“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city,” said George Burns.
With the frenzy of Christmas still upon us, many may agree. But then again, many may not! A large, loving, caring, close-knit family may be exactly what they would have liked to have in their own home. But what, exactly, is happiness? Is it the same thing as a feeling of contentment? Is it something you can look for? Or is it something that creeps up on you unawares?
Here are the dictionary definitions:
Happiness: Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.
Pleasure: A feeling of satisfaction or joy; enjoyment.
Contentment: Satisfied state; tranquil happiness.
Joy: A vivid emotion of pleasure; extreme gladness.
I’m not entirely sure that any of the above match my own view of happiness, nor what makes me happy. Can one, indeed, be ‘made happy’? Abraham Lincoln stated that “most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be,” – and to some extent, I would agree. There are certainly those who are determined to be miserable!
Let’s take a look at some of the preconceived ideas about what constitutes happiness in the twenty-first century. Or at least where modern men and women look for it. Sometimes, of course, the very thing that we believe makes us happy, may turn out to be the very thing that makes us unhappy.
Take chocolate, for instance. Most of us, if we’re women, will be able to identify with the cravings we have for the rich, dark confection. Whatever our normal intake, the desire for the melting moment is intensified by hormonal changes in our bodies. And it’s true that there is evidence to suggest that chocolate bars contain a group of alkaloids known as tetrahydro-beta-carbolines which are mood-enhancing.
I love it when I have it – but can go weeks without thinking about it at all. Trouble is, chocolate’s fattening, rots your teeth, is high in fat and is short-lived in its effect. And does satisfying the craving actually induce happiness? I would rate chocolate as a pleasure. And I’d define that pleasure as a fleeting emotion. A moment on the lips; a lifetime on the hips!
“But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?” asked Albert Camus. So could sex be the answer?
Depends. If it’s part of a loving relationship then undoubtedly it must add to your feelings of well-being. But in that case, isn’t it intimacy, rather than the high associated with physical gratification, that gives the enduring sense of bliss? And if so, then if sex is off the menu for one reason or another, then simple stroking and caressing should give you a similar sense of contentment. Shouldn’t it?
Apparently the same mood-enhancing hormones are affected by sex as by chocolate. Speaking of which, I once saw something on TV about a woman who genuinely preferred chocolate to sex. There was nothing prudish about her. Nor did she have any hang-ups; no hidden childhood abuse; no hatred of men. She was born with a low libido so had little interest in sex. But - she adored chocolate!
Having lived through an unhappy marriage, I’m aware that sex, per se, may bring pleasure (as defined above) but lack any of the other emotions. And believe me, there is nothing as distressing and lonely as unrequited love or an empty marriage. As Robert Heinlein has said: “Love is a condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”
MONEY / SHOPPING?
The love of money is the root of all evil, we’re told. It’s also been said that though money can’t buy you happiness, the absence of it can make you miserable. I’ve experienced both states and have to say that I think there’s some truth in that. I’ve also experienced marriage to a businessman – and hated the ruthless pursuit of making money.
I’m aware that I could come across as smug at this point because shopping has very little appeal to me, and I don’t actually have any great desire to own the latest must-have, do a make-over on my house, or jet off to Marrakech. But I’m aware that I’m very privileged (or self-disciplined?) live comfortably within my means and have no debt. Okay! You can slap my wrist if that sounds self-righteous.
Having said all that, I recently went on a shopping expedition with my daughter and twin grandchildren, who were in need of new shoes. And I bought the snazziest walking shoes I’ve ever owned. Almost on a par with the elegant court shoes I bought in Naples many years ago, they have given me great pleasure. Made of the softest red leather, they have dark green leaf motifs stitched to the top. My shoes haven’t made me happy, but I do feel like the bees knees when I make my sojourn down to the shops each day. As Franklin D Roosevelt is credited with having said: “Happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.”
ACHIEVEMENT / CREATIVITY?
Ah! Now you’re getting warm as far as I’m concerned. Whether it’s cleaning out a cupboard or getting the next blog up, achievement can give me a great sense of satisfaction. Oh, blow! Now I’m going to have to define what it is to satisfy (which the dictionary puts as: meet the expectations or desires of; be accepted as adequate; put an end to an appetite or want by supplying what was required). Yes. Well! By that definition I suppose achievement lacks any real sense of lasting pleasure or happiness.
Creativity, on the other hand, must, surely, be one of the major contributors to happiness? When you consider the impoverished state of many of the now famous painters, sculpters, and writers in history, it’s clear that it was their art which fed their drive. And this, perhaps more than anything, puts happiness into perspective. Because art can surely be defined as the pursuit of excellence in communication – which may, of itself, fail to bring either money or recognition.
Much of my own creativity – craft, drawing, painting, and writing - sprang from the deep well of unhappiness that came from my broken marriage. And in this I am not alone.
“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers,” wrote M Scott Peck.
The poet, Coleridge, proves Peck’s point. He produced the most wonderful poetry from the background of a loveless marriage and suicidal tendencies. It’s all rather illusive, isn’t it, this attempt at defining happiness?
NATURE / THE CREATED WORLD
Warmer still! The popularity of nature programmes on TV speaks volumes. And when you look at all the paintings and photography in the world which include a beautiful sunset, it’s clear that this must answer some deep need in human beings. Is it beauty alone? Or is it a sense of otherness? Something, or Someone, beyond ourselves?
I know I feel great joy and happiness welling up in me when I contemplate the wonders of the natural world. I’d rank this high on my list. But I’m aware that in doing so, I might be condemning those who live in squalor and deprivation to a lifetime of unhappiness. And I believe happiness is an inner state; I don’t believe that it is unattainable for those whose outer lives are miserable.
“Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you,” said Nathaniel Hawthorne.
LOVE / FAMILY / FRIENDS
Yes – this comes closest to happiness for me. That feeling that seems to come from nowhere, swells inside you, and makes you fit to burst. I have it from time to time when I look at my husband and know the security of his love for me. It steals up on me when I see my grandchildren, big and small, and contemplate, with sheer amazement, the complexity of life, and growth, and speech, and will, and morality, which exists in each of them. It comes when friends cluster round me to help me through difficult times. And it overwhelms me when I look around and know myself to be part of a community, loved and accepted, by my family; my church; my God.
Perhaps Helen Keller best sums up my thoughts: “Happiness cannot come from without. It must come from within. It is not what we see and touch or that which others do for us which makes us happy; it is that which we think and feel and do, first for the other fellow and then for ourselves.”
With thanks to Jone Johnson Lewis for the quotations.
Causes Mel Menzies Supports
Tearfund: for their project with babies born HIV+ and children orphaned by AIDS.
Care For The Family: for their work in educating adolescents to the...