What does it mean to be happy?

The ruins of ancient Rome at sunset.  December, 2015.
 Apologies for the lamest blog title ever.  I suppose the morning coffee hasn't kicked in yet.

What IS happiness? Why are we all chasing it? Google defines 'happy' as "feeling or showing pleasure or contentment." Who wouldn't want that, right?  Now, I know what you might be thinking.  ALL feelings are normal, striving to be happy all the time is both unnatural and impossible.  We have a wide range of emotions available to us.  To try and be only one all of the time would be...extremely stressful.  Yet striving for happiness is a race we all take part in.  How many times have you heard someone talking about their partner and say, "S/he makes me happy." Or explain why they had to leave a job, "I wasn't happy there."

Following one's bliss is important.  It matters.  And everyone's different.  The default seems to be trying to tick boxes and outwardly (externally) look happy in the hopes it will carry through to how we feel on the inside. I had this lesson brought home to me when I was 14 years old.  I was ticking all the boxes - straight A's in school (4.0 GPA), lots of friends, cheerleader, member of the honor society, Kiwanis inspirational award winner, elite choir member, voted Most Likely to Succeed.  And I was absolutely miserable.  Luckily I'm cursed with being ridiculously introspective and I could see that while I loved school and learning, greatly enjoyed (and was good at!) being a cheerleader, and loved to sing in public...doing things with the expectation that external fulfillment would make me happy is a formula for failure.  I am almost 44 now and nothing in the last 30 years has disproved this.

So I started rejecting what society told me I 'should do' to be happy and started to listen to my gut.  Some things have surprised me, some things haven't.  I always suspected being unconventional would suit me (it does).  I never thought having an irregular schedule (coparenting, working from home & volunteering) would suit me (bizarrley, it does).

I was lucky.  I started to realise at 14 that if I wanted to be happy, this must come from the inside and radiate out.  Not the opposite.  But how many people are just realising this in their 40s? Their 50s? Their 60s? That they've done everything they thought should make them happy without ever thinking about whether it was really right for them?   When I meet people who are really bitter and hateful I often wonder if this could be the reason why.  Spending one's life living up to someone else's standards only to realise they haven't made you happy/fulfilled/content must be a bitter pill to swallow.

I also recognise that the ability to spend time thinking about this shit is extremely privileged.  If you're struggling to put a house over your family's heads or food on the table, if you are struggling to survive, you don't have time to think about this stuff.  Which is interesting, as it seems people who are from less affluent backgrounds may lead more meaningful lives that those with a lot of leisure time and lots of 'stuff'.  Meaningful is important.

Also important is the recognition that simply accumulating stuff does not make one happy.   In my 20s I was doing some window shopping when I saw something I really liked and coveted it.  But I realised then and there that appreciating that item wouldn't improve if I bought it and brought it home.  I didn't need to buy it to appreciate it.  And I walked on, quite happy.

I was lucky to attend a very good (private) secondary school with a whole bunch of (mainly) upper middle class kids like myself.  These were some miserable kids.  And I noticed that the kids who were given the most, the ones who received new BMWs and Porsches for their 16th birthdays, were the most miserable (for more on this see: The Culture of Affluence: Psychological Costs of Material Wealth).  We tend to think that having more makes us more happy, and certainly, while this might be the case for someone who struggled to come out of a background of poverty (to finally be able to buy all the things they wished for as a child), it is not necessarily true.  In fact, all the stuff/junk we own can be oppressing.  There is a minimalist movement currently underway in the US precisely because people are waking up to the fact that mindless accumulation does not equal happiness.  Especially with kids.  Kids need their parents (or guardians, primary caregivers, etc), love and security much more than they need a new basket filled with toys.

Acceptance is important on the road to happiness, as well.  If I can't accept life as it really is and make peace with it, then I'm setting myself up for a lot of discontent and struggle.  Perhaps 'contentment' is a better thing to strive for than 'happiness'.  With all the tragedy in the world it is impossible to be happy all the time.  But I know if I actively work to change what I can and positively make a difference...I can be content with that.


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