Updated: Jan 19, 2021
A friend of mine recently asked me if am happy. This is something I get asked about a lot, particularly recently. At the time I said: “There are things in my life that I would like to change, but for the most part, yes.” Of course when you hear something often enough you begin to internalize it, and I had started asking myself about a year ago: “Am I happy?” Well, after much reflection I would like to change my recent answer to no, but before you decide I'm a suicidal write-off hear me out. To determine if I am in fact happy or not I think we first need to discuss what happiness is, at least in my opinion. According to Merriam Webster's online dictionary, happiness is “...good fortune; a state of well-being and contentment; joy; a pleasurable or satisfying experience” (www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/happiness). According to some calendars and various motivational posters, happiness is: a warm puppy; a hug; a flower; poetry (well I can't argue with that one), family (a lot of people could argue with that one), or a cold beer. Are you confused about what happiness is yet, because I know I was? On top of all of that, according to my 'the world is made of sunshine and rainbows' mother and her twin sister happiness is a choice and it comes from within.
Let's start there because as much as I love my aunt and mother I actually call a bit of bullshit on both of those statements. I do agree with them to the extent that one of the only things we can truly choose in life is how we react to situations. When you find out you are being cheated on, for example, punching your significant other in the face is not a good reaction, but it's an understandable one. There has been a time in my life when I was cheated on, and I was happy about it, but not right away. I never punched him. First I was depressed, then I was angry and I felt like punching him, but I still didn't because I don't tend to react that way. Maybe I should have, but instead, I used the anger I eventually felt to motivate me to move into my own place and get myself out of a bad relationship. After all of that, I was happy, and I realized that I hadn't truly been happy in a long time. I doubt many people would describe their feelings differently if they were in a similar situation, and if they say that they were immediately happy about being cheated on they are probably lying, and I kind of want to punch them now, but I still won't.
Throughout the four years, I had spent in that relationship, my significant other and I had some intensely happy moments. We had a lot of similar recreational interests, and a decent amount of money, and to this day I think fondly of dressed-up dinners at fancy restaurants during which we ordered enough food for five people, and then we ate leftovers on the couch in sweatpants while cuddling and enjoying a bad movie. I think about road trips with the stereo blasting. We were seat dancing and singing at the top of our lungs, not caring how the passing drivers stared at us. I think about the day he brought home our puppy—my first dog and even though he has now passed, the love of my life to this day. Those intensely happy moments had convinced us we should stay together, but those moments were fewer and farther between the further into the relationship we got, and when the cheating started it was over. In my next relationship, the honeymoon period lasted significantly longer, but in the end, we wanted vastly different things, and unable to find a middle ground between these things the happy moments also became less frequent for us.
To be clear, I'm not telling you these stories in particular because I think that happiness only comes from romantic relationships. I just use them as romantic relationship examples are ones that I expect many people will be able to relate to. In my own experience, I tend to feel happy more often when I'm not dealing with the complications that a romantic relationship brings, but I'd like to believe that I just haven't found the right person. Even if I do, I don't expect that we will be happy all the time either, but I digress, so I'll get back to the point.
Like I said earlier, I believe that we can choose how we react to a situation and that how we choose to react can help us feel more positively about things that happen or that have happened, but I don't believe that is the same as choosing how we feel. As humans, we are given an array of emotions that we experience at various times throughout our life. All of these emotions have helped us to thrive and survive as a species. Historically, if a caveman were confronted by an angry mammoth I doubt that he/she would have had the time to choose an emotion, and if he/she had I doubt very much that they would have chosen happiness and stood there smiling as the mammoth charged ahead and eventually trampled them.
A time came for me in both of the relationships I have discussed here when I felt sad, lonely, mad, anything but happy, no matter how much I wanted to. Thankfully because I wasn't happy my survival instincts kicked in, and like the caveman probably did I got out of there before I got completely trampled. Unlike the caveman, I wasn't in immediate danger, but I needed to save myself, and focusing on being happy where I was hadn't accomplished that. Acknowledging my anger and using it constructively did. In some ways, happiness is a choice, but I think trying to choose it all the time is detrimental to anyone's health.
I believe that happiness is an internal reaction to an external stimulus. Going back to our earlier examples, when I say reaction, I am not talking about punching your cheating ex in the face. That is a reaction, but it is an external one that you have control over and that you will probably regret later. What I'm talking about is the heart-wrenching throat burning feeling that made you think about hitting them in the first place. I hate that feeling. I would never choose to feel that way, and as I grow older and wiser I can make it go away faster, but I haven't learned how not to experience feeling it altogether, and I doubt I ever will.
Now that we've established that emotions are a reaction and not a choice, let's get on to debunking the happiness comes from within crap. If happiness like all emotions is a reaction, then we have to have an action to begin with in order for the reaction to occur. Someone or something has to stimulate the release of happy chemicals in our brain if you want to get scientific about it. Getting back to the calendars and motivational posters, while I don't personally love them either, they do have a bit of a point. What creates the happiness reaction is different for everyone. For some people happiness is a puppy, for others, it's a soccer game. I only saw two memes that said that happiness is being alone. In one the happy person was on a mountain—i.e. being stimulated by nature—and the other was a picture of a person curled up in an armchair reading a book...that someone else wrote. So even when we are alone, happiness like most emotions doesn't seem to come from within. Now I'm sure some of you keyboard Pollyanna's are getting their fingers ready to set me straight in the comments section, but bear with me, I'm not done yet.
