The Pursuit of Happiness
Monday, 08 November 2010
In a recent email exchange with Lilalia, a gifted artist who blogs at Yum Yum Cafe, we discussed the idea of happiness. Lilalia is also gifted at pushing me toward more serious thought on subjects I might have only glossed in the past.
Referencing a podcast she had listened to, Lilalia wrote that
“One of the leaders mention how the 'pursuit of happiness' is considered a holy right in America. Yet, this pursuit is synonymous with independence gained and almost never results in acknowledgment of responsibilities acquired.”
I doubt America's founding fathers, when including that "pursuit of happiness" phrase in our Ur documents were thinking about what it appears to have become for many people: "I can do whatever I want and screw you" and, for some, stretches to "I deserve."
If general impressions are any help, happiness among the people of the U.S. would appear to be summed up as acquisition. All the media – which is about 90 percent of our culture via television, the internet, smart phones, iPods, iPads, print, email, the majority of snailmail and movies with all their product placements – is concerned primarily with creating the desire to buy more stuff.
It cannot be that I am the only person for whom this doesn't apply and who is, in fact, regularly exhausted by the constant exhortations to spend money. Nothing I have bought has ever made me “happy” beyond satisfactorily filling a need or supplying some form of enjoyment, which is not the same thing as happiness - at least to me.
Many people pay lip service to family and friends as their happiness – and I don't mean, with that phrasing, to sound cynical. But it is the rare person I've known for whom that is enough and most families I've known, scattered to the four corners of the country and even world, manage to be together on only one or two holidays a year.
And how much happiness can be attained when, as with millions of people, the oldest generation is housed in a nursing home, not attending those infrequent gatherings?
The idea of happiness often seems related to giddiness – as the fun of a driving a fancy, new car for awhile until the novelty wears off. Such pleasures, however, are transitory and that can't be what the founding fathers intended us to pursue.
Happiness is such a mystery to me. I have never known what to answer when asked, from time to time, if I am happy. Mostly I shrug and say, “yeah, I guess so,” because I don't know what the question means.
As with everyone else, throughout my life there have been moments of joy and moments of despair but generally, I just am – rolling along in neutral with whatever is happening. I feel great when I've accomplished something that pleases me - a well-done blog post, for example (of which this is not one). Is that happiness? I laugh when the cat does something funny. Is that happiness?
Recently, a friend emailed to say that he hopes I'm not too depressed by the result of our recent election. I differentiate between personal circumstances and the world at large. I am deeply concerned, even frightened about the current political and economic trajectory of our country, but that doesn't affect my feelings about day to day living.
Aside from personal disasters – deaths of loved ones, unemployment, a miserable marriage – I am not generally unhappy which is the best I can usually do in defining happiness – lack of the negative.
What still stands out as the most powerful and profound experience of my life is the three months I cared for my mother before her death in 1992. As I wrote several years ago in my blog series about that period,
It helped me locate my last ounce of energy when fatigue invaded even my bones. It fueled my ingenuity as successive medical problems required new and untried solutions. It led me to trust my instincts. It expanded the limits of my patience and temper. It gave expression to generosity and kindheartedness I had never used.
To my surprise, I felt accomplished, competent and deeply loving then as at no other time and afterward, when she had died, I felt suffused as much with pride in a job well done as with sadness. Dare I say I was happy then? Maybe. Maybe it was the closest to happiness as I think other people mean when they use the word.
Certainly, when I was younger, there were more frequent agonies related to work or boyfriends or how I looked. Thankfully, growing old takes care of those and the last miserably unhappy time I recall was when I realized in 2005, that I would need to sell my home and leave New York.
That was a horrific blow, but I got over it faster than I would have when I was younger, an attribute that seems to come with age without effort; a better understanding of “this too shall pass” which definitely contributes to more positive feelings.
Having gotten this far, it's obvious that I do better defining what unhappiness is for me. But what happiness is? Not so easy.
