One of my friends asked if I would write my thoughts about happiness and joy. I have undertaken that task and have discovered that I need to break these topics into two separate essays; otherwise, I’m afraid I will not explore them to the level that will feel satisfying to me or to you, my reader. Clearly, I am not a philosopher, so these thoughts reflect my sorting out as best I can of these topics. All I can promise is that I will do my best to reflect on how these words relate to my own life. That will be my only objective – to sort out my own truth here.
My friend stated that he believes that joy has nothing to do with possessions -it is a state of being – while happiness is an emotional reaction to an event. I agree with that, I think. Let’s start with happiness…
Happiness, at least in part, appears to be a reaction to an event. I was happy when my children were born; when my mother recovered from a heart attack; when my husband a few days back listened to my words of advice and actually heeded them. Happiness is a great feeling. Most of us prefer to be happy versus sad and do our best to increase our chances of happiness by taking pleasure trips, eating favorite foods, spending time with special people. Americans as a society appear to be in constant pursuit of happiness and try hard to find the magic elixir to keep the good feelings flowing. An extra glass of wine will surely do the trick or maybe that expensive dress will bring on the desired response. Perhaps it’s that right man or woman, who surely will be the perfect soul mate. Or in worse case scenarios, it’s an illegal drug, endless at-risk sexual encounters or ten drinks instead of one that is needed to try to produce that great feeling we so crave. We are told through advertisers on television and on billboards that if we only use their products, then our lives will be filled with happiness. We will be prettier, younger, more hip, sexier. Happiness is presented as a commodity that can be bought and sold. Ah, if only that were true.
It is undeniable that money available for food, shelter, medicine, and other necessities is critical for survival needs. Money is also wonderful for non-survival desires, such as a trip to the movies, or a gift for a friend or a treat for oneself. However, while money is nice in this second category, it is not essential to happiness. How could it be when there is evidence to the contrary among poor people around the globe? These people have figured out other ways to bring happiness into their lives; ways that do not require money for things beyond the necessities. Also, if money bought happiness then all rich people would automatically be happy. We know that is not the case. The truth is that while people may feel more secure when there is extra money around, simply possessing it does not guarantee a happy life.
Not only can happiness not be bought, but there also appears to be a wide range of reactions on the “happiness meter” depending on one’s natural propensities. Research is revealing that mood has a great deal to do with brain chemistry; and that while some people have little trouble feeling happy each day, others struggle terribly. These folks are not trying to be unhappy; they are battling a biochemical imbalance that reduces their brain’s ability to experience happiness. Luckily, medical science is working on pharmacological interventions in this area; unluckily, even with help, there is a subset of people who have not yet found help from these drugs. Clearly, one can only hope more research money can be devoted to this area since this is a sad state of affairs – pun completely intended. Chronic depression is growing among Americans and needs to be seriously addressed by way of research dollars. Our entire society will benefit by helping those who are suffering.
But back to a consideration of happiness in general…
I believe it’s a true statement that people prefer feeling happy to the alternative. However, it must be considered that sometimes circumstances in life are not conducive to happiness. A loved one may have just died; something terrible may have just happened out in the world; a terrifying life circumstance may have just presented itself. In these situations, happiness feels at odds with other feelings that are more appropriate: sadness, disappointment or fear. When I’ve been faced with tough times, I have done what everyone else does in these situations: walked through the fire and hoped that happiness would again present itself when life returned to a semblance of normal. So far, this has been the case; however, I am aware I have not faced the level of pain that would put this theory to a true test. I hope I never do.
Philosophers often talk about happiness as a byproduct of whatever else is happening in life. I have found this to be true. I often go through my day in a neutral mood – simply engaged in the tasks that need to be done – and then feel some measure of happiness as a result of my work. For example, I may feel happy that my house is tidy or my family has enjoyed a meal I’ve prepared or that I’ve expressed what I had hoped to convey in a writing piece I’ve worked on. In those cases, I haven’t actually sought happiness, but rather have experienced it as a result of doing nothing more than going about my life. In contrast, when I’ve actively tried to find happiness, I’ve often felt miserable instead; far too aware that my hopes are not meeting my expectations. Those philosophers may know what they’re talking about regarding this, after all.
How do I achieve happiness? I have no clue what the real formula is to gain a consistent degree of this positive feeling, but I know from my own experience that staying focused in the here and now works better for me than not. I usually zip straight to unhappiness when focusing on negative experiences from the past or else unknowable possibilities in the future. The past can be five minutes ago, by the way, so sometimes it requires real focus to stay in the actual here and now.
Also, I am typically happier when I spend at least some time each day working on a task that has a greater purpose. In my case, this usually involves some form of writing since that is one of my primary ways of connecting with others in the world. Also, helping others is a primary means to happiness for me. I feel better when I take time to help someone else at least part of every day. That person may be my husband, my children, a friend, or a stranger, and the action may be big or small. The key is for me to take the time to offer my help; the good feelings tend to follow. My third surefire means to happiness is to take time weekly to gather with my fellow believers in my faith community and spend time in worship. I am Christian, but I am certain this holds true for those of any faith. Time spent with others with an outward focus on a power greater than oneself helps create love and healing. This for me leads to happiness.
That is pretty much what I know at this moment about happiness. I certainly don’t feel as if I’ve explored every aspect, but I do feel that I’ve learned something from writing this. I think I’ll continue to live my life as consciously as possible and trust that happiness will present itself in unexpected ways as a result. I like the sound of that.
Tomorrow, I’ll tackle joy.