December 9, 2010

Happiness and Color.

What does it mean to me?

Our world’s level of happiness is under 65%. Americans, the 16th happiest people in the world, rate their happiness at only 69%, and report feeling happy only 54% of each day. (statistics from The Happiness Show)
Not only did it strike me as amusingly cliché to open this article with statistics on happiness, but it also got me curious as to what compels this sort of scrutiny in the first place. I find it odd to sterilize and generalize a human experience by converting it to data. And I’m not sure how this really addresses happiness beyond implying that we should be happier. Overall, the statistical analysis of our happiness quantity and frequency only adds to my impression that we have a cultural preoccupation with happiness (and statistics). Could it be true, as they say on The Happiness Show, that “happiness is, always has been, and always will be, the point of it all”?
“…the point of it all” has such a resounding and resolute quality to it. I get this image of a mob of smiley-face shirts thrusting their fists in the air demanding MORE HAPPINESS. Herein lies the danger: by putting excessive value on happiness, we’ve come to reject that which does not give us pleasure. We’re picking the carrots out of the soup of life. But it is all the ingredients – the complexity, the tension of one flavor and texture playing off another – together that make for such a rich and satisfying experience. Would we really want to trade in all our delicious tears, our heated moments and our tender heartbreaks for a permagrin?

Plastic idol

There is, as the statistics peripherally suggest, a palpable sense of uneasiness in the world. We’ve developed a variety of tried, but not particularly true approaches to deal with discontent. We might embark on searching out the source of our woes as if it were a gas leak — some insidious threat to our well being which must be pinpointed and corrected. We might look for a more ergonomically correct chair or delve into the bowels of our psyche to operate on old wounds. If we can fix the problems, then we’ll have happiness. Or we can hold our happiness hostage until we get what we aspire for. I won’t be happy until this kitchen remodel is finally over! When I get this job, get married, retire… Another approach is a sugarcoating of reality that brings only temporary relief. This kind of happiness is a glazed doughnut, a perfect nose, a Disneyland… a plastic idol. We misguidedly worship bursts of sweet fleeting delights and, despite our best efforts and good intentions, this kind pleasure seeking proves to be just empty calories in the end.

Contentment is the new happiness

The pursuit of happiness tends to be conditional and unidirectional. It’s like a one-way conversation that eventually leads to fatigue and boredom. When there is a lack of dialogue between the internal and external beyond “I want this void to be filled, this situation/bad feeling to go away, I/You should be more like…”, we aren’t actually doing much listening. As with any friendly interaction, there is an ease of being that arises from a present and balanced exchange. In a good conversation we are taking in as well as offering, the movement of which actually renews our energy and keeps us engaged. Being friendly with what is in the present moment — whether it’s pleasurable or uncomfortable — makes for a far more effective and fruitful dialogue. When it comes to feeling good, it seems we could use a friendlier more present approach.

We might consider contentment a friendlier approach to feeling good. The word contentment, it could be argued, is just another word for happiness. So it is. But words are mere symbols subject to our own meanings, associations and conditioning over time. It seems the idea of happiness has become something like a promise just out of reach – if___, then____. One moment we’ve got it, the next it has bounced off again. Slippery bugger! Contentment, on the other hand, is a sense of satisfaction with one’s situation, with what simply is in the here and now. This is slightly abstract territory. It’s not as straightforward as comparing, say, red and blue; it’s a bit more the like distinguishing between teal and turquoise. For this reason, semantics are really secondary to the defining of an alternative relationship and approach. Here I’m using contentment more as a reference point to suggest an adjustment to a common way of relating to and approaching emotional fulfillment – one that is not a pursuit, not an ideal and not conditional. I’m suggesting an more interactive dialogue that requires presence and openness to things as they are, not as they should/could/would be.

Are you happy with your sandwich? Gosh, I’ve been happier with a sandwich before. There’s this sense of expectation that too often results in disappointment. I’d be lying if I said I was happy with this sandwich — it’s pretty slim on sprouts. Yet there is still something to appreciate about it. This nice kid made it. It’s his first day on the job and he has a warm smile. So I didn’t get as many sprouts as I’d have liked, but the bread is exquisite… and I’m enjoying my friend’s company so much, I could be eating a shoe and it would hardly matter. There’s something about meeting reality fully in the present rather than comparing our situation with concepts of what has been, could or should be. There are so many opportunities to catch our selves passively waiting to be turned on or off. And, of course, you can ask for more sprouts.

Cultivating contentment is sustainable.

