Being “happy”

What do people mean when they say they are happy? Is it a state? A direction? A blissful moment? You are the one who most needs to know.

I finished sending out our Christmas letters before my birthday (today) this year. My practice is to write an email to my friends and family and attach an account of the year with some reference to which Advent season it is this year. [1] Somewhere in the note I give a one-line characterization of the year Bette and I have had. This year, that characterization often included the phrase “healthy and happy.” The reason I put the quotes on “happy” and the reason I am writing this essay are pretty much the same thing.

Every time I wrote it, I experienced a little twinge happy 2because I know a great deal about happiness. I may or may not know that much about being happy myself—that’s really what this essay is about—but I know a lot about “happiness.” I know how it is most often defined by scholars with different research interests. I know that it is thought to be inherited to a considerable degree and otherwise to be achieved. During the last ten or so years that I taught a course in political psychology at Portland State, I used a book by Robert Lane called The Decline in Happiness in Market Democracies. By the time I finished, I had not only read the text of the book many times, but had followed out most of the footnote citations as well. That’s why I know so much about happiness.

Also, I’m a pretty happy guy. To me, saying that doesn’t mean that I’m happy all the time. I categorically reject the notion that happiness is a “state” like, say, marriage, where it would be reasonable to say that either you are or you aren’t. [2]

So, if it isn’t a state, what is a good way to characterize it? I don’t think there is any way to say that “a happy person” doesn’t have moments when he is happy and knows he is happy. You could define it that way without doing a lot of damage: a happy person is a person who has a lot of happy moments. [3]

I would say about myself that I have a lot of happy moments. It is true that I lead a privileged life, but I think my happiness has more to do with being open to appreciation. You can walk out of the house and confront a heartbreakingly blue sky. Or a subtly blue sky. Or a tiny blue patch surrounded by cumulus clouds. You don’t have to be privileged to enjoy that; you just have to be willing.

happy 4I have a lot of happy moments with Bette. I take real pleasure in the jokes that are consummated with a meeting of eyes across the room or the things I count on her to see in a movie that she knows I am going to miss. You can’t manufacture good moments, even in a really good marriage, but you can purposefully arrange situations where good moments just might happen and then you can purposefully celebrate them when they do.

So I like “moments” as a way of looking at “being happy.”

I also like an orientation to happiness as a way of “being happy.” Most of what I mean by the expression “orientation to happiness” is covered by words like resilience or buoyancy [4] but I also want a notion that is broader than that and that has a positive component.

happy 8If that is what you are like—and there are lots of studies of people who have had really awful things happen to them and who, afterward, feel pretty much as satisfied with their lives as they were before—then you feel a lift toward happiness whenever it is not being prevented. There are events that tie a couple of concrete blocks around your ankles and you discover that under the circumstances, you are no longer buoyant. But there are people who are no more buoyant when the concrete blocks are removed than they were before. They are not buoyant. They have learned how to be submerged permanently. Other people start moving toward the surface as soon as the blocks are removed. I am one of those.  Being a Duck (U of O) myself–I am the one at the far left, just swimming out of the picture–I prize buoyancy more than some others.

If there is not something wrong with me I am up around the surface somewhere. And when something was wrong with me and it isn’t there any more—or isn’t wrong any more—I start moving up. It isn’t a decision I make any more than a ship made out of iron and air “decides” to float. And if I am up around the surface, I am inclined to notice the events that make me momentarily happy.

That doesn’t always happen. I had an episode of depression in 2006—still unexplained—where it didn’t happen. For reasons I still don’t understand [5]

happy 7I went into some kind of a sinkhole. I had no energy. I was not interested in anything. I couldn’t sleep at night and couldn’t stay awake in the daytime. It was so unlike the person I had always been, that when I got over it, three or six months down the road (depending on who is counting), I really noticed for the first time “what I am normally like.” Having been so very unlike that while I was depressed turned my normal taken for granted buoyancy into an actual datum. “Oh,” I said, “Look at that! Hm.”

I’ve done three things so far. I have discarded the idea that happiness is meaningfully described as a state, even though I used the word that way in my Christmas letters. I have explored two other kinds of meanings. The first is the “moments of happiness” notion. You are happy, according to this notion, if you have moments of happiness and take the time to notice and appreciate them. The second is the “orientation to happiness” (broader than simply buoyancy) by which standard you move toward happiness whenever there is no reason why you should not. I like both of those.

happy 6There is one further idea I would like to add before the special license I granted to myself for my birthday expires. That is that when I do the work of creating and sustaining the situations in which happiness just might discover me, I am proud of myself. I am more likely to be happy when I approve of what I am doing and how I am living. It isn’t that I feel that I have, in some way, “earned” happiness. It is only that I know I have done the work that has, in the past, established the conditions for my most prized moments of happiness. Doing the work puts me in a mind to receive all the happiness that is available to me on that occasion. [6]

And for me, it’s just a good way to live.

[1] We celebrate Advent using Matthew’s account in odd-numbered years and Luke’s account in even numbered ones.
[2] Or, one I like to use for women, “parity.” Parity is the noun form of an adjective, “parous,” which means “having had children.” Women who have not had children are “nulliparous.”
[3] Unfortunately, that activates the urge to specify just how many happy moments meet the criterion for the state called happiness.
4] That’s really just a choice of metaphors. Do you “bounce back” or do you “float up to the surface?”
[5] My friends will understand how really hard it is for me to have no idea what is going on.
[6] If the adjective “occasional” had not already been kidnapped and made to mean “rare,” I would be able to characterize the happiness I feel on these occasions as “occasional happiness.” I know that doesn’t work any more.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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One Response to Being “happy”

  1. keep a float – nice message

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