Happiness. One very powerful word. Just saying it evokes an emotion – though it might not be happy. In 2006, Will Smith (read: a great actor) starred in the movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness.” It is based on a true story about a homeless salesman – Chris Gardner, his 5-year old son and how through a series of bad circumstances still manages the pursuit. It’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it. The point is we’re all in pursuit of happiness, though it is more evasive for some. The bigger point is that only we as individuals can make ourselves happy. Sometimes, while we’re pursuing – we lose sight that happiness isn’t a destination – it’s the path we pave.
The quest for happiness has been written about in so many songs – it’s hard to keep count. During the Great Depression, “Happy Days Are Here Again” written in 1929 was used as the campaign song for Franklin D. Roosevelt becoming the rallying cry for Americans. While some might remember another snappy little tune, “Get Happy” by Judy Garland in 1950…most of us probably don’t realize she isn’t singing about happiness in this life. Ms. Garland was getting us ready for the journey beyond. “Forget your troubles, come on get happy…the Lord is waiting to take your hand.” At the risk of sounding irreverent, I’d like to spend a little more time being happy here.
While the state of being happy can be elusive – its source is close at hand. Happy resides within us, and for it to exist, we must choose, nurture, and cultivate it. Although this may sound pedestrian, “being happy” is up to us. The pursuit of happiness is not external – it is the journey within us. Unlike the lyric, “But happiness is just an illusion,” from Jimmy Ruffin’s 1966 ballad, our happiness can be very real. My all-time hero, father of Positive Psychology, and favorite psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman has made the examination of human happiness his life’s work.
Dr. Seligman defines three types of happiness: The Pleasant Life where we appreciate companionship, nature, and our physical state. The Good Life discovering our strengths and learning to use them to enhance our life, and the Meaningful Life when we learn to use those strengths in service to others. Dr. Seligman’s work choregraphs our desire for individual happiness and altruism into a beautiful dance. And still, as much as happiness is something we choose, or not – so many of us find it difficult to achieve. Rather than focus inwardly, we begin to look to others and the external to find happiness.
Yet nothing and no one can bring us our happy. It is the prerequisite to happier and happiest. The words, “You made me so very happy,” from Blood, Sweat, and Tears (1967), should actually say, “You made me so much happier,” because that’s what others do for us. They may illuminate that happiness exists, but they can’t make us happy (we own this part). Others make us happier. As a matter of degree, together we can be at our happiest. When we rely on others to make us happy, we thrust a huge responsibility and burden on them that is ultimately impossible to accomplish. No other person should be responsible for our personal happiness. It is unfair to expect another to bring us our happiness and it is not sustainable in a relationship. Ultimately, someone burns out or becomes resentful.
Likewise, most of us understand that “things” can only bring happiness temporarily. We buy and consume massive quantities of food, alcohol, cars, clothes, bling, or amass a fortune – and still may never achieve inner happiness. The recent rash of high profile suicides serve as tragic and stark reminders. If the lack of happiness creates an inner void – it will be filled with something. Perhaps depression, anxiety, or (you fill in the blank).
We look to the external to fill the internal hole. Does happy come from just thinking happy thoughts? No. But it can start there and beats the alternative. Perhaps one of the reasons I really like Bobby McFerrin’s (1988), hit song, “Don’t Worry Be Happy” is because he’s not chanting about a perfect life, or perfect state of being. He’s singing about missed rent payments and not having a place to sleep and still the song makes us smile. George H.W. Bush used it during his campaign. Hmm…are you seeing a pattern?
This is not to say money can’t buy happiness. Most who are struggling financially or in need of essentials would love an opportunity to test out the theory. There is something to be said for the ability to have basic needs met, health care coverage, and knowing there’s a brighter future for our children. Conversely, when we have a lot of possessions that can be lost – we worry about our ability to sustain them. When the treasures we think we own, own us. Without overconsuming, maybe we become more self-reliant and responsible for our inner happiness and less focused on what we can lose. Without the distractions of maintaining things, maybe we can focus more on our relationships and connection to something larger than ourselves. Through gratitude we can find happiness. If we truly took a few moments to inventory our lives, we’d ultimately find something to be grateful for.
I have worked with a fair number of people with depression and anxiety. I detest when they are told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get over it. Sometimes, no boots, straps, or ability to pull exist. Sometimes after a tragic event, conjuring happy is virtually impossible. But in a room full of darkness, even the slightest sliver of light holds promise. And that’s one thought, that brings forth that magical moment of happy can do. It’s what we should hold onto and build upon. It’s finding our place of happiness – whether listening to a song like “Happy” by Pharrell Williams (2013) that puts a little bounce in our step, hearing the sound of children laughing that becomes contagious, or simply smiling. We all know that happy takes a holiday from time to time. But just as sadness can cause a downward spiral, finding our happy gives our life lift and perhaps, greater meaning.