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