Happiness: Feeling or decision?
“So, how exactly, do you decide to be happy?” My friend looked bemusedly at me as she replied to my statement that I thought happiness was a decision we made.
“LOOK at that tree!” I exclaimed loudly and with vehemence, knowing that my reply to her question required more than a little explanation.
My psychologist husband entered the fray by asking “Lin, when was one of your happiest times in your life?”
Silent for a moment, I thought about his question and reviewed major events in my life; hallmarks of ‘happy’ events asking myself if there were any times I could recall as being especially salient of happy times- graduations, becoming a Catholic, our marriage and then repeated what I’d said to our friend earlier but with different words. Happiness is a state of being achieved through our will, like faith, like love.
But for many, happiness is elusive. For months, years , for some, their entire life. All seven billion- of is it up to eight by now- souls on this planet desire happiness. That’s why there are books, songs, blogs and experts, all who claim possession of the key to happiness.
One of the difficulties about happiness is that it’s definitional.
Happiness is unique to each of us because, by definition, each of is solitary, exclusive, an individual, with widely varying interests, skills, goals and desires: the desire for happiness is however, universal: We each want to be happy. We even wrote it into our Constitution: The ‘unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness,” Jefferson wrote, as if happiness were an object we must chase, hunt, implying perhaps, an elusive goal.
The strong belief I have that happiness is a decision does not preclude any of the varying emotional states that wander in and out of my psyche; rather happiness is a constant, a grounding, an undercurrent on which emotions appear and disappear, like the clouds in the sky. A metaphor I learned decades ago during my Buddhist phase.
One of the Buddhists wrote sage advice about the ‘monkey chatter’ in our brains. The constant noise which precludes peace and happiness: “We can do nothing about any of the emotions and thoughts which wander into our minds. But we do not need to offer them a seat.” I am paraphrasing the quote read many years ago in Tricyle Magazine but not those crucial last nine words worth repeating: We do not need to offer them a seat.
One of the obstacles to achieving a state of happiness is the belief that happiness is a feeling. A confusion which permeates two other decisions which are often confused with feelings for many of us: Love and Faith.
That non sequitur reply to my friend’s question encompasses is the key to happiness taught to me by a man earnestly in pursuit of it. A chase which defined him, causing him to walk away from his ordination as a Catholic priest. And search for his own happiness by teaching young students like me what he was learning about happiness. Action precedes the emotion.
Frequently quoting Santayana’s short poem or warning as it seemed to me back then,
Most people live their lives in the basement of a three story house,
my teacher taught me and invaluable lesson about happiness at a time in my life of great, deep and painful unhappiness and it is this.
If we want to be happy, then act as if you are, take time to… LOOK at that tree!” Develop a sense of the other…Over time, the feeling will come, the knowledge that yes, I am happy… exactly like faith and love.
Although his admonition was metaphorical, there were many times during that phase of my life when nothing was clear and when I had no ground to walk on, no clue as to how I wanted to spend my life, only vague resolutions, that I would pull over to the side of the road and do exactly that. I would LOOK at that tree. And the intensity of the monkey chatter starts to fade. Over time, disappears.