Don’t worry, be happy! As the New Year ushers itself in the resolution lists are already falling to the wayside. One resolution I’ve seen scattered about lists is “be happy”. Two words that make me pause and think about what I’m doing at that moment. Let’s take a moment to peruse the dictionary for a definition of this magical thing.
happy (taken from Merriam-Webster)
hap·pi·er / hap·pi·est
1: favored by luck or fortune
2: notably fitting, effective, or well adapted
3: enjoying or characterized by well-being and contentment; expressing, reflecting, or suggestive of happiness; glad, pleased; having or marked by an atmosphere of good fellowship
4: characterized by a dazed irresponsible state; impulsively or obsessively quick to use or do something; enthusiastic about something to the point of obsession
Happy is a complex word it seems. It spans from being favored by something you can’t control (luck) to being enthusiastic about something. If you ask someone what happiness means to them, chances are they can’t sum it up very easily. The idea of being happy is so heavily ingrained in American thinking that it’s all but ruined us on the whole ideal of it. We are told we must be happy, that it’s the ultimate goal in life. Even people that cope with loss, rejection, and suffering are told to be happy.
We are usually led to believe that “happy” is an ongoing bout of smiles; it’s being charming, optimistic about life, and pleased about everything. It certainly can mean that, as that definitely falls within a few of the specified definitions. We are led to believe happiness should be like the end of any Hans Christian Anderson fairytale and we should live our lives “happily ever after.” Like no one in fairytales had to pay taxes or worry about their jobs, right?
For a very long time my goal in life was to “just be happy.” I was preoccupied with an ongoing arc of happiness where I didn’t meet much adversity in life (school loans magically disappeared!) and I was pleased with everything about my life (I asked for a hamburger but this fish sandwich seems lovely!). This type of happiness is unobtainable and can legitimately make you question your life on a constant basis.
Take those individual definitions of “happy” apart. You don’t need to be the shining image of optimism daily. You don’t need to feel a kinship with everyone around you. You don’t need to be well adapted to everything. Having to tackle all of those at once is overwhelming; separately, however, doing those things makes “happiness” seem doable. You’re probably enthusiastic about something to the point of obsession right this minute. I know I am — I could carry hours upon hours of conversations about Harry Potter, the Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfield, cooking, and a few other things. Depending on the situation, I could be extremely well adapted. And I can take a few hours and totally enjoy what I am doing and who I am with. These are all variations of happy.
Happy is too complex as a whole. It’s too complex as a social construct. But if you take the building blocks of what makes “happiness” apart again and begin building your happy place from the bottom up, then damn right you can make your own happy. Be content, be enthusiastic, love things; that’s what creates the happy. Happiness will always be a complex notion, but how you feel it doesn’t have to be.
I don’t want to mislead, though; sometimes things prevent many of those separate occasions of happy from happening. Whether it is something going on in your life externally or something going on inside yourself, you just can’t make yourself be enthusiastic, or well adapted, or even pleased. This doesn’t mean the scope of your life matters less. It doesn’t mean you’re less of a person because you can’t deal with creating or feeling happy. Chances are you’re concentrating on a long continuing dose of happiness. But don’t feel pressured to create that; no one can keep that type going.
Instead, think of happiness as the Tea Cup ride at Magic Kingdom in Disney World, it doesn’t last long but it’s dizzying and awesome while it does. Feel those little flashes of warmth on your cheeks when someone texts you to see how you are. Feel those brief quick heartbeats when someone you’re walking past in public mentions to their friend your favorite television show. Feel those flutters in your ribcage when someone asks what you like to do? Those are moments of happy, you don’t need to make it more complex. Happy is little bursts of fulfillment; too much of that and you forget why it was so good to begin with.