Monday, October 01, 2007

Do we really want happiness?

I just want to be happy.

Isn't that the modest goal of so many of us? It's okay not to have the mansion, the Ferrari, the 2.4 kids or whatever, a life of happiness will get us through the tough times. Maybe not, according to the study cited in this Washington Post article. The study, published in the October edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that Americans need two happy events to counteract one negative one and thus regain their state of happiness. Apparently, we need more "happy" things to occur before we can really feel them.

What I wonder, though, is if the goal of happiness itself is as modest as we assume. Ask yourself if you are happy at different moments of the day. Would you really say, "Oh yes, right now, in the midst of this editing job, for example, I am happy." It seems to me that the answer a bit more shaded than a bright, sunny "YES!!"

I enjoy my work. It's challenging and fulfilling; it often brings the reward of a pleased client, and always leads to a check with my name on it. This makes me feel contented, fulfilled, pleased. But I probably wouldn't say happy. Would I get happy hearing that I won an important contract? Maybe, but with that happiness comes some trepidation and anxiety: more deadlines to meet, a greater and more sustained effort to produce the same level of work over a long period, worries about falling ill and needing replacements. Perhaps I shouldn't use work as the reference since it is unlikely to produce a purely happy moment, yet that is where I spend most of my time.

Maybe we set our sights too high when we define what is a happy event. Does it have to be something big and memorable? I know I can feel good when small things happen, such as when the librarian offers to order the book I'm looking for. Or when a stranger compliments my daughter and me because we are just so obviously mother and daughter. Those things make me feel good, for sure. But they do not equate with sustained happiness.

If happy is the opposite of sad, then we're talking extremes. I believe it's impossible to live a life on only one side of an extreme (unless there is something wrong, of course, such as depression). From my experience, we spend most of our time in the grey area between the two, sometimes vacillating to one or the other extreme but rarely staying there for a prolonged period. That's what I would call normal.

So what exactly is happiness? Can we really achieve it in life except for in periodic doses? Are we raising our expectations too high to actually meet them? Is the happiness we expect a sustained happiness? These are interesting questions to reflect on. And our answers may just lead us to the kind of life that is possible to live.


At February 24, 2008 8:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thoughtful writing... I think that you have got it! Now you can emerge out of the grey area into the light by following the themes which you suggest. Also, reflecting on others' happiness (perhaps enabled by you, is a great source of happiness for me.) As to your title, I don't know if we really want happiness, but we want to live with meaning. For most of us, that is to live life as a good person.


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