Monday, August 3, 2009


Happiness has recently been a topic of discussion for me and my friends. Click here to read an article that one friend sent me. It's a relate-able view of happiness, and one that I thoroughly disagree with, yet it may give the post to follow a little more context.

I've heard, and do agree, that happiness can be summed up in one word: gratitude. There are people for whom happiness is a constant state of being. It's not temporal or conditional. A requisite for such a perspective is to be thankful for what one has. Of course, there are happy moments and unhappy moments--everyone has those. But it's how we view those "neutral" moments that really define whether we are happy individuals.

Sure, looking back at moments and recalling them as happy ones is nice, but how much better might they have been if we were able to appreciate them at the time? If we were able to stop complaining or moping enough to enjoy the scene and our company? I imagine the people around us would be happier for such a shift. For me, that's an element of happiness: spreading it to the people around me.

I have been so blessed with a life of good fortune. There are children all over the world who grow up in abject poverty and face some of the deepest atrocities of humanity. For the vast majority, the human experience is one of struggle, hardship and poverty. I've known nothing but love and comfort. Why was I so lucky? What did I do to deserve where I was born? The answer is: nothing. Therefore, I feel obligated to make sure that my good fortune was not given to me in vain and that I pass on the gifts and love I've been given to others.

Somehow, despite the lives they were born into, those "poor" children often smile more than those of us born in comfort and safety. It all comes back to gratitude. Do we realize how lucky we are to have food in front of us? Homes over our heads? No fear of bodily harm when we walk out our doors? Are we properly thankful for the family who cares for us? The friends who listen? We are so used to having these, we often forget how precious they are and how fortunate we are to have them. The less we forget... the more we appreciate... inevitably, the happier we'll be.

It doesn't need to be some complex or radical change of thought or the flipping of some magical switch. (And I assure you it is not found in weight loss or plastic surgery.) It need only be a reinforced sense of gratitude for the lives we live.

This is why happiness is not limited to moments fondly remembered, it can be a lifestyle choice.

Giving thanks before meals, before getting up in the morning, after another beautiful sunset... these are typically associated with religious rituals--which is perhaps why so many of us now reject them--yet they are simple and effective ways to systematically imbue each day with meaning and joy. My hope is that instead of happiness being something most of us only recognize in hindsight, it is something we feel in the present and are sure of as we look into the future.


  1. Yay I'm commenting on a blog!

    Your take on "happiness" seems to be completely different from the author's. His is more in line with the anti-self-consciousness arguments of the Romantics (you are happy when you are not thinking about being happy, but when you are absorbed in the moment). Your definition relies on a willed and conscious attention to the presence. I think this is why happiness for him can only be in "hindsight," while you are advocating for a kind of alertness. He tends to treat happiness as an affect (experiential emotion), not meditation.

    I'm not so sure I agree with you, however, on the issue of gratitude. You say that happiness can be summed up simply by the word gratitude. But why can't gratitude be gratitude? In other words,is gratitude not sometingh on its own? If happiness is gratitude, is gratitude conversely happiness (and not simply gratitude)? Also, isn't this definition of happiness a bit too narrow? I can think of many times I am happy and not feeling gracious.

    I'm also not sure if one needs to think of others less fortunate than them in order to evoke gratitude, hence happiness. I mean, if we rely on using (in all senses of the word) the otherness of the other, aka their poverty, plight, etc. in order to shore up our happiness, I think this could lead to a problem. I was just watching a show on really obese people on Oprah. I should have been doing work, but that's another story. Anyway, I'm glad I'm not mortally obese, gracious even. Should I recall the lives of the less fortunate in order to shore up my happiness? I should of course be grateful for what I have, or not have in the case of being mortally obese, but graciousness tends to stand on its own for me.

  2. I agree that total absorption in a moment is a form of happiness, but it's only for that moment. What I am trying to capture is a lasting happiness that persists even during the "neutral" times that wouldn't be emotionally classified one way or the other.

