Alan Davidson, Houston’s Guru of Happiness, gives his take on leading a happy gay life.
by Janice Stensrude
Photo by Yvonne Feece
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Poet William Blake said it, Alan Davidson lived it.
“Well, I’ve certainly traveled the road of excess, and I certainly have found a certain level of wisdom,” Davidson comments. “I would say that the caveat in Blake’s verse is the wanting to learn or the needing to learn. You see many people making the same habitual choices year after year, relationship after relationship. So, yeah, you have to want to learn and grow and evolve for that to be true.”
More than twenty years ago, Davidson was one of the few survivors among his hard-partying friends when he marshaled the courage to get tested for HIV. The unexpected news that he was not HIV positive motivated him to leave behind his booze-and-drug lifestyle. Six months sober, with savings from his profligate career as one of gay Houston’s most popular bartenders, Big Gay Uncle Al, as he likes to be called, began his road to recovery…and to mastery. He finished a degree in psychology and trained in a bevy of bodywork and healing modalities, beginning with massage therapy. He studied with spiritual teachers and healers throughout the world and began putting into practice what he had learned. Today he conducts his happiness workshops across the country, as well as in the U.K., where he has an enthusiastic following.
Can Money Buy Happiness?
Davidson points to the conclusions of the World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations in April of last year. The correlation between income and happiness, it appears, is akin to the law of diminishing returns: the more you have, the less you benefit from having more. A rich man might need an extra $100,000 to feel just a little bit happier, whereas a poor man might be immensely happier with an extra $10. How do you know when you’ve got enough? “That’s the question for the ages,” Davidson declares.
Having the basic necessities, he says, “provides you a certain level of happiness, but when you start having hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions on top of that, then it really has a very small impact on how happy you really are.”
So what’s the difference between a happy billionaire and an unhappy one? “A higher purpose for your life,” says Big Gay Uncle Al. And that purpose could be, he says, “making money to be of service to society.” Philanthropy is a legitimate life purpose, he suggests.
“When we look at what is important for happiness in our modern twenty-first-century world, says Davidson, “purpose and meaning is definitely one of the top five elements you’ve got to have…. We go into a crisis, a personality crisis or a spiritual crisis because we put our meaning and purpose on something that is very transient and often insignificant. And so how do we replace that with something that is genuinely meaningful for our soul?”
Davidson thinks that there’s a lot of “I don’t know what makes me happy” in today’s developed nations. “We’re so bombarded by external messages that we’ve forgotten how to listen to that small still voice within us that guides us,” he explains. “Good feels good, bad feels bad, and the more that I do the things that feel good to me the more time I spend with people who feel good to me, the more time that I invest in purposeful endeavors that feel good to me, then the more I am investing in that voice within my own heart of hearts and the things that bring me joy. And it’s just that simple.”
Simple it might be, but Davidson warns of the difference between short-term and long-term good feelings. “It’s called consequence or karma,” he says, “and that’s where wisdom or discernment is important…it feels good in the moment, but what’s the price that I pay for this? So it’s not just the hedonistic pleasure and satisfaction of doing something, but it’s also the knowing from a wider perspective that this feels good at multiple levels of consciousness and being, and that it’s going to help me feel good for a very long time instead of just a quick fix.
“Happiness is like freedom or love,” he says. “It’s not something that you can grasp and hold onto. It’s really a state of being, and we as a people, as individuals, and as a culture are taught that these are outside of ourselves and that we’ve got to keep up with the Joneses or the Smiths, and material possessions will make us happy. And then ultimately when we make happiness our goal in life we begin to realize that, Oh, the big house on River Oaks Boulevard doesn’t genuinely make me happy, or a million or two million or four million dollars in the bank doesn’t make me happy. And so we begin to focus on those things in our life that do make us happy. Maybe it’s being in nature or being with people we love or with family or being of service in some specific way. Happiness comes to us in those surprise moments like that, with a sense of real well-being. And it’s illusive.
“Now the challenge is how do we take those spontaneous moments of well-being or flourishing or happiness and make them a permanent state of being? And that’s what spiritual practice is really about: how do I evolve and grow myself in such a way so that my state of being is always one of happiness and joy and ecstacy with the life that I’m given?”
Gay and Happy
Though Davidson’s happiness advice is for everyone, he recognizes a brand of unhappiness that is particular to the LGBT community.
“Even though there’s tremendous progress politically and even legally for gays, there is still a harsh, cruel judgment by some people in our culture and society today about homosexuals,” he says. “So there’s still that thought of being an outcast, which only feeds that inner level of anxiety and fear and even panic that we all have. You know, we’re hard-wired to connect as a species, as people. One of the five elements of human flourishing and happiness is loving relationships. And so a lot of us who are gay have this belief that I’m not lovable, that I’m evil or that there’s something wrong with me, that I’m not worthy, and that feeds that anxiety at that existential level of being. So I see that’s why so many gay people are out at the clubs, partying, dancing, doing drugs, and using compulsive behaviors to anesthetize that insecurity and doubt that they have inside them.”
This sensitivity to the judgments of others, says Davidson, “primes us to look externally for happiness and satisfaction. And so one thing we have to do as gays and lesbians is to realize the fallacy of that…and that we have to develop a relationship with that small voice of consciousness inside of us.” Those first steps, he says, are often “frightening and painful, but it’s a step that has to be made to finally work through all the muck, that’s accumulated in a lifetime, to reconnect with the heart of hearts.”
Davidson believes that unhappy life experiences can prepare us for better lives. “That kind of deep wounding from our society is what has led many gays and lesbians into the pursuit of spiritual practice and awareness of healing. So it’s that wounding that’s actually opened the door to a greater awareness and understanding and healing. So for us as queers, we have to quit looking outside of ourselves for our own sense of self-worth and well-being. We have to develop that sense that my own happiness, my own self-respect, my own sense of personal contribution all come from the light in my heart of hearts, and that if I nourish that and feed that, I will find a place in the world where I am safe and that I can express myself with real joy. And the world is not always receptive to that right now. But we have to do it anyway.”
The Final Word
“It’s really quite surprising the guidance that I get from my own heart of hearts,” says Davidson, “and whether you believe in God or not, it doesn’t matter. You have something inside of you that can connect with the perfection of the universe and life. You don’t have to call it a soul or a spirit. It’s just that impulse within you to create and express, to be the best that you can be.”
Lesbian, gay, bi, trans, straight, or other, Big Gay Uncle Al’s advice is the same. If all you want out of life is to be happy, “Follow your dream with great passion and devotion. It’s a wonderful, noble end.”
Defining Happiness through the Body’s Five Vital Intelligences
At the Physical Layer of Intelligence, happiness is the enjoyment of our bodily pleasures. Satisfying these pleasures is the source of an immediate, delicious, sensual happiness…but, alas, so fleeting.
At the Emotional Layer of Intelligence, happiness is well-being, contentment, and joy, the positive feelings that make life enjoyable. But to know happiness only as an emotion means that our delight is temporary, rising and falling with our moods.
At the Mental Layer of Intelligence, happiness is a conscious decision to choose joy, to focus on the positive aspects of our lives.
At the Moral Layer of Intelligence, happiness is performing a thousand acts of kindness.
At the Spiritual Layer of Intelligence, happiness is a vibration. Progressing from shame and guilt through courage and joy—and ultimately, peace and enlightenment—the higher the vibration, the closer we are to enlightenment.
Janice Stensrude is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.