This is why I have problems when people say things like “Happiness is a choice” or otherwise imply (or state outright!) that one can simply decide to be happy. As if happiness is a simple matter of flipping a mental switch.
I had this exchange on Twitter the other day. An acquaintance whom I know to be very smart and energetic and hard-working in the pursuit of the concrete goals which she has set for herself asked this question:
Why is it this hard to be happy?
My answer (and I must grant that maybe she wasn’t even looking for an answer) was this:
In my experience, happiness is like anything else worth having: it requires constant work and can be fleeting.
She thanked me, and that was the end of the exchange.
But there was another exchange earlier that day, this time on Instagram, when someone posted in response to a particular selfie of mine:
I wish to enjoy life the way you do.
That amazed me, because there are many times when I feel as unhappy as anyone else. When I feel like true, enduring happiness is forever beyond my grasp, and that all I can achieve are discrete moments of happiness—a hint of it here, a taste of it there—without ever really being happy.
Other times, I feel just fine—but those moments of melancholy are frequent enough that I recognize them well. But I thought about that comment a lot, about how I look to some outside observers like a person who greatly enjoys life, and some thoughts crystalized.
Here’s the photo that earned that comment:
Just a normal photo of me, decked out in blue denim Dickies overalls and a red henley shirt, standing knee deep in a stream with a tiny waterfall behind me.
Most Sunday mornings I have a ritual: Cane (or Dee-oh-gee 1.0) go out to one of the local nature parks or other such locations for a nice walk or hike, and then a stop at Tim Hortons on the way home for coffee (for me) and a donut (for him). I always take a bunch of photos as we walk. Cane smells things and looks at things and enjoys his change of scenery. One of our most common locations is Chestnut Ridge Park, which is in the hills just south of Orchard Park. It’s one of my favorite locales because of its rugged terrain, its numerous trails, and the several streams that flow through. (I’ll have a longer “Chestnut Ridge appreciation” post at some point.)
So it was a pleasantly warm morning, and Cane and I went wading in one of the streams. As you start getting to midsummer, the water levels can be iffy. Last year this area experienced a significant (for these parts) drought, which led to the streams being mostly dry for much of the summer. It’s been wetter this year, so there’s been a nice amount of water flowing thus far, and as long as I can recall, I’ve loved wading and swimming and generally frolicking in running streams in the forests. There’s a spot in Chestnut Ridge where the stream (which in most places isn’t much more than ankle deep, or maybe midway up my shins) plunges over a waterfall.
I know, not much of a waterfall—the mighty cataract is about eighteen inches, two feet max. But the sound is pleasant and the pool at the bottom is two, maybe two-and-a-half feet deep. And even better, this spot is a place where nobody almost ever goes! In all the time I’ve been going to Chestnut Ridge I’ve seen someone in that spot exactly twice. It’s easy to get to and it’s really close to the main road through the park, and yet it’s not obvious that it’s there, so almost no one treks down there. It’s a quiet little idyllic spot hidden in plain sight, which is one reason I love it.
This particular day was sunny and warm and very pleasant, and the water was pleasingly cool, so I waded into that deeper pool, up to my knees. This was pleasant enough, but there are times when the world whispers an invitation into your ear, and it was impossible to ignore. So I sat down in the water, fully clothed, overalls and all. (I emptied my pockets first.)
Like I said, I’ve always loved running water and streams and especially forest streams, going back to whitewater kayaking I did as a teenager and ever farther. It’s hard-wired into me, so much so that I doubt I’ll ever voluntarily move to a place where there are no such places. A summer hike, to me, implies the existence of a spot somewhere along the hike where I can, if I’m hot and if the water is cool, just jump in for a few minutes.
The trade-off is that I spent the rest of the hike in clothes that were soaked from neck to toe, but that wasn’t unpleasant in the least. In fact, it kept me pretty cool. And because I keep towels in the car, I didn’t even sully the driver’s seat. A good time was had by all.
So I suppose I did appear, in those photos, to be enjoying life particularly well, and I really was. It was a set of wonderful moments. Sitting in the water with my back to that waterfall, feeling it rush around me? That was a connection of a kind I rarely feel. And that was some real happiness, right there.
Thinking about these two exchanges, I have also thought of a passage I wrote in Stardancer several years ago. There’s a beautiful moment that comes for Tariana, and one of her quirks is that she always remembers quotes from poems and books she’s read as things happen to her. It’s how her brain filters her experiences. In this moment, she remembers the words:
A life is a collection of moments. We are shaped by the moments we remember.
Maybe I was having thoughts like these all those years ago when I was writing the book, and maybe I had these thoughts before that. But after thinking through these two exchanges online, I realize: I genuinely do see life as a sequence of moments, and I genuinely do believe that happiness as a large-scale, enduring goal is not the right way to view happiness. All we can do is try to maximize the number of happy moments we enjoy in life.
I do not believe that we can choose to be happy, any more than I can choose to be six foot eight. I can, however, choose to pursue experiences from moment to moment that make me happy. I can choose to take my greyhound out for hikes through beautiful places, and I can choose to eat pizza with sausage and banana peppers on it. I can choose to stop watching the local football team when all it ever does is make me angry, and I can choose to stop in the middle of my hike and dip myself fully-clothed in a pool in a stream.
“It will be as though they dipped themselves in magic waters.”
--Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), Field of Dreams
I want to be careful about this. I am not endorsing the idea that one can choose happiness, because I generally believe this to be nonsense. And I certainly do not want to belittle the travails of those among us whose mental makeup, or outright mental illnesses, make it deeply difficult to make a choice of any kind at all, or those whose choices for similar reasons would be self-destructive or toxic to loved ones. These are serious problems and we need to be working on them.
But I do think that we chase happiness as a “state of mind” in a massive misframing of the problem. Perhaps constructing a happy life is a matter of constructing happy moments. There is no “holistic”, Zen-like approach to baking a cake: you have to sift your flour and measure your ingredients and mix them in the proper order for the proper time and bake it in the proper pan for the proper time at the proper temperature. Likewise, to build a shelf one must first draw up the design, make a cut-list of wood pieces, then do all the cutting, and only then start laying the thing out. Writing a book? Well, I always return to Stephen King’s metaphor of comparing novel-writing to building the Great Wall of China. One brick at a time, one word at a time.
Maybe a happy life is made of one happy moment at a time. Maybe. I don’t pretend to know entirely, and this thought-process is admittedly half-baked and it doesn’t properly account for people whose lives are a struggle just to function, much less think about making happy moments. But again, maybe reframing the question can shed some light on an approach.
Anyway, I’ll continue making one happy moment at a time, maximizing both my moments of happiness and my ability to create new ones. That’s why I believe in having as many goofy, silly little things to do as we can, whether it’s belting out showtunes in the shower or taking care of a couple of goldfish in a bowl or walking a dog every Sunday in a park. Or writing stories and blog posts. Or watching a lot of movies. Or listening to classical music and baseball games on the radio. Or maintaining a collection of certain things. Or, maybe, jumping fully-clothed into a pool of water or letting a friend hit you in the face with a coconut cream pie.