Happiness is the new black. The topic is showing up everywhere, from NPR interviews to the latest AARP magazine cover story. What makes us happy and why? It’s the question du jour. So how about we get to the bottom of all this happiness talk—and get in on being happier too!
I know, I know. We would-be-enlightened ones aren’t supposed to be so interested in happiness; equanimity is the thing and, on a rare day, as I point out in my book, there’s bliss. There’s also the question of what we mean by happiness anyway. It’s so subjective that even the self-proclaimed happiness experts are unscientifically vague when it comes to defining the word.
Like pornography though, I guess you know happiness when you see it, or, in this case, feel it—yourself. So I stop, I check. Am I “happy” right now? Sort of. I am glad the sun is out and that I can watch the goose couple make its way languidly across the pond from where I sit. Most of all, I notice I’m relieved, if maybe not quite happy, to be writing again, one thing I do that brings me present, my heart and mind engaged in expressing themselves—for my sake and, I hope, for yours.
Does happiness happen whenever we’re fully present and engaged? Are self-expression and service part of the equation? Is that what happiness is? Presence? Engagement? Self-expression? Service? What do you think? I’m not yet sure, but if so, we’d do well to get the skinny on what draws us in and what draws us out, setting the engaged stage for us to smile. Interestingly, most of those qualities I mention don’t show up in happiness studies. That may be because experts didn’t think to ask about qualities of being like presence and engagement (more on that later.)
What we do hear from the experts is that, except for the first $75,000 (for an American family of four), money doesn’t buy happiness. Extra bucks don’t up our happiness ante. Not surprisingly to me, the wealthiest people I know seem unhappy (a “rich” conversation for another time).
If money doesn’t do it, what do happiness studies say does? Good health and marriage are supposed to help. But plenty of singles (especially women) report being very happy, while some people with severe handicaps say they’re happy too. I might add that those of us graced with good health and life partners often take them for granted, until we no longer can. Living somewhere lovely, having upbeat friends and regular attendance at church, temple or mosque also top happiness factor lists, which go on and on.
But observing myself and hundreds of students and clients over decades, I’ve come to the stark conclusion that many if not most of us aren’t nearly as happy as we say and like to think we are—not to mention want to be. Nor do we understand what really brings us joy. Sure, we can tick off a bunch of things we think make us happy (and sometimes do, for a minute or two). Then, like lottery winners everywhere, our good fortune gets old, and we may even blow it.
So here’s the bottom line, kids. From the spiritual perspective I hold dear, those ambitious lists of reasons people give for their happiness (or lack thereof) merely scratch the surface, and may even obfuscate this basic truth: external conditions can only get us so far on the happiness scale, because happiness is an inside job. Nothing outside can make us happy. And as long as we think something can, we’ll be distracted and stuck short of the deep, abiding joy we seek and deserve. Not least, we’ll deprive those around us, and the world at large, of ourselves at our glorious best.
Unless and until we get wildly happy with and within ourselves, from deep inside out, no amount of money, gorgeous surroundings or fabulous friends—not even all-out unconditional love from a marvelous mate—will make us glad enough. I know because I am remarkably blessed with just such things. And still to this day, I don’t enjoy my many blessings nearly as much as I’m sure I can and as I long to do. That’s because only I can make me happy, by being happy, with my own dear self, first and last. And it seems I am not quite there!
That raises the next big question, which I hope to explore next time: What can we do to get so happy with ourselves that we can enjoy the gifts an abundant life bestows on us? I suspect the answer may bring us back to the ideas of presence and engagement. Meanwhile, I urge you to shed some light, with your own observations and questions about the all-important matter of happiness and how you know to spark it.
One thing I know I am happy for is you, here, inspiring me to write. And thank you for spreading the word!