Friday, March 4, 2022
Every few weeks, Ralph and I spend some time with our friend Nick on a Zoom call. We were doing Zoom calls with him before Zoom calls were cool, because Nick is in Copenhagen and we’re in Tennessee. We used to get to see each other once a year at the podcasting conferences but alas.
In between we Zoom. Sometime about politics. Sometimes about kids. Sometimes about business. Usually with an adult beverage in our hands. Nick is the kind of person you can have any conversation with, really, because he never has a problem getting deep and dirty with a topic. Plus, he has the charm of not being American which makes his perspective so much more fulfilling and entertaining sometimes.
He is one of my favorite people.
But I didn’t come here to tell you about Nick, I just wanted to introduce him and fulfill my promise to write about him tonight.
I did, however, come here to tell you about a topic he inspired.
I call him a Storyteller, because he is. He may not use as many words as I do, but he has a unique way of saying things that often gets to the heart of a thing in one sentence better than I can in a thousand words. One of the topics we collectively reflected on today was how we’re all feeling a little bit older these days, a little more worn around the edges. But where I went on and on about it in a previous post, he said, It’s not so much age that I feel, as the erosion of youth.
I told him I was going to quote him on that, because doesn’t it sound like it’s some profound Hemmingway, or at least something you embroider on a pillow?
During the course of this particular conversation, Ralph asked him, “Are you happy?”
He said, “Define happy.”
You should know that Nick is a very positive person so he didn’t say that with the sarcastic angst that I probably would have. He was asking a legitimate question. And so ensued a little bit of, well, I mean, like, um…
And that got me thinking.
What does it mean to be happy?
And is it a thing someone should really want to be?
I’m less interested in exploring whether I’m “happy” or not and more interested in deciding what it is and why it’s important.
Are you happy?
Do you know what that means?
Is it, in fact, what you really want?
Happiness gets a lot of press. But its cousins not so much. Things like satisfaction, fulfillment, equanimity, serenity. Contentment.
If you look up happiness in a thesaurus (I did) it has words like elation, euphoria, jubilation, delight.
That’s great for a day at the zoo or a birthday party, but it sounds exhausting on a daily basis.
Happiness implies some sort of elevated state of being. You can’t be elevated all the time.
It implies that you’ve achieved some ideal existence.
You can’t be happy all the time. Things are bound to go wrong. Things are bound to happen that disrupt your elated state of being, things that are less than ideal.
Then what are you?
Then you’re unhappy. Then you spend exorbitant amounts of time trying to get back to that ideal state. In the meantime, you miss everything else.
That also sounds exhausting.
It’s something I’ve actually thought about quite a lot, not just today. Because “being happy” is one of those things you’re just supposed to want, and supposed to spend your life trying to achieve, or sink into despair knowing you can’t.
It’s very binary.
Happiness is elusive. And overrated.
No, I’m not interested in being happy, unless it’s my birthday, in which case I’m all for it.
The next time we see Nick, I will feel happy. Elated and delighted.
When I see my family again after three years, I will be happy. Euphoric and jubilant.
But daily? This is what I really want: I want contentment.
I read a lot of Buddhist writings. I am not, by a long shot, Buddhist, nor do I want to be. But I find that so many things resonate with me, and I’m at my “happiest” when I’m able to live by some of its tenets.
Here is how Buddhism defines contentment: freedom from anxiety, wanting, or craving.
Yes, please, I’ll take three.
Wanting to be happy creates a certain amount of anxiety, whether it’s social pressure or cultural pressure or just the internal drive we have for everything good and rich and perfect.
And in the end, it’s the wanting to be happy that causes the unhappiness. If we – if I – could simply be content with what is, instead of wanting and craving what is not, then isn’t that really what being happy is all about?
I would be a lot more boring if I was very good at being content, I mean, what motivation would I have to complain about my day or rant about cookies or even care that they ended up in a sludge pile at the bottom of the oven? Contentment is short on stories.
But it’s a good thing to strive for.
I suppose it sounds like I’m splitting hairs. I’m not. I’m only reflecting on what it means to be happy, and if that means “not trying so hard to be happy and just appreciating, finding satisfaction with, being fulfilled by…” then that’s the kind of happy I want to be.
You always hear about how parents are some of the unhappiest people on earth. They are exhausted, stressed, worried, self-doubting, self-sacrificing. They can’t even pee in peace. And yet you also hear about how they are some of the most fulfilled. So which is better?
I’m not here to tell you which is better. I’m only reflecting on the fact that maybe a narrow definition of what it means to be happy is what keeps us from being it.
There is another principle in Buddhism that speaks to me. It’s about the narrative we create around ourselves. It’s in the question Ralph asked Nick: are you happy?
But Ralph isn’t asking what Nick is. He’s really asking how Nick feels.
And feeling something is a lot different than being it.
I feel angry when Chrome eats my bookmarks and my laptop refuses to start. But I am not anger.
I feel anxious when I’m three minutes late to a phone call. But I am not anxiety.
For someone who has panic attacks that have resulted in more than one trip to the ER, this is a very helpful way of thinking about things. It decouples your self from your emotions, because saying “I am” is about identity and saying “I feel” is about an experience.
If you really want to explore that idea, take it a step further and go from I’m angry to I feel anger to There is anger. It is not me, it does not define me, it is merely a visitor that will come and go again. Like happiness.
I wasn’t planning on getting all profound and philosophical today, but the idea of being happy has been on my mind more than usual lately. I’ve been struggling through things that are making me decidedly unhappy but that doesn’t mean I am.
But really what I’m saying is that I want to be content. I want to be satisfied with how I move through life. I want to be fulfilled by my pursuits. I want to experience the worth of what is in front of me instead of wanting and seeking what isn’t. I want to feel all those synonyms that come with contentment, like peace, pleasure, ease.
None of this is complacency, that angst-y self-pitying assertion that “it is what it is.” You never really say that with any degree of contentment, do you? There are things that I want to be different. Things I’m actively working to make different. Why?
Because I want to be happy. I just want to make sure I know what it looks like when I get there.
Things that make me happy:
Walking on an empty beach, collecting seashells, watching the sea birds.
Coming home from the Farmers Market with a bucket of strawberries.
Reading a really good book.
Knowing my clients value the work I’ve done.
Talking to friends on Zoom.
Seeing someone I love smile.
Spending time with those people.
Being Ralph’s wingman for Destiny.
Having a glass of wine with my mother and talking about recipes.
A cup of tea.
A good whiskey.
Things that made me happy at one time or another:
Being in Olema.
Sleeping over at my grandparents’ house, eating goldfish and staying up late to watch Love Boat and Fantasy Island.
Waking up on Christmas morning to a gigantic stack of presents under the tree and eating cookies for breakfast.
Spending an entire Saturday with a book in my hand and a cat on my lap.
Attempting to teach Ralph how to make a meatloaf. He’s quite adorable in an apron, you know.
Some of those things are repeatable, and some are not. I think happiness is being able to repeat the things you can, accept that sometimes you can’t, and find contentment in the rest.
As usual, this has gone on for many words. But I like the philosophical side of life, even when it’s full of uncertainties and contradictions. And of course, words make me happy.
So are you happy?
Sometimes. About some things. Mostly, I think it’s important to know that while unhappiness is the opposite of being happy, it’s not the only alternative. And sometimes, the alternatives – like being content with a book, even if there is no cat – are just as good.
Photo: a happiness (or is it contentment?) inspiring moment from a walk on Brigantine beach, circa 2018.