“There is no happiness,” according to one proverb. “There are only moments of happiness.”
Nobody is always happy, and the most you can hope for is happiness in small doses that sustain you over a lifetime. Often it is the memory of happy times that fuels overall enjoyment and contentment. The human mind is empowered with the magic of transforming unhappy times into happy memories by filtering out the bad stuff.
The sad truth, speaking as someone three years into my seventh decade, is that you often don’t realize you are happy at various points in your life, because you are focused on the next little thing that seems important at the time. I may not have been happy during that year in Vietnam when the best part about each passing day there was it brought me closer to coming home. And yet I have memories of my time there that make me happy, especially the friendships and camaraderie I experienced there.
My wife, Mary, and I look back at the early years of our marriage as extremely happy, and we often talk about the friends and good times we had back then. Our first few years as life partners included my final year in the Army, both of us going back to college and then me landing a job at a newspaper with a salary that barely paid our bills as young parents. Mary felt it was important to stay home until both of our kids were in school. We remember the early years in Williamsport as making the most out of next to nothing; our daughter, then an infant, sleeping in a bed next to the coats and jackets of guests as we enjoyed an evening with friends, and summer softball games where the guys took the field while our spouses communed as the kids played together. What was there not to be happy about?
I suppose popping up with two outs in the last inning with the tying run on third could put a damper on the memory, but we get to choose the memories we dwell on.
That’s the problem with happiness. You may not realize it until it is gone. There are those brief, exceptional moments when it occurs to you that it can’t get any better than this. But you cannot hold onto that feeling— only the memory of it. You certainly aren’t happy in mourning the loss of loved ones, but you can find happiness in your memories of them. The most uplifting funerals are those where we celebrate the lives of departed friends and family members and the laughter and tears that comes from the stories and memories shared there.
Moments of happiness are fun, often going unappreciated until the golden glow of memory takes over. Fun is not the same as happiness, but it is pretty close. The birth of a child is not necessarily fun, particularly for the one with the birth canal, but it is almost always among the happier times in your life.
Does it bother you when people seem to be having a good time when you’re struggling to keep your chin up? It’s like going to a party where you don’t seem to fit in. Are these people really having a good time or just trying to impress one another? Unfortunately, when you’re the only one seemingly not having fun, it may fuel resentment.
If the happiness of other people makes you sad, you are not alone. The bleakest times for the depressed are when the rest of the world appears to be happy. Social media makes it worse, because now we read about and see photos of people who are going about their lives as if it’s all one big lark.
It seems to me that the key is enjoying yourself and the company of those who are the most prominent in your life, along with special people we encounter in our passage through it. It comes down to one truth. Happiness is up to us, which makes being unhappy even tougher to take. Unhappiness is our fault, a failure tainted by blaming others, missed opportunities and perceived bad breaks. After all, our Founding Fathers gave us the right to the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence, and if we squander that gift, what good are we? Most of us can’t even define what happiness is. Is it a condition? Is it an emotion or a sensation? Whatever it is, it is the one thing we’re destined to pursue, along with life and liberty, of course. And yet, we all seem to know intrinsically when we’re happy.
The pandemic, which, happily, seems to be coming to an end, has taken companionship and socialization away from us, but the appreciation of getting through this should contribute to our happiness through appreciation of our return to normality. Believe it or not, many of us will shine the golden glow of memory on this past year of sheltering and social distancing and realize it has heightened our gratitude for lessons learned and obstacles overcome.
I am happiest when I truly enjoy the successes and joys of others. That means I am not dwelling on my negatives, comparing them to their positives and fostering disappointment in, even contempt for my own life at the same time. The bottom line is that someone else’s happiness should not make you unhappy.
Gratitude Makes Us Happier with Our Lives
We are all blessed in different ways. A loving marriage, for example, is likely to make you happier than money or career success. Another solid predictor of happiness, according to those who analyze this ephemeral state, is having and maintaining a close relationship with your parents. This does not apply just to younger people whose parents are still alive, but those of us who are now the oldest surviving branch of the family tree. It’s amazing how a poor relationship with parents can wreck your peace of mind— stymying your happiness with guilt and regrets long after they are gone. The guilt of unsuccessfully resolving issues with a parent can haunt you until your dying day. They may be gone but when you think of your parents, transplant the guilt and any lingering resentment with gratitude.
Gratitude begets happiness, psychologists tell us, and happiness is good for your health. That doesn’t mean that laughter is the best medicine, as proclaimed in an old humor column in Reader’s Digest magazine. In fact, some of the most miserable, cranky and depressed people around are comedians who make their living off the laughter of others. Gratitude, being grateful to others, is touted as a happiness elixir. Happiness scientists say that if you show your gratitude to others, you’ll feel happier about yourself if you think about what you should be grateful for. That’s right. Counting your blessings will make you happier. I can buy that.
I suppose the real issue is our concept of happiness. Perhaps we have set the bar too high, based on what we see in others, real or imagined. Perhaps it is because we are locked into consumptive happiness, which Time magazine once defined as “the happiness that comes not from sowing but from reaping, not from building the house but from watching TV in your new living room.” Think about it.
Among other findings about what brings us happiness, according to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, is that time trumps money. That means more time to do what you want with the people with whom you want to do it. But money does have its place— at least enough to pay your bills and live comfortably, if not in luxury. And you can’t take advantage of that precious time with others if you don’t have the financial freedom to allow it. It is difficult to feel content when you are mired in debt. The same can be said for ill health, but how many people have we known with disabilities and degenerative diseases who inspire us with their positivity and sincere gratitude for what they do have?
Happiness is elusive, sometimes explicable, but it is always attainable —if not in the moment at least in memory.