On more than one occasion, I’ve heard people say that happiness is a choice. It’s easy to dismiss this phrase as a platitude, to lose it amongst other phrases with a similar resonance like ‘Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right’, ‘Life is what you make it’ etc. But in this post, I’m going to talk a little about what the phrase means to me.
So what is happiness anyway? Better philosophers than I have spent more words than I plan to use in this post trying to figure out a generally applicable answer to this ostensibly simple question. I don’t think I could do the question justice here were I to seriously try and give a comprehensive answer. But I will try and define what I think it is for me. I might start with what I think it’s not.
Happiness for me is not sitting on a beach somewhere sipping margaritas, though this can be fun for a while before it gets boring. Happiness for me is not tied to being in a relationship with a significant other and all the fun stuff that can come along with this, though I have found that being in a relationship, a minimum level of calm and shared understanding between the partners is vital for promoting an environment where happiness can find root. Happiness for me is not having all the problems in my life worked out and organised into neat little boxes thus providing me with the space and time to be happy. Happiness is not what I finally hit once I’ve shovelled all the shit in my life to one side.
The best short definition of what happiness is to me - true happiness, sustainable happiness not this high sugar, low substance, candy-like happiness that many people seem addicted to1 - would be giving back to those people and things that I care about, doing my work in a way that I can finish for the day and truthfully think to myself that I did the best I could. Happiness to me is working on things that interest me in a way that interests me, figuring stuff out and knowing that I stretched myself just a little bit out of my comfort zone.2
Life is filled with trials and tribulations, problems and usually a lesser number of solutions. I don’t believe that anyone living or dead has or had it all figured out. If I need to wait for everything to be perfect in my life before I can consider myself happy, I’ll be waiting a long time, my entire life in fact. Because my life is never going to be perfect, and I can tell you life looks extra far away from perfect if you have the perfectionist disease like I do.
There have been and always will be times when I could not be anything like happy. The death of people close to me being probably the most obvious example that springs to mind. Like they say, I don’t think one ever really gets over death, you just sort of learn to live with it. Either that or you let it consume and utterly destroy you.
So what are you going to do? What’s your choice? Are you going to have the unrealistic expectation that one day, your problems will all magically be sorted out and on that day, that one glorious day and forever more afterwards, you can be happy? Are you going to keep chasing the false, ‘sugar-high’ happiness that our society promotes at every opportunity? Or are you going to make the choice to be happy whenever you can, however you can, doing whatever it is you need or want to do?
I will close with a quote that I first heard in an interview of Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee. The interview was held while Brandon was filming one of my favourite old movies, The Crow. The quote is apparently originally from Paul Bowles’ book The Sheltering Sky:
Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…
Brandon died in an onset fire-arms accident before The Crow was finished and shortly after he gave the interview in which I heard him recite the above quote. He had planned to add the quote to the invitations for his upcoming wedding to his fiancée, Eliza. The passage is now inscribed on his tombstone. I’m not sure if all this is ironic or not, but it sure is sad.
Do you have the time to be unhappy? I don’t think I do.
Examples of which might be that giddy hormonally enhanced love/lust feeling you get when you start seeing a new partner. Or that fleeting excitement you feel when you buy something new and awesome. Not to say that these feelings aren’t great, but they will transform over time if you’re lucky or simply won’t last if you’re not. They’re like a fix of a drug that will leave you wanting for more and are most dangerous when you’re not aware of their true nature. ↩
I will give the caveat that I am in the fortunate position to be able to address issues that could be described as being closer to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than the bottom. For those people in dissimilar life circumstances to me (financially, socially, culturally, racially, etc.), I could entirely understand why their understanding and definition of happiness would likely differ from mine quite substantially. Obviously as did Maslow, I can only speak from my own point of view. ↩