Birds Of A Feather - A Robin’s Tale

There’s a robin in our front yard, a very persistent, though misguided, robin, Let’s call him “Rob” for short. Rob has been visiting our front yard for three years now.

He eats the berries off our Saskatoon bushes and Chokecherry tree, poops the seeds on my bike’s handle bars and pecks at the seat.

But that's not all Rob does...

 One of our saskatoon bushes.

One of our saskatoon bushes.

 Our Chokecherry tree.

Our Chokecherry tree.

Rob must have been a football player in another life because he loves giving himself concussions by repeatedly slamming into our large front window. He slams his body multiple times a day, trying to reach the Garden of Eden he sees on the other side. What does he see? You guessed it, a mirror image of what he already has: Saskatoon bushes and a Chokecherry tree.

 I haven't been able to get a picture of Rob for this post. apparently he's gone into hiding...I think he's EMBARRASSED. Here's a picture of a particularly good window splat of his as a substitute.

I haven't been able to get a picture of Rob for this post. apparently he's gone into hiding...I think he's EMBARRASSED. Here's a picture of a particularly good window splat of his as a substitute.

 Here's my covered bike seat. The top of the seat has holes for venting, which he decided to peck at repeatedly, making a mess of it.

Here's my covered bike seat. The top of the seat has holes for venting, which he decided to peck at repeatedly, making a mess of it.

Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
— Oscar Wilde

Despite his destructive behaviour, I like Rob. He serves as a good reminder of some of the failings of the human condition: our belief that, somehow, if we do the same thing over and over again, we’ll manage to achieve a different outcome. It’s especially egregious when we apply it to the pursuit of happiness.

I’ll Be Happy When…

People in wealthy countries generally work long and hard to earn more money than they can even derive pleasure from.
— p. 218, Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Welcome to the hedonic treadmill that’s so common in affluent societies such as ours. We have a great deal of practice with the following statements:

Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will only strive for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being.
— p. 220, Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
  • I’ll be happy when…
  • If only I could manage to…
  • Life will be so much easier when…
  • If only I could afford…
  • I “need” to get more/a bigger…

We easily lose focus on what we have now. What we can enjoy in the present which, incidentally, is what we were hoping for in our last round of “I’ll be happy when”. How'd that work out?

I’ve learned that lesson repeatedly, first with shoes, then purses. And it only took 42 pairs of shoes and 12+ purses to learn it! At least it was a salve for the soul of a fashionable sort but still, what a waste. I was treating the symptom and not its cause. As the saying goes, know better do better.

Focus On What You Have

To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’ Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in any given situation.
— p. 138, Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Happiness comes effortlessly when we focus on what we have now, especially internal sources of happiness: the richness of our relationships, our skills and abilities, our achievements and creations, and who we are as individuals. Yes, our prized possessions and what they enable us to do also matter to our happiness, but less than we'd like to think.

It’s what we focus on in the present that guides how we feel, not thoughts of future happiness. If we think about the future, we tend to think about a void (be it time or money or both). It makes us feel anxious, impatient, restless. It makes us want to do something to fix the uncomfortable feeling, and that feeling robs us of enjoying life now.

In a study of more than 1,000 people in the Netherlands, vacationers exhibited a bigger happiness boost in the weeks before their trip, rather than in the weeks afterward.
— p. 81, Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton

Of course, if you’ve prebooked and prepaid a vacation, that anticipation is a good feeling. You get to imagine the vacation over and over again. It can make your days sweeter and the vacation brings you more joy overall. However, if we’re focusing on what we don’t have—especially when others have it already—then it’s a different type of anxiety: status anxiety.

As the determinants of high status keep shifting, so, too, naturally, will the triggers of status anxiety be altered.
— p. 179, Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton
If we cannot stop envying, it seems especially poignant that we should be constrained to spend so much of our lives envying the wrong things.
— p. 197, Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

Status anxiety is the type of anxiety that tells us that we’re lesser beings until we “fix it”. We’re essentially telling ourselves we’re broken and can’t feel whole until some external asset or condition fixes us. That fix will work for a little while, until we find ourselves broken again.

If Rob could see that the berry bushes and tree offer more than enough for him, every year, he could be content. But the pull of more is just too great, even though he could never manage to eat it all. I guess his bird brain will never learn. 

It’s a good thing we're not Rob.


Robin image courtesy of Keith Williams at Flickr.