Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Are You Happy, Now?

Quite some time ago when I was young and “ballsy”, or young and bolder, I was at a friend’s summer party. There was a pretty big crowd. A bonfire ablaze, folks gathered around a folksy, guitar playing, singer. Ah summer, youth, - Happiness! For what ever reasons, I was talking to a friend about his happiness. It may have started out about my own happiness or the happiness of someone else all together. This doesn’t matter now. It became philosophical- “Are you happy?” turned into “What is happiness?” It quickly became cynical- “Define happiness- “There is no happiness”, “It’s fleeting”, “It’s not sustained”, “It’s a sham.” I pressed on, being younger and ballsy, (or egotistical and insensitive- ah, youth). I strongly believed at that time that happiness was real, it was absolutely a possibly permanent condition to strive for, sustainable and true.

The singing continued- that seemed more of a sham to me. Who knows all of those folk songs? Honestly! It wasn’t the late sixties it was the early nineties. Who still sang “Michael Row the Boat Ashore? Who the hell was Michael anyway? Maybe they were “happy”, maybe I missed the hash brownies. So with the background music and the warm blaze of the fire, we continued our discussion. Slowly others joined in or at least settled themselves within earshot. I was happy. My husband, on the periphery, was smugly smiling. I believe he was thinking- “That’s my girl!, or here she goes, or Oh boy, he’s in for it”. He could detect the devil in my eye. He was happy. I wanted us all to be happy.

I continued. My friend, a colleague, a person I admired was getting agitated. We had the capacity as friends to push each other and we respected this energy in each other. We didn’t have to agree. We liked the friendly “fight” from time to time. We had many discussions about many topics. We worked successfully together on many work projects, made tight deadlines, worked late hours and got to know each other. We had similar work ethics and similar life experiences. We both had ambition and drive. The happiness idea seemed simple. Wasn’t that the goal? We worked hard, what else was that for, but to be happy? Work hard = happy. That’s what I believed and believe still. I suppose that formula isn’t the known modus operandi. Working hard might mean income. It might be a way to avoid other aspects of life, as in the case of workaholics. Working hard might mean an internal drive to prove worth. It may have very little to do with happiness. It had much to do with his unhappiness about happiness.

For me, working hard is part of the model. When something isn’t working, I typically work hard to fix or change or address the problem. Because, I believe, if something is not working it will surely be unpleasant and that hinders my happiness. The something could be abstract or concrete. Conceptual or discrete.

Earlier, I stated that I believed (past tense) that happiness was real and it was a possible permanent condition. I still believe it is real. I believe it is a viable goal. What has changed for me is the condition of happiness and the idea that it is a possibly permanent condition. I now think of it as a bit more conditional. The permanence a bit more fluid and interconnected. Around that bonfire I truly exhorted that happiness was alive and well. It was necessary, and if it was missing from your life, damn it- find it, get it and own it. Happiness is important and available, then and now.

I questioned and provoked. Why get up for work each day if not for some happiness? I still believe this, but life has a way of bumping into you and knocking you around and at some point along the way, I stopped waving the happiness flag and proudly sounding the trumpet of happiness, at least temporarily or in some areas of my life. The evidence of happiness wasn't so apparent. I knew it was happening but I didn’t feel up for the smiles and giggles, or more accurately the work.

As often happens, I remembered or channelled another important friend, also male, for what that’s worth. He posed this to me in my earlier youth: “If you are not happy at least 50% of the time in a relationship, it is time to move on.” At the time, I thought this percentage was pretty grim. Mediocre, in fact. Merely average, fair to middlin‘. Not up for my happy crusade by a long stretch. I’m more about joy and exuberance in my happiness. This seemed more like oxygen tank, headed toward "Do Not Resuscitate" in the happiness campaign.

More recently I couldn't help thinking, “50%? I can live with that, for now”. I started applying the “50% happy” toward various aspects of life, not just relationships. I even push the margins a bit; is the percentage standardized? Do I have wiggle room? What are the standard deviations? Is there a curve for some areas? What is this measured against? 50% today or across a week, a month, a decade? If I was 100% happy about a publication, or a piece of chocolate cake can I average that into the 30% I felt about a payment, sent but late, a comment toward a loved one that was more hurtfully received than snarkily intended? I have been averaging. It helps. I still need to deal with the unpleasant comments and be accountable of course. That’s my model after all, working for happiness.

I am happy, now, again. I feel strongly about my happiness. It’s important to me and worthwhile. Moments, strung together with purpose and happiness, this is success to me. I have also learned it’s personal. Telling someone to relax, or smile doesn’t typically make them feel relaxed or happy. It tends to make them tenser, or causes them to display a forced smile which is usually pretty scary, not so happy. Asking someone if they’re happy and not allowing for their answer doesn’t buy them a ticket on my happy train or promise that they would be interested in the excursion.

Oddly enough, and perhaps fortunately for some, several of those that gathered around the bonfire for my happy conversation ended up leaving marriages, altering lifestyles, and changing careers. I would like to believe they were somehow inspired and seeking the happiness they had been denying themselves. Maybe I was onto something. I can hope, but I think it best to express my happiness without exhorting it onto others. I find happiness to be a desire and a need, a worthwhile pursuit and a venerable state of being. I hope there are others who feel likewise. I can respectfully understand happiness isn't for everyone. Well, maybe not, but I can be respectful.

If you’re happy and you know it, shout hooray! Smile. Hug a tree. Celebrate it any way you like, pass it along. Happiness shared is compelling. Happiness achieved, a dream worth having.

"I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I'm going to be happy in it." Groucho Marx

I like this philosophy and Groucho certainly had a knack for making others smile.

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