Someone in my writer's group asked for my opinion of his article on happiness. It got me thinking about the subject and I thought I'd put my thoughts here.
Happiness, like love, is hard to define, but we know it when we feel it. Sometimes happiness feels like relief, for example when you receive a little windfall just in time to avoid some small financial problem. Or, it may feel like fun when you play with your child and peek into her world. Exhilaration may make us happy, if only for the time it takes to realize that it is gone as quickly as it came.
My view of happiness is two fold: We must be content and not get overwhelmed.
Contentment has to do with having enough. We each have to define what enough is for ourselves. And - this is important - we have to know we have enough. I think it is the striving, the competition, the constant comparison to others that make us unhappy. I think certain things are important to happiness, but perhaps not essential: food, health, connectedness. Obviously, if our lack of food or health is too great, we die. But food and health are not in themselves, happiness. We must have enough. Connection to others, even to an animal companion, is also important. I think it possible to have only past connections and still be happy, if those connections were enough.
So what is enough? For me, enough is paying my bills, having satisfying work, being competent, being needed and knowing I can fulfill my responsibilities. It means having only manageable pain. It means accepting my limits even while I reach beyond them. My enough includes both people and animals I love and who love me back, though often they are aggravating or not actively engaged in making me happy.
The second part is the dicey part. It is so easy to become overwhelmed. At times it seems life beats us down. The car breaks down, the boss is unhappy, the child is sick, a friend dies, responsibilities pile up, we are unjustly accused - it all feels so out of our control. The truth is, much of it is out of our control. Equally true, is that a good part of it has as much to do with our attitude as with circumstances.
Understanding that life is just as it is whether we like it, or can change it, or even if we can understand it, brings a kind of relief. It is not up to me, or you, to change the nature of life. It is what it is. If we are fortunate, our children will outlive us and our parents will die before us. Our pets will die. We will have heartbreak and hardship. We will also know love, adventure, friendship. We will taste wonderful foods and see beautiful sights. We may create something. We may make a difference in someone's life. We will die but we also will live.
The happiest people I have known are not those who are rich, though having enough to remove financial stress is helpful. The happiest people are those who can roll with life's punches. I knew one woman who was simply never happy. Every blow life dealt her was new each morning. She hoarded them as surely as she hoarded the bins of shampoo, dry mixes, and other sundries she kept in her spare room. I knew another, a homeless woman, who laughed everyday at something, even her own situation. She also cried. She was not delusional, but she kept her grip on what was good in her life.
This is what happiness looks like for me: I can sit in my home, warm under a blanket, while it is cold outside, full from a simple dinner I cooked myself, tired from meaningful work I did all day, knowing my family and friends are just a phone call away. It is enough. I will keep reaching for more, not because I need it but because the challenge exists and I will be satisfied with all I achieve. When I feel overwhelmed I wait. I know it will pass. I breathe in contentment and breathe out strife. It is enough.