Perhaps the word “pleasure” works better for me. A beautiful day, an enlightening conversation, a satisfying visit with a friend, a good movie, a tasty meal, an engrossing book - like the cat and a successful essay - give me pleasure.
Are you happy?
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Madonna Dries Christensen: It's Good For You
To put it simply - "happiness to me is being at peace" a peace deep inside that I do not even have the words to explain it.
There is much I do not like in the world or understand.
I wish my children and grandchildren were not all scattered throughout the world.
But - bottom line I have a deep peace within my heart that took over 70 years to finally find.
Posted by: ernestine | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 05:40 AM
I'm getting there as I get older. I find moments of absolute joy and I now have the wisdom to stop and commemmorate them in some way.
Posted by: Marcia Mayo | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 05:59 AM
For me happiness is contentment ~ what I would describe in the same way you've described pleasure.
Much like links in a chain, the closer the small contented events occur uninterrupted by crisis, the happier I feel.
My mother taught me, early in life, that happiness exists in small, easily unobserved moments and events. My father taught me the contentment that exists in creating with ones heart and hands (forming art from molten glass).
On my own I can only take credit for being smart enough to apply those lessons they offered to my life.
Happiness as a word and as a concept is vastly complex & amazingly simple in the same breath! Complex when it eludes and simple when 'in hand'....
Posted by: Faye | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 06:29 AM
I don't really think about whether I am happy. I know there are times I feel joy like when all the leaves are momentarily blown off the yards and deck, when I see the sheep happily grazing in the outer pasture and I am watching over them with a gun. I feel that also when my family does all get together for a brief vacation or a dinner and I see the grandkids playing happily with each other, see my daughter and daughter-in-law or son and son-in-law chatting enjoyably with each other. I tend to believe happiness isn't so much a general condition but momentary and maybe it's us opening ourselves to feel it when it comes through, like beautiful fall leaves that later will be on the driveway and not look so beautiful.
We grasp moments and they bring us happiness but maybe because they are brief and momentary. I sure never think about whether I am a generally happy person nor could I easily answer to someone else if I was or wasn't. I think though I am someone who can find those moments wherever they are and you are right, they aren't in material things which can let us down pretty quickly.
I think a lot of our country would be better off watching less television period especially the kind that has advertisements for products to buy or candidates to vote for, etc. It may set off a condition of dissatisfaction because no matter how many of them someone had, something new is coming along.
Some years ago I bought a book on the art of happiness by the Dalai Lama. I started to read it but lost interest too early to keep going. It still sits on the bookshelf waiting for me to notice it again. Maybe I'll give it another try and see what his take on it is-- or maybe not yet.
Posted by: Rain | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 06:35 AM
I agree with you about "pleasure". However, I think that being "happy" is about being attuned and appreciative of the pleasures that life offers. In other words, NOTICING what is there that is good and satisfying. Often these are the very small things that make up daily life. It requires some sense of optimism too or faith that there is meaning to be found in the challenges one faces. Cynicism is poison to me and modern society is rife with it.
Posted by: Peg | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 06:43 AM
Some years ago, I think I half-consciously ditched the word "happiness" from my lexicon. My rule of thumb now is something that has proved itself out to me over a period of time. When asked how I am, my answer, with truth and thought, is that I am fairly-well content. Sometimes more, sometimes less but holding to that median, I am content with my life, with myself, with my family, with my craft and most things in general. Like you Ronni, all this has nothing to do with the general state of the world today, but as a base, it does help me to keep my balance.
Posted by: arby | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 07:13 AM
When I was caregiver for my elderly father (who would go so far as to say he was "fine"), I started researching psychological development in old age. That's when I stumpled across the Swedish gerontologist Lar Tornstam's theory of gerotranscendence.
Gerotranscendence is associated with high levels of satisfaction in life and a feeling of being at one with the universe as well as low levels of fear, especially fear of death. Studies published as recently as this summer seem to bear out Tornstam's theory in that levels of life satisfaction increase over all as we age.
