What does it mean to be happy?

Professor Jonathan Freedman conducted happiness surveys a few years ago. He wanted to know what people believed happiness is and whether or not they believed themselves to be happy. Freedman’s survey indicated that happiness is more in the nature of a quest than a permanent state; but he did come up with some interesting — or at least entertaining — indicators.

Freedman profiled a composite happy person, based on his survey, and I quote,

It’s a forty-year old woman who lives somewhere in Canada and works full time as an entertainer, earning $50,000 a year. Married for the first time, she loves her husband and leads a fairly active sex life, but she sometimes dreams of being Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She is a Unitarian, but is not especially religious and does not believe in ESP. But she is an optimist by nature and she does believe that life has meaning and direction.

So there you have it. According to Dr. Freedman’s research, happiness is love, marriage, a job you like, $50,000 a year — adjusted for inflation — and Unitarianism.

According to Boswell, Dr. Johnson was easier to please. He said happiness proceeds from a good tavern. The philosopher Jean Jacque Rousseau’s sense of happiness also tended toward the Dionysian. He said happiness was a good bank account, a good chef, and good digestion. I’m going to call that “contextual happiness.” Happiness in the moment.

If we’re fortunate — fortunate in not being totally mired in a desperate existence — we can occasionally step out of the dailiness of our lives, like stepping off-stage, out of a frenetic play, slipping next door to a quiet cafe, a smooth glass of wine and a good meal. Sitting back, content. Ahh. This is the life. Happiness. Or maybe the happy context isn’t so tranquil.

Johnson’s happiness was, he said, in a good tavern. The tavern’s a boisterous place, noisy, smoky, gritty: here’s to slipping out and popping ’round the corner, away from the grim determination of accounts, tables, lists, columns, ratios and reason letting your hair down with a stein or two and a good laugh with friends. Ahh. Contentment. This is the life. Happiness.

My happy context is more bucolic. Once a year, in the dreary February of the southeast, I head out to Santa Barbara, California for the annual gathering of the Senior Ministers of Large Unitarian Universalist churches. (Senior Ministers are sufficiently intelligent to not schedule conferences in Passaic, New Jersey in February.) I fly to San Francisco and drive down the coastal route to Santa Barbara. Somewhere south of the Big Sur, where the winding, two-lane road has risen far above the sea, I pull off the road, get out of the car, sit on a rock at cliff’s edge, and watch the waves rolling into coves and curving beaches for as far as I can see. Ahh. Bliss. Contentment. This is the life. Happiness.

In this, and in a thousand joyful personal variations, we experience the feeling of happiness (a feeling which I’ll say at this point is the sense of contentment and come back to that in a moment). In certain situations and contexts — situations we can create, places we can go to — we can experience the feeling of happiness. But is it true happiness?

There are a couple of problems with what I’m calling “contextual happiness.” First of all, it’s “value free.” Feeling relaxed, happy, content by the fire with a good book, a hot drink, the kids asleep and the dog at your feet is contextual happiness — and it’s great. An occasional evening of happiness in the tavern. Sitting by the ocean on a balmy day, breathing the clean air and listening to the waves. Good stuff, all of it.

But contextual happiness — the feeling of happiness related to something we do — is a kind of “high.” And there are some things people do to get a sense of happiness, to get “high,” that become addictive.

Drugs can produce a feeling of “ok-ness,” a euphoria (extreme happiness), a sense of bliss; so can alcohol, sex, and gambling. The sensation of happiness, produced by something we do to get that sensation, has within it the seduction into addiction. Too many trips to the tavern can lead to the loss of our part in the play and, eventually, the tavern is not a fun place anymore, but is a place we have to be, doing what we are driven to do.

To experience the feeling of happiness in particular contexts is not necessarily to be a happy person. If the table in the tavern, the spot by the ocean, the sexual encounter, the wheel at the casino — if these are but escapes from a stultifying existence, respites from ennui, a suspension of despair, then we are not happy people.

Which brings me to the other problem with contextual happiness: it’s fine to slip off-stage for a happy interval — for whatever turns on our happy feeling. But the play’s the thing. Real life — such as it may be for you or me — real life has to be lived in its dailiness. It’s dawn to dark, with the dreams or nightmares in between. Vacations can be fun — relaxing, change-of-pace, happy. But vacations, times off-stage, don’t change anything back home. Real life awaits the grown-up when the tavern closes, the vacation is over, the Christmas tree hauled to recycling and the ornaments packed away.

There is a diagnostic code we used frequently when I was a therapist in Mental Health clinics (insurance companies insist on diagnoses if they’re going to shell out the one-tenth of the cost for psychotherapy they pay). It was a kind of “catch-all.”The designation is “Adjustment Reaction to Adult Life.” There it is. Adult life has to be adjusted to. Adult life makes many people very unhappy. Adjustment Reaction to Adult Life. It meant, very simply in most cases, that this was not a happy person.

I remember the clinics I worked in being particularly busy at this time of year and I remember a lot of “adult reaction” diagnoses. People were not happy, and seeing so much apparent happiness around them — all that singing, all those lights and decorations — deepened their despair in the comparison.

If we are not happy as persons — if we are not happy within — no season of announced and pronounced joy and no contextual interludes of happiness are going to lift us. Again, occasionally having a good time and being happy are not necessarily the same thing.