When not passively waiting to judge an experience, we’re often pursuing happiness. Essentially, the interactive approach of cultivating contentment is more nourishing, satisfying and sustainable than, you could say, hunting for happiness. Rather than going after an ideal, we might think in terms of working with what is actually available to draw out a sense of fulfillment. It’s more like a skill that can be applied to any situation rather than a pleasing or displeasing quality inherent within the situation itself. We’re cultivating an appreciation for what’s at hand as well as a confidence in our selves and our resources. It’s like reappropriating an old item to fulfill a new purpose rather than throwing it away and buying something new. Or, perhaps it’s like using just the right wall color to bring together disparate elements of a room. You don’t have to feel hopeless about the “junk” you’ve got or that what you really want is beyond your means. What you do have is both available and workable.

Cultivating contentment could be likened to cultivating a garden. To start, one would first clear out the dead, the fallen and weeds to be mulched. Choosing what we want to flourish in our world is part of the effort. Life left on its own is persistent – something will always find a way to thrive if it can find any nourishment. Ever notice how a shitty attitude feeds on crappy thoughts? But then even a pile of dung can bear forth a beautiful flower. Pema Chödrön speaks of the underlying quality of life in our selves as basic goodness. She describes basic goodness as a potential within all living beings that exists innately as part of who we are, but is covered by a lot of other stuff. But that “stuff” is not garbage to be thrown out, it’s valuable fodder for new growth; it’s the mulch and manure.

Chögyam Trungpa was fond of flower arranging where, he said, none of the branches are rejected as ugly — they can always be included. He uses this example to explain “the dralas of reality”. Drala is the ever-present magical and elemental quality that can be accessed and deepened through our awareness. We could liken drala to birds that we enjoy having around. If we live in the mountains, we can plant orange honeysuckle to invite the hummingbirds because it brings us joy to experience them buzzing around, frolicking and glinting green in the sun. Trungpa says that “when you invoke drala, you begin to experience basic goodness reflected everywhere — in yourself, in others, and in the entire world.” Maybe having breakfast on the porch with the hummingbirds encourages us to have a more appreciative, accepting or flexible attitude that day. We can also cultivate this intentionally by creating spaces we enjoy being in. Trungpa defines external drala, specifically, as the invoking of magic in our physical environment. We can draw out particular qualities and create harmony – a kind of friendly agreement or pleasing combination – in our surroundings by how we arrange and care for our spaces.

So what’s color got to do with it?

Think of how you might feel in a sunshine yellow laundromat, a misty blue alpine spa, or an Italian restaurant adorned in velvety red. Now envision a brown laundromat, a fuchsia spa or a lime green Italian restaurant. If the irony is not executed intentionally and effectively, it can be totally uninviting. We can tailor our spaces to reflect some quality that is within us which creates a resonance with that space. Resonance and harmony could be considered something like a vibrational dialogue. If we regard all of creation as vibrational — our bodies, emotions, objects, the phenomenal world — then color is no different. Color actually bridges the subtle space between form and formlessness. Though color is expressed in nearly every physical object we see, it is an intangible phenomenon, a wavelength, each hue a particular frequency of pure light.

On my website, I playfully (and sincerely) declare the highest goal of ColorMatch as this: “to assist in creating a resonance between humans and their environments”. In a color consultation, I’m listening to the space as much as I’m listening to my clients. Utilizing color, I help to create harmony between my clients and their spaces. Color is a significant part of the dialogue between a person and a particular space. That dialogue could be animated, philosophical, solemn, mysterious, playful, seductive… Through color, a person can both express themselves within their environment as well as encourage particular qualities from the space itself. Any number of qualities can be evoked. Perhaps you’d like to bring more sensuality than serenity into your bedroom and you’d prefer your dining room experience to be more lively than opulent. Color, when applied effectively, can go such a very long way in creating a particular ambiance or vibe.

Ultimately, the point is not to create an idealized glossy magazine page environment, but one that speaks to us and the various aspects of our nature. Particular qualities — be they found in décor, music, people, gastro-sensual flavors… when they really “strike a chord” in us, can provide some kind of confirmation of life or basic goodness. We feel a resonance when the quality of something external to us complements or enhances our own vibration — there’s harmony, we’re “in tune”, resonating… And when that’s happening, it just feels right.