I don't know if my dad had achieved gerotranscendence or not, but I do know that while he was a very politically active person in his younger years, politics didn't hold much interest for him at age 90.
Posted by: Carol | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 07:53 AM
Ronnie, This is a "well-done" blog post! Very thought provoking. I am thinking of expressions such as "Happy Birthday" "Happy New Year" "Hope you have a happy day"...what are we thinking when we extend these wishes? I think of laughter as one of the greatest forms of happiness. This is a fascinating topic and I am enjoying reading the comments. Ruth Marchese
Posted by: Ruth Marchese | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 08:04 AM
Mutually loving, respectful relationships and a purpose to fulfill. When I'm in this place, I'm conscious of being "happy". Right now I'm struggling with both.
Posted by: Tarzana | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 08:11 AM
I'm happy. Some things can make me miserable. I'm in the midst of a 2nd divorce. Deciding was a long thought out agony. This weekend I got a trip to ER uncovering yet another probably chronic health condition. The general condition of the world stands my hair up. I do expect my boat to right itself somehow, I enable that as well as I can. I'm adaptable, if I can't do this I do that. The loss of a child early on caused me to wonder if life was worth living for a few months. I think this is a genetic resilience and having relatives who know how to laugh in the middle of anything. You should have heard us at my Dad's wake, lots of tears and laughs, it was a party Dad would have loved.
Posted by: Celia | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 10:36 AM
Really enjoyed reading your post. To know that at a moment of loss and grief there were also feeling of pride and happiness, is so reassuring. I know that when I was visiting my favouriet most beloved uncle at his death bed, underlying all the sadness and helplessness, there was this happiness at having known and loved such a dear person. It took your post to realise this. Thanks.
Posted by: lilalia | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 10:44 AM
I am thoroughly enjoying this string of comments as well. Very thought provoking, Ronni. I have to say that what rises in me regarding happiness is that in every event in which I have been happy beyond words - in every instance in my life - it really came down to an overwhelming sense that I was in the right place at the exact right moment in time and able to recognize that. A presence of myself that is more often than not scattered across the universe finds me, if you will. I realize that sounds very self absorbed. It is. I do think we are all in charge of how we react to everything. In my case the hardest thing is to welcome myself into the world so that is my seat of happiness.
Consequently, as I age I find that I am not willing to press myself into others expectations. I know fairly quickly if something doesn't feel welcome to me. If it isn't a good fit for me, I will be denied that level of happiness. If that sense of possible presence is not there, I cannot expand on the love I want to share with others. I spend a lot more time alone now but I am more ready than I have ever been to allow happiness into my life. I can see the love of the world in everyday things and feel centered. I suspect that we are always exactly where we are supposed to be in every moment but we deny ourselves an awareness of it.
I'm with Rain. Turn off the TV or at the very least recognize that we are being shilled with every ad and respond accordingly.
Posted by: Cile | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 10:44 AM
Financial stability relieves one to enjoy life. That is happiness, for without financial stability, not masses amounts of money or the acquisition of things, the ability to see the kinder, sweeter moments of life are pinched, or out of range.
It's easier to smile when the bills are paid; to laugh when there is food in the cupboard, to sleep peacefully in a warm/cool house.
In my humble opinion, financial stability is the foundation of happiness.
Posted by: Helen | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 11:02 AM
Interesting. She always stirs me up too. :)
Yes, I wrote about being contented with my lot today. Mix a little love, busyness, creativity, food and meditation together, and I find myself content. That's a good start on happiness today. New teeth plus a new orthopedist with a solution might equate out to ecstatic happiness. One never knows. Not taking myself at all seriously helps.
Posted by: Mage Bailey | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 11:12 AM
I think that happiness, like love, has never been properly defined. I guess it's like other emotions, you will know it when it happens.
I am content, but that is just a foundation for happiness. Happiness is a bigger emotion felt in spurts like when your family visits and you see the smiles on their faces and the joy felt at being together again.