What’s the difference? Let me come back to that term “contentment.” The good feeling we have in contextual happiness is, essentially, a feeling of contentment. “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” Right here, right now — sitting on this rock watching the waves break — I feel happy. I feel content. Again, however, this may be a temporary state. I may step from this into the depression from which I came. I could also get pretty much the same feeling by popping a couple of pills and never leaving home.

True happiness proceeds from a sense of contentment that is not contextual, not specific, but that is fundamental in one’s life. The truly happy person is the person who is content with her life, who is content with who and what she is. Conversely, one who is not content with one’s life, one who is not content with who and what one is, is not going to be happy as a person — even though he or she may experience the feeling of happiness for periods of time, in certain contexts.

Contentment with who and what one is cannot be earned or bought, nor can it proceed from a pill, a bottle, a pile of money, a new car, or a new partner. “Money cannot buy happiness.” So much a truism because it is so true. Remember King Midas? The king, thinking to be happy beyond his wildest dreams forever — had his wish granted by a magician that everything he touched would turn to gold. And everything he touched did turn to gold. Everything he touched became cold, hard, and lifeless: the twig on the tree. The food he tried to eat. The beloved daughter he tried to hold. Now I’m not so silly or idealistic as to suggest that having money and buying things cannot provide us with happy feelings. That little grey sports car out there is one of the joys of my life. I delight in just climbing into it. It was worth every penny I paid for it for the joy it gives me. But it is not the source of my happiness. If I was not happy as a person, neither that car nor anything else I could buy would make me happy. A woman said to me once, “My new house is just another place for me to cry in.” The great 19th century New England author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, said, “Happiness is a butterfly which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp but, which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon your shoulder.”

We should also be clear that happiness, understood as contentment with who and what we are, does not mean not seeking to achieve, not growing, not moving as a person. Robert Browning wrote that our reach should exceed our grasp, “…else what’s heaven for?” Theologian Henry Nelson Wieman said that we are “made for transformation.” Since we are “made for transformation” he said, it would be a kind of “sin” to bring a halt to our personal and spiritual growth and proudly declare ourselves “finished.”

Paradoxically, it might seem, the quest for personal and spiritual growth does not necessarily produce the contentment from which proceeds true happiness. It’s the other way around. Personal and spiritual growth are built on contentment with who and what we are. It’s a good general rule — both in psychology and spirituality and in just about every other endeavor — that transformation begins with the acceptance, the love, of what is. When I was a young minister, I once complained to an elder in ministry about how stubborn the people of my congregation were, unwilling to follow any suggestion I made. He said, “Son, first love them where they are, then they’ll be more likely to look where you’re pointing.”

That’s the problem with many self-help books and programs: most can’t deliver what they seem to promise — happiness, contentment, achievement — because they attempt to build, not on contentment but on discontent.

Again, this essential contentment — which is expressed in the feeling of happiness — is not “settling for” where we are, nor is it the fantasy of personal perfection. On the contrary, we can only be truly content if we know ourselves honestly and well, and know and fully experience all that calls for acceptance. There’s the second word, the other piece of the understanding of true happiness. True happiness proceeds from contentment, which proceeds from acceptance.

Like contentment, acceptance is not passive. It is not the acceptance of the lie of our unworthiness. It is not the acceptance of any injustice against us. And it is not the acceptance of what might war against body, mind, or spirit. True happiness is the awareness of our contentment, which is grounded in our acceptance: self-acceptance, acceptance of what is — of who we are, of what we are. That acceptance can come only from ourselves. It can come from nowhere else. It can come from nothing else. Which is why money can’t buy happiness. It is why books can’t reveal the secret of it to us. It is why no honor, no step up the ladder leads to it.

I heard this somewhere years ago: “The trouble with me is, wherever I go, I go with me.” Of course, if I don’t like me, I won’t be happy no matter where I go or what I do. If I do like me, I will be happy wherever I go. I’ll be just as happy when I get home as I was in the tavern or by the ocean.

So how do we come by it, this contentment, this Acceptance which is the only true source of happiness? First of all, it is important to understand that happiness cannot be the goal of our seeking. There just isn’t anything out there that can make us happy. The butterfly is hard to catch.

The goal, then, the life-task, what so many religions have understood at their heart, is to come to love ourselves–not fall all over ourselves in blissful self-admiration or in self-deception, but to come to love ourselves in the whole truth of ourselves. Jesus said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” So many Christians, in their puritanical horror of selfishness, forget that essential part: self-love. Love of the neighbor grows from love of the self. Love of the world grows from love of the self. Love is Acceptance.

T. S. Eliot wrote:

“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.” We cannot be happy if we do not love ourselves. Learning to love
oneself is the beginning of happiness. If, as the Psalms say, “The love of God is the beginning of wisdom,” the loving acceptance of self is the beginning of happiness. We see them everywhere, those trying desperately for happiness: pitifully chasing clouds of butterflies, laughing too loud, drinking too much, buying too much, working too hard; hating themselves.

Holiday seasons are tinged with unhappiness. There’s too much expectation of happiness that, for some, just doesn’t get summoned up. It occurs to me that that may be a gift the season gives us. It may seem an odd thought — but think it anyway: consider the possibility that the shadow of unhappiness cast by the unreal expectations of the seasons may be the greatest gift of all because it gives us the opportunity to leave the stage where happiness is pretended, and enter within, quietly revisit ourselves, unwrap all those presents — and parts and bits of past that we may reject, ignore, deny — and begin the exploration of Acceptance.

There, in quiet, in waiting, may the butterfly come to rest upon us.