For all the days that your life is good, fantastic, or stellar, it’s also hard, lonely, frustrating, overwhelming, and busy. You doubt yourself. Fear, anxiety, shame, and worse draw tight your curtains, black out the stars. Perhaps you even carefully craft a happy picture on your surfaces, and only fall to pieces in private puddles of overwhelm. Sometimes, happiness may seem like a beautiful scene you once glimpsed in a blur out a passing car window.
We are led to believe (by the same marketing teams that try to sell us perfect smiles, six pack abs, and unending hot sex) that happiness is a destination. All you have to do is apply the secret to being Amazing and Perfect all the time (available for just six monthly installments!) and you can claim your little swatch of land on Happiness Island. There’s a great deal of pressure, and falsely created feelings of being wrong or broken, for not having arrived to this state of emotional nirvana.
Happiness is not its own country, not a destination you reach where beautiful people feed you fruit and your cares are blown away; it’s not a prize for being good. If anything, happiness is more like a bright shock of blue sky, a sudden window of joy, that appears through dense fog. We don’t always know it’s there until we look upon it. These windows of happiness, I swear to you, are everywhere, anywhere, and not always when you expect them.
You may find such brief but potent happiness in a nose-to-nose underwater game of “hold your breath” with your six year-old; in the warm, white belly of your kitty, purring like a tractor beneath your hand; in an impromptu coffee with a friend you stumble across unexpectedly.
This is where I bow down to the wizards of literature who first opened windows of happiness to me in dark times. Like Harry Potter sucked down into the memories of Dumbledore’s pensieve, I tumbled away from loneliness and anxiety as a child into Meg and Charles Wallace’s strange world in A Wrinkle in Time, found calm pools of relief from schoolyard taunts in Nancy Drew’s determined sleuthing. Or this stanza from a favorite Carl Sandburg poem, “Lesson,” reminding us to find happiness in every day things:
Come clean with a child heart.
Laugh as peaches in the summer wind.
Let rain on a house roof be a song.
Let the writing on your face
be a smell of apple orchards in late June.
And don’t despair if each window of bright joy is tiny; we don’t remember our lives in back-to-back units of time anyway. We edit out the dull bits, hold on, mostly, to the plunging lows and euphoric highs. A study on the way people remember vacations in Time magazine proved that we remember our “peak” experiences—those which have stamped us with the greatest emotional impact—as well as those most recent. Thus, the more of these little windows of happiness, of contentment, you seek—that sun-ripe strawberry on the tongue; that awesomely good paragraph in a book; that belly laughter from a well-done comedy—the more happiness you accumulate, available for recall—happiness in the fractions, not the sum total.
Thinking of happiness in terms of these “windows” doesn’t negate any pain you may be going through. You won’t, and don’t have to, be happy all the time; you only have to look for your next happiness (or savor a last one)—a roadside stand selling cherries; a surprise card in the mail from an old friend; a movie date with your honey on the couch over take-out.
The more you learn to see these windows AS happiness, the less you’ll be subject to the belief that you must undertake an arduous odyssey over long years to arrive at the perfect Happiness, and the less you’ll be defeated and despairing in your pursuit of this mythical country.
Your happiness is here already; you just have to throw open the curtains.
Photo by Karen, from Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.