    I also agree that gratitude and happiness are their own unique concepts. And I think that the former can lead to the latter. Not to suggest that life would then be impermeable to unhappiness; again, it goes back to how we define the neutral moments.

    Lastly, I fully agree with your assessment that looking at others' misery should not be where we find our happiness. A terribly morbid concept. I merely point out that if people who live much harder lives (in the true "human survival" sense of of the word) manage to be happy, what's my excuse? My gratitude isn't based on the contrast, but rather I use the disparity as a useful reminder of what I'm taking for granted.

    I remember once after a high school assembly about respecting disabled people, a person in a wheelchair asked the audience to be thankful for their ability to walk. At the time, my friend turned to me and asked, "how do I do that? Am I supposed to be grateful everyday that I can walk and see and hear?" At the time, the prospect seemed daunting, even depressing and I didn't know what to say. Today, the effort seems worthy, uplifting, and I say: yes. Our blessings are not rights or guarantees. Life and its treasures are fragile. Sometimes, we need the reminders that the "others" can provide to be sure we don't forget to be thankful.

  3. As much as I despise your view of happiness, simply for being cliche and a repetitive theme conveyed in movies, I have to respect it as it paints a serene future. In my mind, I tend to think of it in a broader sense, simplifying it as placing meaning and value into the life around you. Your friends, your family, your job, your environment... anything that you perceive or interact with.

    The implementation of it isn't so straight forward. How does one who has known how to walk their whole life, turn around and be grateful for it? I suppose in your example, the sight of a disabled person or information provided was enough to invoke sympathy in some. However, it's not the case with everyone. As you know, many people realize gratefulness only after losing something. In these scenarios, how can you achieve gratitude? How do you place value or meaning into it? If you do, it seems highly arbitrary and thus loses meaning to me. You could simply assign something for a means to an end, happiness.
    Plus the idea of me being grateful for everything around me... waking up to the thought that the sunrise is always beautiful... that i'm thankful for having a roof over my head... that everyday is a breath of fresh air... well it gets old. I feel if that were the case, that I would have no ambition to do anything else but the regular. Which I suppose is happiness but isn't there value in achieving more?

    Okay after a short break... I've concluded that what inhibits my own happiness is trying to answer the age old question "what is happiness?" In asking the question, I never conclude anything which simply frustrates me and leads me to believe that I am unhappy when it is no necessarily true. Everything I said in prior paragraphs can be argued and even this. The inability to capture it in logic and words does not mean anything. Though I often try, I can not convey my own experience of happiness. It is doing as I please, being adventurous, a rogue, taking care of necessities, chatting with friends, making money, beating someone in pool, being in Hawaii.... It is too complex and conditional upon the person. So I'll have to experiment and remind myself not to question it. My fondest memories are of when it wasn't a thought in my mind. When I was too busy living. To me (though maybe I shouldn't even try to explain)... if I had to choose an idea to put behind happiness... acceptance.

  4. You bring up an interesting point about ambition. That can be a problem with contentment. It is part of why religion is accused of being the "opiate of the masses." It teaches people to be happy with what they have and not want for more. When we look back at history many of our great thinkers, artists, and leaders, were people whose lives were filled with struggle and hardship--and frankly, were not the happiest people.

    Personally, I don't think that gratitude has stopped me from striving to better the society around me. In fact, I think it's helped me be in touch with the injustices and disparities to a greater degree by constantly reminding me that I am not living a life of comfort because I earned it or deserve it but because I was born into it. It has also given me a degree of freedom from material possessions by knowing they're luxuries not necessities.

    Maybe happiness does curtail the level of ambition that leaves families neglected and friends lost--the type of enthralling and absorbing genius that has led to some of the best inventions and ideas of our history. For those reasons, I concede that happiness may not be for everyone; and further, that maybe sometimes it's better that way. I simply maintain that it's a choice.