On the notion of happiness
I have been giving some consideration to the idea of happiness. There are some who might think that happiness is getting whatever you want. People pray for it, they work for it, they wish for it, and sometimes, they get everything they wanted on their Christmas list. But in the end, are they really all that happy to get everything they want?
I know some people who seem to have everything they want, but it is plain to me that they aren’t very happy. I also know that as soon as someone gets what they want, they want more (just ask any two-year old). Are we ever really satisfied?
I believe that true happiness is a skill. We acquire this skill from our parents and the accumulated experiences of life. True happiness derives not from getting everything we want. First, we’d have to be aware of everything that we could possibly want. Then we’d have to have a consciousness big enough to recognize that everything we wanted is there before us, ready for our present enjoyment. And even if we have it all, right there, before our very eyes, how long will it be before we tire of it? Once having it all becomes normal, as in, “I’m used to it”, can we really sustain happiness?
I also believe that happiness is not a river of constant joy, for if that becomes “normal”, then we might need more to achieve that state of joy. I think it’s highly probable that humans can build up a tolerance for happiness, just like pain. That tolerance is probably required for our survival.
True happiness requires effort, even if it lands in our lap. Every experience requires energy we derive from metabolism. Even if we’re just there for the ride, that requires energy. Just ask any two year old after spending two hours in a bouncy house full of inflatable slides and obstacle courses.
“I’m not tired, I just have poor judgment.”
True happiness, that contentment we sometimes see in older people, is a sign of resilience, of knowing that even when we don’t get everything we want, we find contentment in something we already have. That something we already have is usually derived from years of experience. This is discernment. It is the ability to see the difference between things within and without our sphere of influence. Discernment is also the ability to see short or long term utility in a thing, a benefit or a skill.
But what about love?
True happiness doesn’t derive from love in and of itself. When most of us think of love, we bask in the memory of that first kiss, the first date, the high we felt when we were together. That’s endorphins, baby. What happens when being together is normal, now that is where true love begins.
Happiness from love derives from the ability to notice that someone loves you, and having the skills to return that love. Love, by the way, is a skill. We learn that skill from our parents, partners, friends, and other people we happen to meet along the way. There is actually a song, a popular modern day song, that perhaps unwittingly notices that love is a skill, “Bad At Love”, by Halsey.
There was once a famous AA speaker who called himself Bob Earll, I used to listen to his tapes all the time while driving. He says he was once a writer in Hollywood yet, I’m almost certain that name is a pseudonym as I’ve looked far and wide for him in credits but could not find him. He seems anonymous, but he pointed out a very interesting thing about intimacy, “Intimacy is me being me, and letting you see me.”
Intimacy is a foundation for love, and true happiness. But I believe that there is a corollary:
“Love is letting someone else grow to the greatest extent possible while doing no harm.”
That is from me, and I made that up, but to me, it’s true. Is that even possible? I think so. I’ve tried it and I believe that definition to be true. It is difficult to do, to be fair. Many of us have been raised by parents who know more about keeping pets than raising kids. We have been trained to be obedient and not to be who we really are. We have been trained to find happiness in making other people happy.
Even then, when we find true love, we still may find a reason to be unhappy. My butt is too big, I talk too much, I don’t know what she wants for her birthday, I don’t make enough money, I’m losing my hair, my car makes a funny noise, she doesn’t like my furniture, he doesn’t know how to please me, and on and on and on. There seems to be no end to our requests for what would make us truly happy.
True happiness is resilience, and that is a skill
I hold that happiness is that resilience to find something we want in all of life, to hold it dear, and to be content with that, even if just for a moment. We can accumulate those things, but not count them, for counting them only makes them the lesser. Happiness is taking it as it comes. Happiness is knowing that what we want may not even be what we know we want. It might just be a surprise.
Knowing that what we want is coming is half the fun. What about getting something you wanted, but didn’t know you wanted it, until you got it?
From time to time, i counsel a friend in need here or there, usually, someone who didn’t get what they wanted. I say, “Take a piece of paper and write a small ‘o’ in the center. Just a small circle. Okay, now consider for a moment that everything you know is in that little circle. Draw a larger circle around that. Now that is what you know you don’t know. Everything outside of the second circle is what you don’t even know you don’t know. Now consider the possibility that what you really want is out there, in the great unknown.”
Ever wonder why we wrap presents? Because the gift is supposed to be a surprise, right? The gifts we receive in life are the lesser if we know in advance what is coming. If we know what is coming, we begin to create expectations and God knows how much fun we have with expectations. Now imagine knowing the contents of every birthday and Christmas gift that you will ever receive for the rest of your life, in advance. That would take the fun out of the entire experience, right? Half the fun of receiving a gift is the surprise of what is inside.
Life is like that. Knowing all the good things we’re going to get is almost as bad as knowing when and how we’re going to die. And we’re all going to die someday. That’s just how it is. But knowing how to find true happiness until then is probably not even the goal of our existence. Once we have kids we’re obsolete. So there must be something else.
There was a time in my life when I gave a passing thought to suicide. I didn’t have a girlfriend, I had little money and I lived alone. I just wasn’t getting what I wanted. So I talked to a friend about those thoughts. “Suicide is like a slap in the face to everyone you leave behind. It’s a very permanent solution to a temporary problem.” From that day on, I decided to embrace the challenge of living for as long as I could, just to see what would happen next. I still do that. I just want to see what happens next.
In my adventures so far, I’ve found that happiness isn’t getting everything I want. Happiness is knowing what to do when I don’t get it, how to find contentment in what I already have, and letting the pleasant surprises in when they come. All of that is a skill.