Are you as happy as you could be? by Lynn Peters
(First published in Redbook magazine, USA)
I remember the last time I felt really happy. It was on vacation last year in Disney World on the Great Movie Ride. I wanted to cry, it was so wonderful. Actually, that couldn’t have been the last time; it must have been my daughter's birthday when all the family came the house and an aunt and uncle I hadn't seen for years turned up unexpectedly. Except that can't be it either because I was happy last weekend wrapping the kids’ Christmas presents, and when I sat at my kitchen table this morning with the sun streaming in. It's a mysterious thing, happiness, you never know what form it will take or where it will turn up next.
‘Are you happy?’ I asked my brother, Ian, the other day.
‘Yes, No, It depends what you mean,’ he said.
‘Then tell me,’ I said, ‘when was the last time you think you were really happy?’
"April," he said. "1967".
Well, it served me right for putting a serious question to someone who has joked his way through his entire life. But he echoed something I’d been thinking myself. That although we mostly answer yes when asked if we're happy, when we really think about happiness, we think of something extraordinary and pure, a pinnacle of sheer delight --and those pinnacles seem to get rarer the older we get.
For a child, happiness has a magical quality. I remember making hideouts in newly cut hay, playing cops and robbers in the woods, getting a speaking part in the school Christmas play. I was always happy. But when I mentioned my idyllic childhood to my brother he said, "if you were so happy, then how come you were always crying?" I'd forgotten that, but my brother was right. I cried every morning of my first term at school, and when Bambi’s mother died, I was inconsolable.
But whether or not our memories are clouded by nostalgia, there's one aspect of childhood happiness that is undeniably real: it's chock full of peaks of pleasure. Kids may have lows as well as highs, but their delight at winning a race, getting a new bike, or making a friend is unreserved.
Around the time we hit the teenage years, happiness changes. Suddenly it's conditional--on excitement and new experiences like love and sex and on whether that zit will clear up before prom night. The main criteria is popularity. I can still feel the agony of not being invited to a party that almost everyone else was going to. And the ecstasy at another of being plucked from obscurity to dance with a John Travolta lookalike. Teenage happiness may not be as innocent as that of childhood, but it is still pretty much a matter of peaks and troughs.
But then you grow up. And you find that the things that bring real deep-down joy --birth, love, marriage--also bring responsibility and the risk of loss. Love may not last, sex isn't always good, loved ones die. The happiness they bring can be both profound and transitory.
My friend Judy made that discovery at 2 a.m. one bleak morning as she sat by her daughter's bedside. Caitlin, three, had fallen from a swing and been admitted to the hospital with a fractured skull. ‘She had concussion and was vomiting and I thought she was going to die,’ says Judy. ‘I'd never known such despair. I caught myself wondering why we ever imagine children will bring us happiness.’
Of course children do, but like anything we truly value, they also bring the potential for pain. Which why happiness is such a complicated emotion and one that’s so difficult to capture or describe.
My dictionary defines happy as lucky, and fortunate but we all know plenty of people who aren't either but seem happy enough. I think a better definition is that happiness is the capacity for enjoyment. The more we enjoy what we have, the happier we are.
It’s easy, for example, to overlook the pleasure we get from loving and being loved, the company of friends, the freedom to live and work where we please, even good health. If we only took the time to appreciate these things, we might find we’re much happier than we thought.
I added up the little moments of pleasure I experienced yesterday. First, there was that moment of sheer bliss when I shut the door on the last lunchbox and school bag and I had the house to myself. Heaven! Then I spent an uninterrupted morning writing, which I love, and around lunchtime I did my current favourite thing--rode my exercise bike while listening to Eric Clapton (very loud). This was quickly followed by an unexpected glow of virtue when I realised I'd cycled off about 200 calories. Then the kids came home, and I enjoyed all their noise after the quiet of the day and around seven o’clock I looked out the window and saw my husband coming up the path. He looked cheerful and good-humoured, which it strikes me now he always does - but because he always does I don't usually notice.
The kids went to bed, peace descended again, and that's a wonderful time because we're all home, and safe and well, and we can relax and talk. We have a drink then, and with a good movie on TV, there is nothing more I want out of life.
And then there's that other major source of enjoyment in life: sex. Sometimes, just the knowledge my husband wants it can cheer me up ("I look like this and he still wants me? Isn't life wonderful?"). And as for the afterglow, that's almost the essence of happiness. You're warm and comfortable and he's got his arm round you and you can just drift off to sleep.
I asked my friends what makes them happy and they said walking through woods, watching their children playing, seeing the sun shine – the usual suspects. But then we got talking about the seemingly insignificant moments that can alter the mood of an entire day.
Paula said, ‘I hate shopping but there's a particular assistant where I go who always chats and helps me pack my stuff. She really cheers me up.’ Sarah loves the telephone—‘Every time it rings I know someone was thinking about me.’ And Kate gets a buzz from driving. ‘I stopped to let a school bus turn into a side road. The driver grinned and gave me a thumbs up sign. Suddenly we were two allies in a world of mad motorists. It made me smile.’ We all experience moments like that though I don't suppose any of us register them as happiness.
Even so, feeling happier isn't just a matter of enjoying those things; it also has to do with a general attitude toward life. My friend Karen is 45 and recovering from breast cancer and she's probably the happiest person I know. ‘I don't worry about anything now,’ she says. ‘I just think, let's make the most of today.’ And she does.
Psychologists tell us that to be happy we need a blend of enjoyable leisure time and satisfying work, but I doubt that my great-grandmother - who had fourteen children and took in washing - had much of either. Yet she did have a network of close friends and family, and maybe this is what turned her hard life into a happy and fulfilled one. And if my great-grandmother was happy with what she had, perhaps it was because she didn't expect life to be very different.
Whereas we, with so many choices and such pressure to succeed in every area, have turned happiness into one more thing we "gotta have". And we're so self-conscious about our right to it that it's making us miserable. So we chase it, equate it with wealth and success, and don't notice that the people who have those things aren't necessarily emotionally better off than the ones who don't. After all, the rich look as unhappy as the poor when they're coming out of a divorce court, don’t they?
Happiness may be a more complex issue for us than it was for our great-grandparents, but the solution is the same as ever. Happiness isn't about what happens to us--it's about how we perceive what happens to us. It's the knack of finding a positive for every negative, and viewing a setback as a challenge. If we can just stop wishing for what we don't have, and start enjoying what we do, our lives can be richer, more fulfilled--and happier. The time to be happy is now.
‘Many people think happiness is something they can get from life. For instance, they’re looking for happiness in their jobs or in their relationships. But happiness is not external; it’s not what you get from life, it’s what you bring to life. It isn’t a thing, it’s a belief. You can make the conscious choice to be happy at any time, and so basically you are as happy as you make up your mind to be.’ Wayne Dyer, author of Real Magic: Creating Miracles in Everyday Life :
What makes you really happy?
‘Putting my one year old to bed and having him actually go to sleep’. Sally, 27 ‘Reading travel brochures and planning a vacation.’ Joy, 35
‘Friday evenings, knowing the weekend is ahead. We always have a special meal and a bottle of wine.’ Millie, 28
‘Tons of messages on my answering machine.’ Dorrie, 23
Seeing my husband pulling into the drive after work.’ Linda, 35
‘Finding out I was pregnant.’ Emma, 31
‘An unexpected hug from my son.’ Beth, 38
‘When my husband sends me flowers for no reason.’ Jo, 34
Going to bed early with a good book.’ Sandra, 32
‘Sitting on the porch of our new house and thinking, This is ours.’ Tania, 33