images the correct words can evoke that engage our limbic (aka “reptilian”) brains. 

            As Liesl Schillinger wrote in her NY Times review of “A General Theory of Love,” by Thomas Lewis et al, “Neuroscience confirms what women have long believed: men have reptilian brains. Before anyone starts feeling insulted: so do women. The reptilian brain is the one that makes your heart beat and your blood flow, the brain that still lives when somebody is brain dead, the brain whose death guarantees yours. It is very important, but alone it will not make you a good dinner guest.”  We also possess a higher-thinking cerebral cortex, the brain’s “executive part” and its newest.  The far older limbic system is where emotions are generated 200 times faster than the processing speed of the cerebral cortex’s conscious, decision-making mind. All mammals have limbic systems, but reptiles don’t.  It’s our limbic brain “which cuddles between the reptilian brain and the neocortex and is the repository of emotions, instincts and hormones, and of implicit memories of nurturance, grievance and deep preference. It is the limbic brain, with its attendant chemicals — serotonin, opiates and oxytocin — that make mothers rear their young and croon to them rather than deposit them in a sandbank and slither off.”  In short, it is where love comes from.  And as Sparky said, “All you need is love.  But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

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