Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

What Really Makes You Happy?

My answer is an oxymoron

In all areas of my life, my greatest happiness is a product of an oxymoron.  I love, love, love serious play, rigorous fooling around, tight looseness, focused diffusion. 

Like another oxymoron, “Jumbo shrimp” my greatest happiness makes sense if you think about the two words operating at different levels. Jumbo shrimp is about shrimp; within itthe jumbo variety. When I say I love serious play, I mean that I love play within something I’m serious about, whether it be a vocation, or avocation, a relationship or in my case questions that dogs me delightfully.

In a way, serious play is just another name for the very popular psych concept of “flow,” a known and reliable source of joy and mojo for many, so the research shows.

Avocationally, I’ve got a few such narrowly focused playgrounds. I play jazz and lately I’ve taken up ecstatic dance, which is all the rage here in the Bay Area and beyond. With both, I get a rigorously constructed playground defined by tight, constraints—do’s and don’ts that become the rules of the game. 

The game is to play flexibly and freely within those constraints. In music, for example, not everything goes. Some sounds are clearly better than others. A scale, chord or rhythmic groove expresses a mood by constraining options, leaving out things that sound off within context. To improvise within a scale’s rigorous standards is serious play, serious about the limits (for example the “avoid notes” in a scale, but free within the limits to explore like a child at play. Likewise dancing. Not everything is permitted on the dance floor or within any dance style. The goal is to play freely within the dance’s rigorous constraints. To play is to make a commitment to a game’s constraints, to enter the established confines, but feeling and acting unconfined within them.

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Relationships are likewise opportunities for play within constraints. You’re serious about the relationship, while exploring the ways to express yourself within it. You depend upon each other and therefore work within the constraints of each other’s standards, while improvising and feeling free within it.

Recently I came to picture the ideal romantic relationship as harkening back to being buddies as little children, an image that came to me triangulated from this famous photo and a Nietzsche quote: “A person's maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child at play.”

I love the way the woods frame these two tikes, constraining them along a path and yet with the openness ahead that rivets their forward-leaning playful attention.

In my lucky case, my vocation is my life-size questions. On the back of my business card I list (in very small print) six questions that should keep me busy ‘til the end of my days:

  1. Emergence:  What distinguishes life from non-life and how did life start?
  2. Doubt:  How do and should living beings deal with tough judgment calls?
  3. Listenomics:  How do and should we decide whom to heed, hear, ignore and fight?
  4. Expectation management:  How do and should we decide where to invest and divest effort especially given that at death we must divest all effort?
  5. Ethical don’ts:  To maximize play within the confines of decency what are those confines?  (ethics defined by constraints of the game, objective standards for avoiding being a butthead, so to get beyond merely subjective standards the question becomes “what is a butthead other than someone you butt heads with?”).
  6. Love and economics:  What is the natural history of value and love, and how can we accurately integrate value in life to value in economics?

I’ve been playing with these six a long time, and as I play I come to reliable hunches that become new constraints, answers or at least assumptions I’m going with as I build playfully beyond them.  Each answer breeds new questions, which is what makes the overarching question life-size. 

Lucky me, I’ve got relationships with people who share these questions and most of the assumptions I’ve come to hold. For nearly 20 years now, I’ve been part of a very rigorously playful research team dealing with the first of these questions--what is life and how did it start? It’s fun because having arrived at common constraints we don’t spend a lot of time debating them. We get to be playfully dogged exploring within the context of the constraints, celebrating diversity of opinion like little tikes, but within our narrowed path of assumptions.

“To affinity and beyond” I call it, our affinities about the constraints freeing us to explore playfully beyond to the always-next questions, a joy so important to me that I’ve put it to verse:

A.N.D. (Always Next Dilemma)

After finding solutions that fit

I like to kick back and just sit

   On my laurels but then a

   Resulting dilemma

Proves questions in life just don’t quit.

The Tao says, ““When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly; when people see some things as good, other things become bad.” 

This is often interpreted as meaning you should stop seeing things one way or the other, but I don’t buy that we could or should stop. Playing “avoid” notes really does sound bad or ugly.  We can’t help but have such constraints, nor would we want to. Still, the quote explains a lot about human conflict.

As much as I see as beautiful my “Affinity and beyond” relationships I see as ugly dis-affinity, especially when someone else’s idea of rigor blocks the places where I’ve decided to play, or when someone wants to play where my idea of rigor bars it.

You know the feeling, the frustration when someone isn’t serious enough about what you’re serious about, or someone is too serious about what you want to play with.

Sometimes, like a dog looking to play with another dog, I’ll do the human equivalent of bowing low and wagging my tail, asking a question to see if I can spark some collaborative curiosity. Often it works but sometimes the person I ask misinterprets it as an invitation to get Papal, to tell me how the world works as though I were interviewing a great and eminent expert on everything true. 

Playing expert is certainly fun. I’m sure I indulge people’s patience sometimes by going papal on them.  I understand the impulse and still, after enduring a respectful amount of preaching and still seeking potential for rigorous play, I’ll try to find openings for a true affinity and beyond interaction. 

Lately I’ve tried a new approach to getting beyond people’s papal decrees. I ask “so where are your remaining questions? What do you still wonder about now that you’ve got those answers?”

Sometimes they can’t tell me because they don’t seem to really have any remaining questions, or they decide I’m trying to attack them--no room for serious play at least with questions. But sometimes they share questions I can relate to, and we can find room for the serious play I love.

Where do you find serious play?  What constraints free you to play within them?

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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