Ugly branches

To be sure, feeling right does not necessarily mean feeling pleasure. Not too long ago I found myself in a pretty miserable spot. Perhaps you’re familiar? Nothing was how I wanted it to be, my vision was so focused on regrets and frustrations. I was clenched so firmly around what was wrong and why that I could have made a diamond. Maybe I did produce a diamond because, suddenly, I glimpsed a bit of clarity. I sat up, opened to the world around me and allowed myself to really connect with the very things that I thought were so wrong – my past, my present, my future, my whole damn situation. Then I laughed. Heartily. Which is a good method to scare away the vultures of remorse. With a gentler attitude, I allowed myself to be touched by it all and discovered it was not so bad. In fact, it was pretty friendly — it was the thoughts and feelings I had around it that were so unfriendly. Upon noticing that, the next breath I took was a sigh of satisfaction. Nothing was according to my ideal per se, but everything was so right for working with. I could make something out of all the elements before me. Even the ugly branches could be included.

I had a client tell me she’d been urging her friend to paint his place. Neither really enjoyed spending time there.

Apparently, he had travelled a lot and collected a variety of souvenirs and artifacts from around the world. Though, he couldn’t see how putting color on the walls would help any because he didn’t believe there was anything to work with. Maybe his artifacts and décor seemed random, but based on her own experience, my client felt color would help to tie everything together.

Whatever our situation, whatever state our world is in, however seemingly hopeless our design scheme or uncreative we think we are, there is always something to work with. As a little girl, I’ve made many a lavish living quarters from cardboard boxes and, as a “grown-up”, have thoroughly enjoyed dignifying every dump I ever lived in (dumps are most fun as they possess the greatest hidden potential). Having a hand in something coming to life, seeing how it speaks to people and watching how they react in turn is very fulfilling. Ultimately, what we have to work with is not that which we idealize, but what is available and can be improved upon.

Colors of Contentment

Knowing that we can positively affect our experience with even simple adjustments, I’ve described some positively enhancing effects of colors that you’re invited to notice and play with. Paint them, wear them, eat them… and observe the differences.
Is it mere coincidence that red negligees are especially sexy? That orange juice is good for colds, yellow is the color of smiley faces, green so calming, blue cooling, violet associate with spirituality…?


Red is an erotic color. It has been shown to increase blood pressure and stimulate the adrenal glands increasing strength, stamina and promoting courage. Red also relates to stability and security.

helps muscles to relax and induces feelings of calm, protection, warmth and nurture. It can lessen irritation and aggression as it is connected with feelings of love. While red is connected more with passion and sexuality, pink is associated with unselfish love.

has proven to be stimulating to the sexual organs. It can be beneficial to the digestive system and strengthening to the immune system. Orange opens emotions and is a terrific antidepressant as it helps to relieve feelings of self-pity, lack of self-worth and unwillingness to forgive.

is another uplifting color promoting optimism, self-confidence and warmth. It’s associated with intellectual thinking: discernment, memory, mental clarity and good judgment. Yellow facilitates organization and understanding differing points of view. In the right balance, yellow energy stimulates the nervous system and has been used as a treatment for arthritis.

is good for the heart. On a physical and emotional level, green aids the heart in bringing physical equilibrium and relaxation. It relaxes muscles and helps the breath to slow and deepen; creates feelings of comfort and calmness; helps to balance and soothe emotions. Green is often used to treat fatigue, negativity, tension, insomnia, and anger.

Blue has proven to lower blood pressure. It has a very cooling and soothing affect, often inducing calm. Deep blue stimulates the pituitary gland which regulates sleep patterns and can be useful in treating insomnia. Lighter blues inspires a feeling of quiet and sanctum. Like yellow, blue inspires mental control, clarity and creativity.

Purples have been used in the treatment of mental and nervous disorders as they’ve shown to help balance the mind and transform obsessions and fears. Indigo, specifically, has been used as an anesthesia in minor operations for its narcotic (soothing and numbing) qualities. It is often associated with the right side of the brain, stimulating intuition and imagination. Violet has the effect of bringing peace, counteracting shock and fear and has a cleansing effect on emotional disturbances. It is also associated with sensitivity to beauty, high ideals and stimulates creativity, spirituality and compassion.

Brown is the color of the earth and ultimately home. This color brings feelings of reliability and security as well as nurturing, warmth, comfort and stability.

Black can be comforting and grounding. In feng shui, it carries the energy of mystery and sophistication; holds the energy of power and protection; and adds depth, strength and definition to any space.

White is the color of ultimate purity. This color brings feelings of peace and comfort while dispelling shock and despair. It can be used to give oneself a feeling of freedom, uncluttered openness, crispness and cleanliness.

Grey is timeless, practical, and solid; the color of knowledge and wisdom. It is neutral and balancing drawing on qualities of both black and white. Grey can be grounding, stabilizing and quieting.

Thank you Zigazou76  from flickr for the featured image.

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