I read an article recently in which an NBC News survey was referenced as reporting that only 14% of Americans described themselves as “very happy.” The writer of the article seemed surprised by this low percentage. Knowing the fragile nature of happiness and the high bar most people set for achieving it, I was not.
Anyone’s state of mind, including their position on the happiness continuum, is little more than an ever-fluctuating moment in time, a mere snapshot. Should that same self-professed “very happy” person be asked to rate their happiness a mere quarter of an hour later, they may give an entirely different response, depending on what did or did not take place or what news they received in the intervening fifteen minutes.
Because happiness is an emotion, I’ve never believed happiness to be an achievable goal, not, at least, as a constant condition. Emotions are by their nature short-lived and impossible to sustain. This is not to suggest, however, that moments of happiness should not be pursued and savored.
In order to prove the transient nature of happiness to my students, I will ask them, “Have you ever been happy?”
They invariably reply, “Yes, of course.”
“Then why didn’t you just stay happy?” I ask.
Dumbfounded expressions typically follow.
I then ask them of a contrasting situation: “Have you ever been insanely angry at someone?” Again, they respond with a yes. “Then, why did you stop being angry?” The answer is that anger, like happiness, is an emotion that too is unsustainable.
Further limiting our ability to maintain happiness is the fact that life gets in the way. We or our significant others often fall short of our expectations and/or hopes for them, leaving us disappointed. In addition, dispiriting events, completely outside of our hoped for outcomes and even our ability to control, occur that impact us profoundly, leaving us saddened, angry, hurt, etc.
So, why do we, Romantics all, continually accept Thomas Jefferson’s challenge to endlessly pursue happiness? Why do we people, even in the bleakest of circumstances, in the throes of desperation, sometimes at the very nadir of our existence, believe that happiness is real and attainable?
My best guess is that a single moment of pure happiness is like a well-struck drive on the first tee or like achieving the perfect rise when following your grandmother’s coffee cake recipe. If you did it once, you can do it again. Those all-too-rare moments of unadulterated happiness truly are the stuff of life. Anyone who accumulates even a handful in the span of a lifetime and transforms those moments into memories can boast of a life well-lived.
In what I think of as the early autumn of my life, I am trying to turn over any of my ever-withering leaves that in the past have tended towards negativity or pessimism. Instead, I intend to aggressively pursue, even manufacture, as many moments of joy as possible – no matter how fleeting – and to choose to be happy – even if I have to fake it.
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