Thursday, November 21, 2013

Happy Happy Happy

I remember years ago I saw a photograph in a magazine of a couple of children somewhere in Africa. They were playing in the dirt, achingly thin, barely dressed, no shoes. What made the picture was the look of absolute and total happiness on their faces. Their huge grins and sparkling eyes overshadowed everything else in the picture. They were clearly, unmistakably overjoyed to be doing whatever it was they were doing there in the dirt.

I think I was in my mid-twenties, and I remember being snottily condescending and thinking to myself, "Poor things, they don't know how miserable they really are." They don't know that they are oppressed, marginalized, and unaware. For some reason the picture and my accompanying reaction stuck in my head, maybe because it still had something to teach me. It wasn't until years later—years—that it occurred to me that maybe they were just happy. Maybe I was the one that was wrong about what it means to be happy, what conditions must be met before you can be "happy."

I've been thinking quite a bit recently about what it means to be happy. It's a strange concept, and it elicits a wide range of reactions from people. Here are some thoughts from famous people I found on the QuotationsPage website (and be forewarned that I didn't verify any of these, but who said what isn't the point):
Robertson Davies: "Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness."
Gustave Flaubert: "To be stupid, selfish and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost."
Edith Wharton: "There are lots of ways of being miserable, but there's only one way of being comfortable, and that is to stop running round after happiness. If you make up your mind not to be happy there's no reason why you shouldn't have a fairly good time."
Albert Schweitzer: "Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory."
To some people, happiness is trivial, not worth thinking about--as if it's selfish and childish to want to be happy. To others, happiness is not possible since to be happy would be to ignore all the pain, sadness, oppression, and abuse in the world. If you really understand how the world works, according to some, you can't be happy. It would be monstrous.

In my own evangelical upbringing, happiness just wasn't important. I don't think I thought it was necessarily bad to be happy, but there's all that stuff about suffering for your faith. "Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials," says the writer of James. Acts 14.22 says, "It is through persecution that we enter the Kingdom of God." And in the Sermon on the Mount, it is the poor in spirit, the sad, the persecuted who are blessed, not the happy.

But there's no doubt that joy is a part of Christianity. It's #2 on the list of gifts of the Spirit ("Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" Galatians 5.22-23). The prophet Isaiah says: "For you shall go out with joy, be led forth in peace, the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing and the trees of the field shall clap their hands" (55.12) Jesus, speaking in the Gospel of John: "I have told you these things that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made complete."

We could split hairs about the difference between happiness and joy, but I think for my purpose that's beside the point. The point is, how long has it been since I was truly happy? since I felt an upwelling of pure joy? Maybe too long. I've been working on this.

If there's anything in the world that is individual, it must be what makes us happy. But there are a couple of ideas I'm finding useful. One I borrowed from a writing teacher who told us to deal with writer's block by lowering our standards. If you're unhappy with your situation, lower your standards. Sometimes you can. Then of course, sometimes you can't and you have to make changes. But it's worth a try. Sometimes our expectations are outrageously unrealistic.

Another is to not take on other people's burdens. This has been a really hard one for me. It seems mean, shallow, and self-centered not to be miserable when my friend is miserable. But although we can come alongside, listen, offer to help, and empathize, in the long run, it only causes more harm than good to take on burdens that are not our own.

When I first encountered the Dalai Lama's book The Art of Happiness, I found myself mystified. The very first sentence says, "I believe the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness." Honestly, I have to confess that I thought, well, that's kind of a dumb foundation for a religion. Happiness is about self-indulgence, isn't it? about having all your needs met and having everything go your way? Don't we have to carry the burdens of the world on our shoulders? Don't we have to be serious about things? Isn't that a sign that we are mature and aware and not in denial?

Here is the paragraph from the Dalai Lama's book that started to swing me over to his side, which starts out making my argument for me: "But isn't a life based on seeking personal happiness by nature self-centered, even self-indulgent? Not necessarily. In fact, survey after survey has shown that it is unhappy people who tend to be most self-focused and are often socially withdrawn, brooding, and even antagonistic. Happy people, in contrast, are generally found to be more sociable, flexible, and creative and are able to tolerate life's daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people. And, most important, they are found to be more loving and forgiving than unhappy people." (p. 17)

This is to be continued (and yes, we will address the evident misunderstanding that being happy equals being sociable). Probably next week, since, you know-- Food on Friday.

What makes you happy?


  1. Dang you ask a hard question at a time when I am working mightily to be happy. I have joy in the midst of our sorrow over Dad because I know I will see him again. I bought yarn today and that made me happy. The act of photography makes me happy. A good glass of wine. ( which. I already had one of today) makes me happy. A liver wurst sandwich with mayo on sweet pickles makes me happy. That's all I got at the moment.

  2. My children, parents, spouse.
    And sleeping.

    Well, clear weather when I'm on my bike, that also makes me happy.
    Books, too. Reading is a joyous activity.