Posted by: Darlene | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 11:56 AM
I never ask myself whether I'm happy or not. Don't know why.
Posted by: Hattie | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 11:58 AM
Gretchen Rubin has some interesting thoughts on happiness in her book "The Happiness Project" and at her blog: http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/
I've got few reasons to be unhappy...as long as I avoid the media.
Posted by: Perspective | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 12:06 PM
Awareness sums it up for me. Whether it is the 3rd loon out on the water in front of me that shows up today having been missing for a couple of weeks, or revelling in a spectacular sunset or a full moon.
Being at one with myself and the universe.
And honestly: I think we only reach that point when we have suffered 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune'.
I am TV-less for nearly 20 years and I think that contributes to one's happiness: the desire for 'stuff' constantly stoked by TV-pimps, just dies.
Posted by: wisewebwoman | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 01:46 PM
What a great post - maybe there was something in the planets that led to so many thoughtful posts because the subject of "happiness" is up on several of my favorite blogs. I had to say I'm happy now and I have a real point of comparison. For many years I worked for what I call the "evil Medical Empire." It wasn't the work that was so difficult - although like many corporations, they piled on more work than any five humans could manage. It was the miserable, vicious, mean-spirited, cruel, nastiness of the management. They didn't miss a trick - from the huge work loads to the demand for unpaid overtime, spying on the employees, vicious digs that you didn't dare respond to - in short, a police state. I stayed because I needed the money and wanted the benefits. Once I retired, every year I have felt a lightening of spirits, a return of energy, creativity and even joy in living. Of course, as a progressive, I'm not happy about the election and I am very concerned about where America is going. But I live day to day, and day to day is pretty darn good. I know what evil misery looks like and while that day may come again, TODAY is not that day.
Posted by: Nancy Ewart | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 03:09 PM
Happiness to me is when I remember all the stuff I am grateful for in my life.
As I age I am growing more grateful for things like my good brain and all of the interests I have cultivated.
I am happy to be content with just a regular old day in which I am able to do some things I enjoy and perhaps be with some people I really like.
I guess I don't expect much. Maybe this is the key.
Posted by: pcw | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 03:13 PM
Recently, the Dalai Lama returned for a second visit to Emory University where he is a professor! (In a public lecture he promised not to give homework! The crowds roared with delight at his signature warmth and humor.) The Conference, the Summit on Happiness, featured His Holiness and a panel of representatives of four faith communities, each defining happiness.
I recommend to TGB readers the podcasts of each speaker and of the panel that Krista Tippett (Being, formerly Speaking of Faith) moderated.
In iTunes, go to iTunes U/ EMory/ The Pursuit of Happiness Lectures. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks encapsulated the definitive of normative Judaism this way: We have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of holiness. Holiness is caring for others, practicing compassion, and doing good.
Posted by: tamar | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 04:57 PM
If, as the Greeks put it, happiness is the use of one's powers along lines of excellence. Ronni your blog post on The Pursuit should have made you happy. It also worked in that pleasurable direction for me.
Posted by: richard Townsend | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 06:26 PM
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the concept of happiness. For me, personally, I feel like most of my life has been marred with varied elements of tragedy, but despite my less-than-ideal upbringing, I strive to be content.
To wit, being content isn't the same as being happy. I realized that for many people, this can be considered a first-world problem, but if you're not happy, then you tend to be a toxic person. I recently checked out this book called Three Insights and it's helped me gain a greater understanding on how to find clarity in my personal happiness.
Keep up the great work on this blog and, again, thanks for sharing.
Posted by: Ryan | Monday, 08 November 2010 at 08:27 PM
I think too many people confuse pleasure with happiness. Pleasure has its place, but is transitory. Happiness is deeper. Paradoxically we achieve happiness by embracing our whole life experience, good and bad. Rejecting a part of our life, for whatever reason, devalues the whole, and therein lies UNhappiness.
