Wednesday, November 23, 2011

One big happy

More frequently than you might imagine, I pause and say to myself, "I'm ridiculously happy." Aristotle thought happiness was the ultimate goal of human life, because it is the only goal that is not a means to achieving another goal. And while being happy doesn't mean that you're done with life and need to stop striving, you also don't have to wait for the final moments of life to be happy.

Happiness is sometimes of your own manufacture. We seek it by bettering ourselves with education, so we are better able to appreciate and participate in the wide array of experiences the world has to offer. We hone our skills so that we can take pleasure in doing things well, and so that we can accomplish tasks that are stepping stones to other tasks that will satisfy and enrich us.

But so often happiness comes with the participation of others. We find it in relationships, which have the aura of serendipity -- this spouse, these completely unearned children, these parents. We are allowed access to the benefits of our professions when editors work with us on publications. There is happiness just in the experience of being given something. Those moments are among those that bring my happiness to remembrance.

I think about my own happiness most frequently in two distinct situations. One is when I am around my children in their happy moments -- which are nearly continuous. I remind my daughter how important her happy nature is to the happiness of others. "If you're a happy person, people want to be around you," I tell her. And I try to demonstrate and reinforce in words how pervasive and significant that can be, by being friendly to people who serve us and telling Cady Gray how a smile and the time spent to be appreciative can have a ripple effect as those others pass it on.

The other situation is when I pause in my busiest moments. A walk, a meal, a wait, a drawing of breath. I feel the expanse of my life, the people it encompasses, the ideas and beautiful objects it has generated. Sometimes I compare myself to others who have done more, affected more people, enjoy a greater abundance of the things I like and want, and that comparison is invidious; it makes me think that happiness is not yet. It's around the next career corner, it's in a bigger house, it's in another book or more acclaim or a higher status. But surprisingly, those moments occur far less than the ones where I recognize my own ridiculous happiness. I know I have far more of the good things in life than I have earned. I take a moment to feel content with it all, not as an exercise in positive thinking, but just because the realization of happiness forces itself upon me.

While at the conference these past few days, I've talked to some colleagues who are not where they hoped to be in their lives. They are having trouble in their jobs, or with their families, or with their health. Any of those misfortunes could be mine as well -- might even likely be mine, as I and those I love pass through the stages of our lives, changing along the way. I confess I fear those possibilities, and find it hard to imagine how my colleagues cope with wayward children or terminal illness or a public career setback. The flip side of a pervasive happiness is that it is never the last word.

But how do I know how I will respond when tested? Will I rise to the challenge and find a response that moves me toward that ultimate goal of happiness once again? Have I developed the capacities I recommend to my daughter to rejoice in all things? I am aware that I will not escape life without finding out. And while I don't look forward to the situations that will reveal the answers, I wonder if my happiness is really, in a literal sense, ridiculous or incomplete until they arrive.

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