Happiness is…

In a workshop last week, one of the participants gave a presentation on being happy. They spoke of how being grateful for the simple things in life can make us happier, as we’re busy concentrating on all that is well with us rather than focusing on what is not so good. And they had a point. I’m a great fan of gratitude; it’s something I practice daily. But the whole happiness thing got me thinking.

We seem to be preoccupied with being happy, with achieving a permanent state of near bliss. Advertising and marketing companies prey on this need, creating the product, the experience, the feeling that will tip the balance and make us happy. A flash car. An exotic holiday. A diamond ring. Or perhaps health in the form of cholesterol-lowering margarine. Or beauty in the form of shiny hair – just because we’re worth it.

The self-help shelves in bookshops are lined with reams of advice on how to find, catch, snare the all-elusive happiness that we so evidently crave. Pists, gists, and trists build careers on finding out what is preventing us achieving that sought-after state. We work ourselves to the bone to make more money to buy more stuff, stuff that we think will make us happy. We stay awake worrying when we don’t have money because we feel insecure. And we stay awake worrying when we do have money in case we lose it all. But, to borrow a line from Lily in the Wind, a poem by one of my favourite contemporary poets, the great Neil McCarthy, and included in Niall Connolly’s song Not my Monkey, on his album All we have become, which is currently getting a wearing as I drive:

When does money stay awake and worry about you and me?

My mother espouses what she calls the ninth beatitude – Blessed is she who never expects anything, for she shall never be disappointed. For a long time, I linked unhappiness with expectations. But I got over it. When bosses told me in performance reviews that I needed to better manage my expectations in order to become a more satisfied employee, I knew it was time to move on and move out of a system that needed me to portray on-the-clock happiness to succeed. Promotion was linked to positivity rather than productivity. It was too much for me. Trying to seem happy all the time made me miserable.

I read somewhere, perhaps on a card or one of those motivational posters that were so popular in the 1990s, that happiness is knowing how to be content with what you have. All well and good but where should I park my dreams? My ambition? My want for a better world? I struggled with this one for a long time, buying into its essence but being concerned with the ‘settling’ implied. And then today, I got this in my inbox.

I’ve learned…to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am (Philippians 4:12-14)

And I thought yes, that’s it. Whether our One is Allah, Mohammad, Krishna, Jesus, Bhagavan, Shiva, the Universe, or ourselves, happiness comes from a belief in self, a faith in life.

So, after due reflection, lots of reading, and more than half a lifetime lived, I’ve decided that happiness is far too amorphous to be defined. It can’t be labelled or described in definites. It can’t be bottled and sold or earned or awarded. It’s simply what happens when we believe in our one. Whatever that one is.

To paraphrase Albert Camus:

We will never be happy if we continue to search for what happiness consists of. We will never live if we are looking for the meaning of life.


4 replies
  1. Bernard Adams
    Bernard Adams says:

    I don’t know where you found that very free translation of St Paul – it’s so determined to be colloquial that it stretches points all over without quite departing from the original – until the very end. Then the Greek says not “who makes me who I am” but “who empowers me”. Is that quite the same thing?

  2. gingerpaque
    gingerpaque says:

    Reading this, it occurred to me that we may forget that sometimes it’s simply not appropriate to be happy. Life has its ups and downs, and we should react accordingly. Don’t you ever just want to wallow in your misery on a rainy day? Immerse yourself in grief when it’s the proper moment? And then you can be jump-up-and-down happy, when just plain content or everyday happy won’t do.


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