But are we in fact asking the wrong question—instead of how do we stay happy, should we ask how do we survive, stay alive, or even bloom when the world goes dark, when we are, for instance, overwhelmed by illness or heartbreak, loss or pain? Julia Baird, Phosphorescence: A Memoir of Finding Joy When Your World Goes Dark
We Americans are not a happy bunch.
In a recent poll, conducted by the Wall Street Journal and the University of Chicago, only 12% of those surveyed said they were “very happy.” This is the smallest percentage of “very happy” responses ever recorded in this particular survey which has been administered yearly since 1972. The rest of the respondents said they were either “pretty happy” or “not too happy.”
Curious about the shrinking percentage, the Wall Street Journal called those who said they were “very happy” to find out why. According to the replies, the very happy value strong relationships, marriage, community involvement and God. They’re more likely to be older (60+) and female. Their political party had no bearing.
But the detailed profiles of some of the respondents told a slightly different story. Connection mattered, but for one man, a single close friend was enough to sustain him. Staying physically active, whether though working out, playing sports or maintaining a home was key, as was having a purpose. For one woman, it was choosing joy and learning to be happy.
In short, there was no simple or singular answer. Reading the comments of those interviewed only clouded everything further as people introduced other factors as well as the way they interacted with and influenced each other.
I chuckled when I discovered that the Journal‘s survey only included 1,019 people, an infinitesimal percentage of the 332 million people living in the United States. What is it about us humans that we want to uncover the secret to happiness through polling? And how could any contingent of 1,000 people possibly represent us all?
As a young person, I remember hungering for happiness, often feeling as though I must be doing something wrong when it remained stubbornly out of reach. Looking back, so much of my discontent was due to ordinary teenage angst .. a boyfriend who wasn’t that enamored with me or no boyfriend at all, the physics concepts I couldn’t seem to grasp, the English teacher who didn’t like me. I spent a lot of time daydreaming about what was coming next, sure that starting college, graduating, moving to a new apartment would make everything better.
The internet is full of books and articles on how to be happier, many claiming to be “scientifically proven.” Professor Laurie Santos produces a podcast called “The Happiness Lab” and is famous for teaching Yale University’s most popular class ever about how to be happier, called “Psychology and the Good Life.” There are tips and techniques, practices and behaviors everywhere, if only we are willing to master them.
I also wasn’t along in my belief about the possibility of being happy. Subscribing to the idea that when a certain thing does (or doesn’t) happen, then we can (or can’t) be happy. Once I make more money, I’ll be happy. I can’t be happy until I lose 10, 20, 30 pounds. As soon as I get that promotion, I’ll be happy. Now that I’m divorced and alone, the best years of my life are over. Then when the eagerly anticipated event happens or the dreaded occurrence doesn’t, we think we’ve failed if happiness isn’t the outcome. And, in the case of situations we deem impossible to be happy about, we create our own self-fulfilling prophecy because we decide it’s not even an option.
The other way I sabotaged myself was to believe that happiness was a steady state, a constant. A place to get to and set up camp. Once that weight loss or relationship made me happy, I would just remain in my bliss spot indefinitely, as if happiness was a club with an exclusive membership. Once you figured out how to pay your dues or punch your ticket, you were in. But happiness is an emotion and thus ephemeral. We feel it for a short while, and then it’s gone. Like joy, it often comes in crumbs. A few bits here, a few bits there. We can miss it altogether if we’re not paying enough attention.
Death and loss and life itself have taught me to stop striving for happiness. That I can’t catch it and shouldn’t waste time trying. Instead, I’ve learned that it often comes unbidden in quiet moments when I look up from what I’m doing and realize in that moment, I am happy.
Unlike my younger years, it takes so little to induce it now. A text or call from one of my beloved cousins. Breakfast with a dear friend. A great blue heron passing overhead when I take out the garbage. The butterfly bushes near the patio erupting into indigo blooms. An Anna’s hummingbird outside my home office window. Time with Dan and Molly. Commonplace occurrences that matter only when I am alert enough to notice them. These are the moments that make up the mosaic of a rich, beautiful life. The only ones that really matter. The ones that, when life goes dark, allow us to go on and find a way to bloom again.