In the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann, “Desiderata”
I’ve given great thought to the matter of happiness. Not in how to be happy, because as you’ll find in reading this, that’s a concept I find as fleeting as the taste of your favorite meal once it has been finished. Nor, whether or not people deserve to be happy. We in Western civilization assume that it is a God-given and unalienable right to be happy.
But I challenge that assumption because I’m not certain that we have the foggiest notion of what happiness is. In technical terms, it’s the release of chemicals in your brain that gives a pleasure response to pleasing stimulus. So you could rightly say you are feeling happiness when eating chocolate (If chocolate is something that you enjoy) The sound of a favorite piece of music. Warmth when you’ve felt cold, the charms of a physical relationship with your lover.
But if we boil it down to merely a physical response, we invalidate it. We would never say that someone addicted to mind altering drugs is “happy” when they are high, since it is likely profound unhappiness from which they escape by altering their mind with psychotropics or hallucinogenics.
No, it is none of these things that I ponder. I find myself mulling over if any of us are truly happy based on the prominence that we assign it in our life. Because it seems to me that happiness is momentary pause from life that can be dull, grinding, miserable, and sometimes outright horrifying. It doesn’t seem to me that the default position for the human mind is happiness. Which is why we consistently have to seek it.
There are some few that seem to be able to be happy in any given situation, or at least present that outwardly; it seems that nothing fazes them from happy-go-lucky. But that is not the norm. If you took pictures of someone candidly, while they were not engaged in pleasing situations, they would for all intents and purposes appear entirely blank.
Image – Thomas Ruff – Tuscany arts
Devoid of feeling. Lacking the depth of emotion that we employ to communicate happiness, sadness, anger, anguish or love. Little more than a breathing mannequin. And perhaps this is the way it has to be, perhaps we are unable to maintain emotional output at all times, it would burn us out.
If you had of asked my daughter if she was happy, she would have responded that clearly she was not. The depression sapped that away from her. But still she found moments where she laughed, smiled, or was touched by the love of family and friends. Happiness was not the sum of the things that she was given that made her smile. Nor was depression for her the destruction of all things that could do that. But for her, feeling happy fed her depression. In an odd paradox, happiness and pleasure were catalysts to a deepening darkness. A place in herself where she felt no worthiness of happiness, in a world where she perceived the unhappiness of others. A false smile pasted on her face, because the real ones hurt her deeply.
If we are frank with ourselves, we can realize that if we remove the items from our lives that make us happy, we won’t be happy. It’s why we are forever chasing the things that we think will make us happy. It fades easily back to our state of numb indifference. Even the winner of the lottery is happiest at the moment of finding out they won, it’s all downhill from there.
This is not meant to be nothing more than a pessimistic rant. Because can I say that I am happy? Yes. I have a beautiful and loving wife. I have health, good employment. I have a few dear friends that actually care about me, and I would walk over hot coals for them to see them happy. I have good memories of my daughter, I have humour and laughter. But at the same time, I can say am I happy? No. I’ve lost one of two most important people in my life. I struggle with the disease that afflicts my wife. So many things have not turned out as we envisioned. I have days that are humorless and drab, and even with the best of friends, you can only see them so much, only be so much a part of their happiness.
So perhaps we should stop wondering if people are happy or not. Perhaps we should stop confusing dashes of joy with happiness, and realize that happiness isn’t a trait in and of itself. It’s a sum of the things in our life, and we must strive for it. Happiness is the moments we can glean from life, and those we can give to others as possible. Happiness and sadness can co-exist, intertwined.
I leave you with a video, because the words of the poem I quoted makes everything I’ve written in this post meaningless noise by comparison. they both hurt me and compel me at the same time. It is coupled with one of my favorite pieces of melancholy music, and it fits it perfectly.
Strive to be happy. And more importantly, strive to help others be.