Happiness

Portuguese man o’ war (photo by Fiona Wilkinson)

At seven years old happiness was a day at the beach with my cousins.  One of our adventures was capturing jellyfish in plastic cups.  We were saving unsuspecting swimmers from the stinging nemesis otherwise known as the Portuguese man o’ war.  After a few hours of exhausting assignment, we hungrily ran to our mothers who promptly supplied us with homemade sandwiches and cold drinks.  And life was good.

At around 15 years old, happiness was having to attend school, but getting through it with friends and playing tennis every afternoon, then going home for dinner.  By age 25, however,  happiness became harder to find.  It became selfishly impossible things like not having to work, winning or inheriting  lots of money (so I didn’t have to work), or meeting Mr. Right who would do and say everything perfectly so I didn’t have to get upset or be annoyed.    

Now in my thirties, I can see the self-absorption of my twenties much more plainly  and with some amount of fondness.  Fortunately, I’ve discovered in my slightly wiser years that the keys to happiness does not require me to win the lottery or to find Prince Charming.  But of course I tried first, discovered second.

I bought lotto tickets, gambled in Vegas, entered sweepstakes contests.  I even considered paying thousands of dollars to learn the secrets of buying and flipping real estate with other people’s money.  I also found a guy who with enough elbow grease on my part, could have passed for a prince.  Oh sure, now that I phrase it this way its obvious I’m the one with the issues.  Funny how it didn’t seem that way at the time.  Never does.

Needless to say at the end of my shallow pursuits of happiness I found myself sick and tired of being miserable.  This is not a pleasant route toward changing for the better, but it definitely works.  How ever you arrive at the shores of dissatisfaction, rest assured you are not alone.  

From our most esteemed colleges to conferences on powerful ideas, we as a country desperately desire to be happy.  But despite our power and wealth we remain largely in the dark about what happiness is and how to get it. 

Around the year 2000, Tal Ben-Shahar began teaching Harvard’s course on Positive Psychology or how to be happy.  At that time the most popular class on campus was Intro to Economics or “how to get rich”.  Within six years the Positive Psychology class easily superseded its predecessor with around 900 students each semester eagerly enrolling to learn the secrets to happiness over the secrets to economics.

One of TED’s 20 most popular talks includes The surprising science of happiness by Harvard psychologist Ted Gilbert (2004), author of the New York Times best-selling book Stumbling on Happiness.  In 2005, the New York Times published an article on one country’s mission to measure its well-being by GNH or gross national happiness.  Inspired by this article, Roko Belic traveled across the globe interviewing people for his film on what it means to be Happy.  (Too bad he didn’t visit Denmark, a country known to be the happiest place on earth.  Oops)

Each of these forays into the concept of happiness, clearly conclude that beyond needing money for basic needs and comforts, more money does not make people more happy.  Not having to work actually tends to have the opposite effect on a person’s well-being.

Happiness studies also make no mention of a requirement to find the perfect soul mate.  Like the concept of not having to work, our search for “the one” tends to have the opposite effect on our happiness and inevitably leads to disappointment.  So if neither a boat load of money nor an all-consuming romance is the key to happiness, what pray tell is?     

Happiness studies conclude that the number one predictor of a person’s happiness is the presence (or lack) of a strong network of friends, family, and community.  Meaning life is hard; it’s a downright struggle.  This is a given and so one requirement for happiness is to know unequivocably that we are not alone in this (hard) life; that we are connected to others. 

Of course having and maintaining good relationships requires a lot of time and effort.  So finding happiness means knowing what is important.  Whereas I used to believe happiness was when everything external was perfect i.e. my job was fun and paid really well with lots of vacation, my husband would know me so well that things could be left mostly unsaid, I now believe happiness is exactly the opposite.  Happiness is when everything internal is perfect.  It’s when work isn’t so fun, but it doesn’t bother you, not because you’re settling, but because at the end of the day you have your friends and family and a connection to something larger.

Ted Gilbert says happiness is “synthesized”.  We have to cultivate it like we cultivate gardens.  Tal Ben-Shahar says we have to do things like meditate, excercise, simplify, be grateful, and forgive on a regular basis.  No wonder we prefer to watch T.V. or play video games instead.  No wonder we have to be sick of being miserable in order to change.  The truth is we have to work at being happy.  Happiness is a state of mind achieved only through personal growth.  And so the big fat secret is that most of us are just too lazy to be happy.  We’d rather find happiness at the mall, purchase it and bring it home because its much easier than cultivating more patience through meditation and self-imposed time-outs.

And so as I approach the milestone age of 40, I strive to re-create the happiness of my childhood.  Only after trying the easy way out first and failing miserably, I once again find happiness in simpler things… 

Happiness is a Sunday afternoon swim in the blue Pacific listening to my daughter squeal in delight at every wave.  This despite all the work it took to arrive there and despite the chores waiting for me at home and despite the inevitable Monday that follows every Sunday afternoon.

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