Posted by: ian | Tuesday, 09 November 2010 at 03:40 AM
"I differentiate between personal circumstances and the world at large. I am deeply concerned, even frightened about the current political and economic trajectory of our country, but that doesn't affect my feelings about day to day living."
Ronni, I struggle with this as I DO find my day to day feelings affected deeply. Despite what I do in personal small ways to improve some of the world's ailments, I end up being really upset by things such as the election last week. I have a decent level of satisfaction and contentment with my life, but would like to know how to feel less pain on a day to day level over the problems in the world. I even have to take news strikes now and then, but then feel guilty for ignoring what's happening out there! How do you achieve what you posted, above?
Posted by: gail | Tuesday, 09 November 2010 at 06:07 AM
I believe happiness can only be bestowed by others. When people, especially those I care most for, treat me with respect and show they care for my well-being (spiritual, not material), I am happy.
Posted by: Gabby Geezer | Tuesday, 09 November 2010 at 07:36 AM
So enjoyed the video of Hazel McCallion -- great positive images of an elder. thanks -- barbara
Posted by: barbara | Tuesday, 09 November 2010 at 08:31 AM
1) I believe happiness, like colors, expresses itself as a spectrum of more happy to less happy...
2) If you ask whether people are UNHAPPY, I bet almost everyone has an answer for that.
Posted by: Steve Kemp | Tuesday, 09 November 2010 at 01:26 PM
Here's an in-depth article on this topic, which appeared in my in-box the day after you raised the issue of happiness. Very interesting article, I thought.:
Posted by: Marian Van Eyk McCain | Wednesday, 10 November 2010 at 05:04 AM
What I think I know about happiness is that it is not permanent. It comes and goes depending upon the life situations one finds themselves in at a certain moment.
I've been so happy at certain times, I wept uncontrollably and thought to myself afterward that there was no way I could be worthy of such a state, and yet ... it was with me for a time. After that, as it always does, life happened again and I crashed and burned.
What a wonderful post this is Ronni. You have a treasure trove of wise readers. As good as the post is, I enjoyed the comments of the readers even more and again, for a time, I was extremely happy to know that so many others had experienced boundless happiness also.
Please keep the topic close at hand and bring it up again any time you don't have something else consuming your precious time and thoughts.
It may be difficult for you to accept but you, my friend are a constant source of happiness for so many.
I may not be able to define happiness but I'm so thankful I can recognize it when it happens.
In my mind, we pursue happiness until we pause for a time and allow it to catch up with us as we meditate.
Posted by: Clarence | Wednesday, 10 November 2010 at 08:15 AM
Thank you for the quote Ronni. Honestly, I didn't think I had anything of importance to add to the discussion but I knew that I simply HAD to say something. A small, quiet voice; the one I always hear when I'm meditating, urged me to contribute my thoughts, so I did.
You probably already know about http://www.voteiq.com/about because you are normally caught up on all the latest political news available, still, I added a link to your Blog on that site yesterday so others can come to appreciate all that you do for others.
You're doing a great job as always. Thanks again.
Posted by: Clarence | Thursday, 11 November 2010 at 07:48 AM
Adding to my previous comment ... today I printed out Monday's happiness post and all the comments attached to it, plus today's post in which I was quoted and passed it along to the other two mature ladies of this household and my visiting daughter. They are now fans of your work.
Posted by: Clarence | Thursday, 11 November 2010 at 07:52 AM
Those rare and valuable feelings of a peak experience are like beads of happiness on a necklace of joy. As I've aged, it takes less and less to make me wonder and I treasure the small peaceful moments when pain subsides and I am a grateful (and self-conscious) observer, usually of nature.
At such moments, I feel that prayer is real & call for the happiness in all beings--which the Buddha did. If we keep the vision alive of a good and better world, maybe we help it come true. And maybe being really happy is to serve others lovingly. Enjoyed reading the blog essay and the comments! ~Kathi
Posted by: Kathi Williams | Sunday, 14 November 2010 at 05:45 PM