Excerpt from Chapter 8: Simple Pleasures

Seeking Happiness — March 2007

I've felt particularly happy the past week or so. I don't see myself as a typically happy-type person (and there's been no particular incident to account for this happiness), so I wondered what might have promoted these good feelings.

Finally I realized that much of it has to do with the fact that I've been enjoying some of the simplest things in life—outside activities like swimming and walking on the beach, being stimulated and motivated by hearing an exceptionally fine speech about child development, and not feeling quite as rushed and pressed for time as usual.

Most people want to be happy, and in the U.S. we tend to see happiness as our 'right.' (The Declaration of Independence declares that at least the 'pursuit of happiness' is one of our rights.) But I suspect that seeking happiness is precisely the wrong way to actually find it.

For instance, some of our most prevalent expressions (like Happy Birthday or Happy New Year) relate to quite temporary, superficial events. This is a far cry from the official definition of happiness as 'a state of well-being and contentment.'

This kind of happiness comes from within (from a way of being in the world), not from having something or doing something. In fact, happiness often comes from the simplest of life's pleasures—like noticing and enjoying a sunny day or a thing of natural beauty or the wonders of children, especially if the children are close to you.

One of the mysteries surrounding happiness is the way we see some people we think should be happy (like people with money, success or fame), only to discover that they feel extremely unhappy. On the other hand, we sometimes see people whose outward circumstances seem so dire that we think they must be unhappy, but they seem to find joy in the smallest pleasures of life.

This disconnect between absolute circumstances and their impact on individuals is due in large part to the fact that our sense of whether or not we feel happy has a lot to do with the gap between what we expect out of life and our actual existence. So people who expect little may feel happiness in small pleasures while those who expect a great deal may feel unhappy due to not having their expectations met.

Of course, there are many contributors to our individual sense of happiness, another one being the degree to which we are constantly analyzing our own happiness. Focusing on our own degree of happiness is not likely to produce good feelings. But thinking about how to make others' lives better can lead to happiness as a by-product of that focus.

Some would say the feelings from helping others reflect satisfaction, not real happiness. But I would argue that this way of thinking serves to distort the true meaning of happiness, which, as I said, has more to do with a deeper state of well-being than with a superficial state of pleasure or excitement. In fact, the letdown at the conclusion of any temporary period of excited activity can lead to feelings of far less happiness in the long run.

So I hope the next time you feel unhappy, you'll do a quick mental check as to how you're defining happiness. Are you defining it as a temporary high—or in terms of a more general sense of well-being? This awareness can be the first step to experiencing the kind of happiness that eludes efforts to actively seek it.

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