Thursday, February 5, 2009

Happiness

"Happiness comes of the capacity to feel deeply, to enjoy simply, to think freely, to be needed." -- Storm Jameson.

When I read this quote, it struck me as true, but also as incomplete. But I think she may have left out something vital, unless it is implied by one of the others. And I also wondered whether one is truly happy if they only have 3/4 of the list or half of it.

I think that, despite the fact that it can also lead to sorrow, "to feel deeply" does belong on the happiness list. I have known people who shut off their feelings, perhaps in an effort to insulate themselves from pain, perhaps for some unknown other reason. And I always come away from encounters with them feeling as if they are basically very unhappy people, no matter how much they try to convince themselves that they are numb to it. One person even tried to tell me that I only left myself open to being hurt by caring and feeling. To which I replied that that was better than not feeling anything at all. Since I do not exist in the same world as such folks, I cannot imagine the state of their interior landscape. But I can't help but fear that they will be very lonely some day and regret having shut themselves off.

For me, feeling deeply means that I am connected with what is around me: the people, places and events that fill up our world. It also means that I am connected with myself. Yes, it means that I cry at movies or the news, but it also means I laugh and love with no restraint. And I'd much prefer that to numbness.

"To enjoy simply" seems like a given for me, although I don't know that everyone would agree. It occurs to me that if we require elaborate plans to enjoy things, we make it difficult to enjoy much of our lives. Whether the plans require preparation or money, they can be deferred by circumstances and I believe that happiness deferred is happiness lost. How much more enjoyment in life would we have if we noticed the daffodils poking up in spring? Or the smell of smoke coming from chimneys in the dead of winter? Or the taste of fresh bread? Or the stars in the night sky? Or innumerable things just waiting for us to notice them as we go about our day? Of course, this would require us to slow down a bit, so that we don't miss the opportunity. Would that be a bad thing?

I hadn't ever thought about "thinking freely" as a component of happiness, but I think perhaps she is right about this one, too. If one does not think for oneself and adheres to some outside prescription for important matters in one's life, how could one be truly happy? Content, perhaps, but not happy. For me, thinking freely means entertaining ideas that may be in conflict with each other in an effort to determine what I believe to be true. This goes for politics, spirituality and social norms. I don't accept any premise unless I have examined it from all angles. This can be annoying, even provoking, to some. And I know that people have dropped me because they couldn't stand that I didn't fall automatically into line with their position. But I know that I could never be truly happy not examining positions from every angle in order to find my own truth.

"To be needed" seems to be true as well. And a lack in this area not only negates happiness, but also causes serious depression. I think we see it most sharply with mothers whose children have grown and left the nest and with the elderly who can no longer fully participate in things that connected them with others. There comes a feeling of uselessness in the lack of being needed. And we don't seem to find happiness in merely amusing ourselves. Perhaps it is our upbringing or perhaps it is innate in humans, but the need to be needed in some capacity seems to be a requirement for happiness. I have known a couple of people who seemed to muddle through their lives without making an effort to connect and, as a result, they truly were not needed by those around them. In one case, it led to dying all alone and unmourned. We need to be needed, whether it is by our pets, the elderly neighbor next door, our loved ones or to people who benefit from our work. And we seem to need a constant diet of it. Being needed 20 years ago is not the same thing as being needed now, and it does not give on-going happiness now.

The thing I think Ms. Jameson left out of her list for happiness is to love and be loved. She may have implied it in the being needed or feeling deeply, but it wasn't clearly there. And it is absolutely vital. And it may be the case that the most important half of those two is to love, if one is limited to just one. When it is mutual, I believe that there is a dimension of freedom that opens one up to even greater happiness. I have never been in such a situation, but it seems there is a greater space for allowing in such a relationship. What freedom to be allowed to touch and care for another! To share parts of ourselves that we share with no one else. To find peace just knowing that the other one is there. To know that someone would notice and worry if you didn't make it home some evening, and to worry about that someone if they didn't make it home.

Is this list complete? I don't know. I suspect it is the basics that people add to individually. But I wonder what happens to happiness if any of the basics are missing? I think it might be the case that we find a way to be happy with what we have, but the longing for the missing ones will remain. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to go a little beyond the half way mark and relish anything more as a cherished gift. At least, for myself, I hope that is the case.

1 comment:

Knitman said...

i DO know what it is like to shut off so that one doesn't feel pain. I used to think that being numb was being happy. I thought feeling good was feeling nothing. I know different today. yes, I experience deep pain but also joy now. You can't block out pain and still feel happy.
I agree to that without love, life is nothing.