January 2017

Happiness is…

Author:  Linda S. Hopkins

While I consider myself a generally happy person, it never occurred to me to wonder why until one of my Facebook buddies posted this challenge: Name 50 things that make you happy and why. Opening a fresh document on my computer, I spent a good five minutes, fingers hovering over my keyboard, staring at a blank page.

When you think about it, happiness is hard to define. Like an orgasm, you know it when you feel it; but unlike an orgasm, you may have no clue what brought it on. And so I began the task of distilling my happiness into a neat, tidy, numbered list.

Like beginning a gratitude journal, the first items that came to mind were straight from the bottom rung of Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs. High on my list was food and drink—namely sushi, chardonnay, cookies, and coconut cream pie, in no special order.

Right up there on the level of food was home. But not just shelter. My house is part of it, but far beyond a roof over my head is the sense of stability, security and belonging. Hilton Head Island is, quite literally, my happy place. I have lived here more than 30 years, and I’m never as happy anywhere else.

Next, I thought about people who contribute to my happiness: my husband, my closest friends and my cat (yes, she counts as a person). This simply confirms the universal desire for love, affection and connectedness. Nothing too surprising or profound here yet.

Most people would agree that happiness is at least partly dependent on physical well-being. After four foot surgeries, I can attest to the fact that pain and disability distort my version of “The Happy Song.” Nevertheless, I sure have a lot of moving parts that still work. For the sake of my list, instead of naming all of my currently functioning organs and appendages (excluding feet), I lumped them together into the general category of health.

One of my professional associates suggested that work makes her happy. Work makes me happy, too. More important than the paycheck (which is pretty darned important) is to contribute, to feel useful, needed, a part of a team. Alongside work comes the satisfaction of routine, order and accomplishment that spills over into all aspects of my day-to-day life—rituals and habits that bring a sense of self-satisfaction.

“They” say things can’t make us happy. But some things do make me happy, so I put earrings on the list. (Shallow, I know, but honest.)

In a similar vein, “they” claim that happiness, like love, can’t be bought. But wait…money buys the food, pays the mortgage and provides material things and conveniences as well as experiences that add to my comfort, security and enjoyment of life.

Certain activities make me happy: reading, taking a bath, singing, riding my bicycle, walking on the beach and even my gym workouts—especially my gym workouts—not to mention getting a pedicure or having my head massaged, both of which rank right up there with power naps and sex.

And so I continued merrily on with my trite little list until I went out to run a few errands.
A defining moment

Driving along 278 on a clear spring day, feeling the warmth of the sun radiating from the windshield while singing my best out-of-tune version of an old Joni Mitchell tune, I realized I was feeling pretty happy—about 11 on a scale of 10, or in the words of Pharrell Williams, “like a room without a roof.” But why?

And then came the epiphany, right out of the blue, slowly at first, like the pollen-coated Dodge mini-van drifting into my lane with no signal. And then POW, it hit me—not the mini-van, but the answer. While my joy in any singular moment may be enhanced by my surroundings, the music playing on the radio, the weather, the traffic, the food I’m eating, the people around me, a new ear bauble, an interesting work project or some pleasurable activity, my overall happiness is not predicated on any of the above.

When I arrived home, I immediately backspaced through my entire list. Don’t get me wrong. The exercise was worthwhile, because it inspired me to dive below the surface and find my own truth underneath all the frivolous rhetoric about what I thought made me happy.

Here’s what I concluded: While it is my unalienable right to pursue happiness, it is not necessarily something to be chased after or found. Happiness, I surmised, is like a jigsaw puzzle—an ongoing work of art—taking place somewhere deep within. How I frame my daily experiences is what ultimately adds up to a happy life.
Happiness boils down to a perpetual decision to make the most of every situation—to be present to my opportunities and mindful of my blessings, great and small, while dodging the bullets that threaten to kill my joy. I realize that happiness occurs naturally when I adapt my thoughts, adjust my expectations and open my eyes.

Turns out that happiness is not something that can be named or listed. It is a cross between wild fits of amazement and quiet moments of contentment, inexplicably present in the midst of life’s finest hours and fiercest storms.

As a result of this new understanding, I have decided that happiness, whatever the source, comes with a responsibility to share. The quickest way I know of to increase my own is to contribute to someone else’s. Now, if I could just put my finger on exactly what makes you happy…. 

Is happiness really a choice?
Research in the field of positive psychology has shown that happiness is a choice anyone can make. As philosopher and psychologist William James said, “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude.”

In his Ted Talk, “The Surprising Science of Happiness,” Dan Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, suggests that we are notoriously poor predictors of what will make us happy (e.g. winning the lottery, achieving the goal, getting the girl). He goes on to cite studies which show that our “psychological immune system” allows us to feel happy even when things don’t go as planned.

Gilbert also purports that we have within us the capacity to synthesize happiness. In other words, we can make our own, or as my friend Audre Allison likes to say, “You have to generate your own joy.”

Of course, no one’s life is anything close to the sum total of what is posted on Facebook. Sometimes circumstances beyond immediate control can blur our vision and cause us to temporarily lose sight of happiness. That’s when we have to feel our way in the dark, hold on to the tiny spark within and believe that it will appear again on the other side.

Happiness looks and feels different for each of us, and there is no one way or right way to be happy. Go ahead and make a list of 50 things you think make you happy and why. Then forget about it and make up your mind, because you get to decide: How happy will you be today?

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