Friday, April 5, 2013

Happiness and Perspective

I heard a line from the AMC TV show "Mad Men" quoted the other day on the radio.  The commentators were discussing the topic of materialism and how they feel it has affected our children's generation as a whole.  On the TV show, which is about an advertising agency in NYC, the agency's Creative Director Don Draper is disturbed by his observations of the actions of people whom he feels were motivated by their greed for money and success.  Don starts to reconsider his own definition of happiness and in the process comes up with the line from the episode that was being quoted on the radio:  

"What is happiness? It's a moment before you need more happiness."
That quote got me started thinking about the way so many of us set up happiness to be something that isn't really obtainable - or at least that isn't sustainable.  Maybe that's what makes some people feel like rats running on a wheel, as if they are "caught up in the Rat Race," always chasing after one more thing instead of taking the time to appreciate what is already in their possession or what has already been achieved.  

Something I've learned over the last couple of years is that happiness is a feeling that is often easy to attain in the moment but difficult to maintain over time.  Happy moments can be both big and small; happiness can come when its arrival has been anticipated, or it can come by unexpectedly, as a welcome surprise.  For most people, happiness is transient; it ebbs and flows depending on so many other factors.  The way one feels going into a situation or even at the start of the day does not necessarily determine the way one feels at the end; in the same way that you can start off on a run feeling great and end up limping home, you can wake up happy and end the day feeling miserable.  Happiness is unpredictable and oftentimes completely out of our control, which is exactly what makes it a defective goal.  In many cases, it's nothing more than perspective.  

It also strikes me that happiness isn't something that translates into goodness; a bank robber or even a serial killer can feel happy with what they have done.  A life can be full of happy moments but be lacking in meaning and impact, yet another reason that in my opinion happiness isn't a suitable goal.

Another lesson that I have gotten from life over the past couple of years is that during those times when happiness is in my grasp, when I am fortunate enough to be in the midst of joy, pleasure, or contentment, I need to breathe it in, to savor it and to remember it, because life is nothing if not uncertain, and we need all the reserves we can get.  


Sometimes happiness is really just as simple as making a choice to appreciate and be grateful for what one has, instead of thinking about would have/could have/should have been, instead of worrying, instead of comparing what one has to what someone else has, and instead of wishing for something more or something different.  To me, it seems that happiness comes much more from perspective than from reality.

"Happiness is in the heart, not in the circumstances." ~Anonymous

One of the things that has brought me the most meaning in my life has been motherhood.  It has also brought me considerable happiness, even though not every moment of every day is filled with sunshine and singing.  In the words of an extended family member of mine, "Mothering is the hardest and the best thing that you will ever do."  I'm sure this extends to fathering, too.  Parenting is difficult, but it's an investment, a legacy that will continue far longer than the days we have left on this earth.

When I think back on some of the biggest moments of my life - graduations, weddings, vacations, things like that - so much of what happened then is a blur, and I don't think that the only thing that plays a factor in that is my increasing age and decreasing capacity for remembering things.  I wonder if I was present enough in those moments; I wonder if I took the time during those events to breathe in the happiness and the joy that I was experiencing.  If I did, maybe I should have done even more of that, enough to make more of what I felt in those moments carry over to my memory. If I didn't, I am regretful that I might have been thinking more about things that I perceived as being not just right, or about things that were bothering me or stressing me out in the moment, or about what came before or what was to come afterwards.  In either case, one thing I have learned is that sometimes all I can do is try to learn from the past - and try to do better in the future.

I thought about happiness and memories and perspective a lot during my sister Nancy's labor and delivery a couple of weeks ago.  "Remember this," I said to her several times during those hours before and just after she became a mother: "Remember this; be sure to remember this."  I hope she remembers it all -  and I know I will, because it was nothing short of wondrous.   As the newest member of our family was born, everyone in the room knew what happiness was: it's being together with the people you love, it's the warmth that comes from working together for a common goal, it's the promise of good.

"Remember this."//

As Lao Tzu said, "Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are.  When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you."

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