As I also said earlier, I have definitely had many happy moments outside of romance. Romping with my dogs in nature always made the happiest. Jerry Spinelli books make me cry, but it's a good kind of crying and I'm always happy that I've read them when I've finished. Concerts make me happy too, even if I'm attending them alone, but none of those things are internal. Modern media would have us all believe that a fast car or the right pair of shoes will make us happy, and it will totally work for a minute until someone makes a better car or pair of shoes that you just have to have. Besides that kind of happiness sounds and looks like a lot more work than it's worth in my opinion. Posts on Facebook would suggest that things like cute animals, food, and fireworks make almost everyone happy, and while this may be true, none of those things come from within. None of them are lasting things either, and that is actually a good thing.
While I am far from rich and glamorous, my career as a poet has lead to me performing at some interesting venues, including music festivals. I get a VIP pass, free food, and three days to hang out with artists and immerse myself in the experience of art. This of course makes me extremely happy, but at the end of three days it also makes me feel extremely exhausted, and I definitely need time to myself to reflect and sleep when it's all over. When I look back at my life I realize that most of my truly happy moments made me feel this way. Graduating from college, seeing one of my poems in print for the first time, watching my parents frolic with all of their friends at their fortieth anniversary party. All of these were great exhausting experiences that I wouldn't trade for the world, but I'd be lying if I said I wanted them to go on forever. So what did I feel when each of those experiences was over? It was the same thing I felt when I was finally settled into my new place after leaving my bad relationship. I felt content.
If emotions are a kind of internal spectrum of reactions, happiness, like sadness or anger, is on a somewhat extreme end of that spectrum. While there is the kind of excitement that comes from being on a roller-coaster that probably supersedes happiness, happiness still represents an emotional high that would be impossible, and potentially dangerous to sustain for long periods of time. When people take ecstasy, for example, they deplete the serotonin levels in their brain by forcing their brain to over produce happy chemicals. It takes time before the brain is able to produce and release happy chemicals again, which can leave the user depressed for some time after using. Perhaps overly prolonged periods of happiness would yield similar results, and that is why our lives are punctuated by a variety of events that produce a variety of emotional reactions. Rather than being happy all the time, or wanting to be happy all the time, I would rather be content; a place that seems to be in the middle of the emotional spectrum. Sometimes people look at me with pity when I try to explain this to them, but I honestly pity them for not understanding what I mean.
After thirty-seven years of ups and downs, I've learned that happiness can be fun, but it doesn't last and it's often overrated. Wikipedia online defines contentment as: “a mental or emotional state of satisfaction, maybe drawn from being at ease in one's situation, body and mind” (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contentment). What's so wrong with that? While I may need to go to a concert or watch a good movie to get my happy on, contentment seems to be a state I can choose to be in most of the time, and it doesn't seem to require an external stimulus. I can't always create an immediate positive action—and thereby create a happy internal reaction—out of each situation that life throws at me. For example, if I get suddenly laid off, it may take some time for me to find a new job, but as long as I focus on being content with the small everyday things I have while I look, I will eventually find one. If I ignore the problem and party like I'm still employed it will get bigger. If I mope and dwell on the job that I lost I probably won't find a new one very quickly, if at all.
A lot of people seem to think we should be constantly happy or constantly chasing happiness. Capitalism in particular wants us to believe that we should always be flexin' like Lil Tay or Britney Spears to achieve this perpetual happiness. I'm sure that they, like everyone, have both had lots of happy moments, but Britney certainly didn't seem that happy when she was going through her bald reclusive phase. Little Tay will also most likely—and sorry not sorry hopefully—peak at some point and experience some kind of crisis that detracts from her apparent happiness. I know that in the four years I spent focused on chasing happiness with my cheating ex I missed out on a lot of things that would have made me quite content had I noticed them.
I still go out to concerts and things like the Prince George Summerfest that has a Taste Pavillion guaranteed to create happy reactions in any foodies tummy. Yet, I also spend a lot of time doing things like yoga. I'm not always happy about getting up earlier to do it or falling out of tree pose over and over because I'm already exhausted when I do hit the mat, but when I'm done I always feel calm and warm inside in all the right places. I often get that same feeling just sitting in my deck chair doing nothing, or lying in bed in the morning in that fuzzy state between awake and dreamland. It's not a feeling that makes me want to jump up and down like I did when I saw Tool live for the first time and they played Aenima—my fave of all their awesome tunes—but that's ok because like cardio happiness is exhausting and I prefer yoga.
So to answer the question for myself and my friend: Am I happy? No. Relationships end, shoes fall out of fashion or apart, and politicians will inevitably piss me off by making decisions that prioritize the economy over ecology. I haven't given up on being happy. If that were the case there would be no point in publishing this blog post, writing, or doing pretty much anything besides working, eating, and sleeping. I just don't feel the need to go out chasing happiness every day. It will come and go as it pleases, and in the meantime, I'm content with myself and my life. In my opinion that is really something to smile about.