On Happiness

Happy.  It’s a word with which I’ve never been comfortable, and yet I think about it a lot.  The thing is, for a word we use so indescribably often, I’m not sure I even really know what it means.  Is happiness the absence of sadness?  Surely there’s always something to be sad about, isn’t there?  Is happiness what happens when everything is finally right?  Because nothing is ever completely right, just as it’s never all completely wrong (though that’s harder to see sometimes).

I recently finished the comic book edition of Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness.  He claims happiness is what all us humans are after at the end of the day.  I like his story: Bright, driven kid finds a new way of doing things, stepping a bit more lightly upon the underdog and making a crapload of spondoolies in the process. But I’m not sure I agree with the premise of the book, that all anyone really wants is to be happy.  Because if happiness is the absence of sadness, or that moment when everything is right, the fact is it simply doesn’t exist.  And if all anyone ever wanted was to be happy, and the truth was that happiness didn’t even exist, we’d all be going stark raving mad, “waiting for Godot,” as it were.

Ahem.

I posit the following:

  1. A state of permanent – or even long-term – happiness by definition simply cannot come to pass for the possessor of a rational, coherent mind;
  2. We’re definitely all looking for something, and that something looks a lot like what we’ve been made to believe is happiness;
  3. Ergo, either we’re looking for long-term happiness and we’re never going to find it because it doesn’t exist or we’re looking for something else entirely and we’ve been thrown off the scent by this red herring called happiness;
  4. Consequently, quite a lot of us are really going nuts over the whole thing, owing to the terrible sense of failure and emptiness that go along with never being truly happily-ever-after.

Now what?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m definitely not saying I’ve figured out what to do (or not do) about it.  Life in London was stifling, so we sold our shit and packed our bags and made our way to the Philippines.  That was an extraordinary and amazing year, but after it was said and done, we moved to France and bought a whole bunch more stuff (much of it second-hand, mind) to start our life here.

In the space of two years, I left my field and in turn worked diligently to develop my skills in managment consultation, writing and editing, and English teaching, and now I’m looking into the possibility of getting back into working in a similar field to the one I left behind in London, though in what capacity – and if it will even come to fruition – I’m not yet sure.  In the meantime, I’m continuing all of the afore-mentioned efforts (sans management consultation…hard enough to do it in English!) in the hopes I can find a rhythm and rhyme that feed my soul and also pay the bills.

Full circle?  Not exactly.  But not far.  And why did we make all these changes to begin with?  Surely it had something to do with the idea that our previous state didn’t afford us often enough the opportunity for happiness, so we went off in search of specific life changes that would.  Some people buy a car.  Some people have an affair.  Some people get pregnant.  We skipped town.

It wasn’t the first time for either of us.  Both of us have made a ritual of making new homes, each time going through the motions of refilling one’s cleaning cupboard and social circle, each time struggling to find our place, our raison d’être in a sea of strangeness.  Speaking strictly for myself, the closest place I’ve ever been to home at this point in my life is by Chris’ side.  So maybe we’re like the Boss:  born to run…But I’m not sure.

Chris and I don’t have kids.  We don’t live near our siblings, and we keep moving away from our closest friends.  And yet relationships are probably the single most important thing in the world to us. The fact is, moving around gets lonely, but staying put means committing on a level on which we’ve never before committed.  It’s the most ordinary thing for most people, but staying put for us might be the biggest step we’ve ever taken, and I’m not sure either of us are ready yet.

Why?  Because of this man.

Well, okay – not directly because of him, but because of a paradox he so eloquently describes:  the paradox of choice.

When I took Philosophy 101 at Cypress College (quite literally in the last century)…my teacher gave a lecture on the Perfect Pizza.  (I now know where he got it.  Thank you, Internet.)  The gist is this:  what’s your favorite pizza?  Shh…don’t say it out loud.  Now ask someone else.  Bet you didn’t come up with the same pizza.  Maybe they mentioned a topping you hadn’t thought of.  Cream cheese?  I didn’t even know that was an option!  Right?  Most likely, their pizza’s totally different to yours, and it’s possible that they made an even better one than you did.

The Perfect Pizza paradox explains the first scenario – that the word “perfect” is an illusion, because we all have a completely different perception of perfection.  Barry Schwartz (“this man.”  See above.) explains the second scenario – that no matter how good my pizza is, it might not be as good as it could have been owing simply to the vast number of possibilities available, and therefore I stand a very low chance of being well and truly satisfied with the pizza I’ve chosen.

Which leads me to our present conundrum:  What Chris perceives of as the best case scenario for our future is in all likelihood at least a little different to my own perception thereof.  Furthermore, our perceptions change with time, age, and circumstance.  Finally, no matter what decision we made about our future, by very nature of the fact that we’ve been given so much freedom in this life, we’ll never really be able to sit back and say, “Yes, this is it,” because WHO KNOWS??? Maybe it isn’t!!!

I don’t have all the answers…heck – I don’t have any answers!  But I know that chasing after happiness is a fool’s game and I, for one, am sick of playing.  It’s disappointing.  On a purely chemical level, I – like many of us, I’m sure – go through periodic bouts of deep unhappiness almost (but not entirely) regardless of my circumstances.  Unhappiness and happiness must and do exist in tandem – and sometimes even simultaneously.  Case in point:  ever seen a loved one travel miles away to do something they love?  Happy-sad.  It happens.

But even if I’m intent upon giving up my search for happiness, it doesn’t mean I’m giving up.  I’m still searching for things far from concrete:  a sense of belonging and kinship; a sense of purpose and relevance; delight in – and access to – the things I find beautiful and inspiring; a sense of accomplishment and growth in all aspects of my life.  These things are diverse and tremendously difficult  – if even possible – to “achieve”.  I’m not sure one could say about them, “Yes, this is it,” and I’m certain that they cannot be bottled up in a single word:  HAPPINESS, because they are elusive, and the never-ending journey to them is…well, let the far more eloquent Alan Watts say it:

We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end, and the thing was to get to that end:  success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead.  But we missed the point the whole way along.  It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.

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4 thoughts on “On Happiness

  1. Gloria says:

    Finally, no matter what decision we made about our future, by very nature of the fact that we’ve been given so much freedom in this life, we’ll never really be able to sit back and say, “Yes, this is it,” because WHO KNOWS??? Maybe it isn’t!!!

    Sitting back and saying almost exactly that is what moving from Houston (our home of 42 years) to Sun City in 2009 was for Ben and me. Having had three years of living in that state of happiness is what is getting me through the sadness of losing him.

    • Ann says:

      oh, i can’t even begin to imagine…i can only hope c and i reach a point somewhere near there before one of us goes so the other one will know we got there in the end…the two of you are never far from my thoughts.

  2. As my wise old grandmother used to say, “Life is a journey, not an end. Enjoy the journey.” To which I always add, “And take lots of pictures to share!”

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