Most of us can remember the specific slap-in-the-face that
changed our lives for every year thereafter. For some, it's the older brother who said, "Hey
Fatso. People don't like you cause you're ugly as sin." For others, it's the
teacher who remarked, "Wow. You really are just unintelligent." And some
of us were struck by a cleverly disguised insult, one masked as a compliment ["You
know, even if you aren't the most intelligent person ever, God sure did make you a
handsome looking girl"] or ignorance ["Is that painting a joke?"]
The insult that really hit home with me is something that I'm not sure can even be
categorized as an insult. In fact, I'm sure my 65-year old aunt just said it because she
was uncomfortable given the situation.
You see, my dad died about a year and a half ago. He was much healthier than the
average 56-year old. He ran over 20 marathons, never smoke or drank, ate well-balanced
meals, etc. And still, one night he suffered a heart attack in his sleep and never woke up
again. Most of the weeks immediately following remain a blur to me, however I can recount
my 65-year old aunt's "consoling" words verbatim. "Jennifer, listen to me.
You will NEVER get over this for the rest of your life. You will walk around in
life with a mask forever. You will smile at people. You will really think you are happy.
But really, you will NEVER be happy again. Not you, not either of your brothers,
and certainly not your Mom. EVER." Just like that. No smile, no reassuring
hug, no explanation. She just delivered the line with an assumed wisdom of one who knows.
Well, guess what, Aunt Agatha never lost a husband and didn't lose her father until a
decade or so ago. So her experience with loss has been markedly different from mine, and
anyone in my family.
And as punishment Aunt Aggie, you will have to listen to this CD everyday!
So why exactly did this comment affect me the way it did, why do her words resound in
my mind randomly throughout the day? Whatever the reason, I have unofficially committed
myself to the task of uncovering the definition of true happiness in its purest form. And
I mean this seriously, I'm not talking about the brief, euphoria you experience when
you're eating Ben and Jerry's, getting a "runner's high," drinking lots,
skydiving, etc. I have tried all these things to fill the "void" in my life that
Auntie Aggie told me needs filling. And they do fill the void.but only for a short while.
But the nasty old aunt's words always come back. "You will NEVER truly be
happy again." Well, why not? I feel pretty fulfilled and complete at the end of my
day. And yet, I'm obviously not content, because if I were, then I wouldn't give a damn
about what my aunt had to say about my life. With those precise words, Aunt Aggie seemed
to knife through the core of my being and reduce me to a shallow, smiling idiot. Aunt
Aggie, in all her infinite wisdom, has sparked within me a curiosity to discover the
objective meaning of happiness. Are there standard, necessary ingredients that every happy
So, being the marketing professional I am, I decided to first consult good old
Webster's dictionary to find the definition:
Happy adj. 1. Fortunate. 2. Having displaying, or marked by pleasure or joy. 3.
Fitting: appropriate. 4. Pleased and willing. 5. Unduly enthusiastic or concerned.
Oh (big sigh), OK. Let's look up those definitions now.
Here is the definition of "fortunate" (taken WORD FOR WORD from the new
revised edition of Webster's II Dictionary)
Fortunate adj. 1. Bringing or brought by good fortune: auspicious. 2. Having good
fortune. And as you can guess, the synonyms given are happy, lucky, and providential.
Well, I for one am not "happy" to settle for the idea that happiness is
predicated upon having good luck. So let's try the word "joy."
Joy adj.1. Great happiness: delight. 2. A source of happiness.
Board members at Webster's say "Evian spelled backwards is na´ve."
As you can imagine, I was appalled with such circumlocution in dictionary definitions!
I, for one, am the most concise, succinct, brief, terse, short-winded writer imaginable.
And dammit, if there isn't a working definition of happiness out there, I was going to
create it myself. Of course, I realize we can't be "happy" all the time. So, I'm
wondering if we can't attain a sufficient state of self-contentedness that carries us
through the most difficult times in our lives; sort of a guarantee that we will overcome
whatever adversity affects us. Where do we derive this self-contentedness? Is it
necessarily a personal thing that can't be applied to everyone? Or are there some standard
principles that we all can apply to uncover the secret? Let's take a look.
Money, cash, ho's
First, we know that blindly chasing money and/or power will almost always subvert our
efforts to find true happiness. Because those that don't have it but make it their
ultimate goal in life will squander years and years in its pursuit. And more pathetically,
those that do have it and think that acquiring just a little more will bring them
happiness, will waste their lives looking for something they always had. (Wow, Jen. What a
profound thought. You are so unique and clever.) Yeah, I know, pretty trite. But I'm just
establishing some ground rules about money. It's not the ultimate goal in life. Don't get
me wrong, I think the pursuit of money and power has some worth:
1) As most of us living within the confines of a capitalist society can agree,
it has, quite obviously, made us more productive as a whole. It provides an impetus for us
to get off our lazy asses and use our brains for something.
2) Again, this is no creative suggestion here; we can all agree that some level
of personal wealth is necessary for happiness, especially by virtue of the fact that we
are living in a land where cash is necessary for anyone wishing to attain any degree of
However, at base, money and power are not the final answers for me in the quest for
So what about the formation of meaningful relationships with others? Can such bonds
sustain us throughout the ups and downs of our lives? After reading through hundreds of
pages in psychology textbooks, and studying the family histories of the most destructive
antisocial personalities, I made the oversimplified assumption that severely dysfunctional
families and problematic social environments automatically spawned the most severe
personality syndromes. I drew the even more illogical conclusion that happy, well-adjusted
families bred happy, well-adjusted individuals. And then my neighbor, a ninth grader who
grew up in a family that was warm, loving, and generous, decided to put a gun to his head
and blow my theory right out of the water. Personally, there are days when I'll spend
hours with family and friends and still retreat to solitude with that oppressive feeling
There's no greater feelin' than the love of family...
I spent almost two years in a relationship with someone who I truly thought I was going
to marry someday. We had a great time together, we seemed to understand each other, and we
shared the same interests. And yet, something was fundamentally wrong with the
relationship, and I still can't pinpoint where it went wrong. (And I bet all of my good
friends here have a good idea why we broke up. Hey listen, if you were planning to send me
an e-mail to explain that the reason we broke up was because U R A BaD wRiTteR, do us both
1. Contemplate the existence of free will.
2. Decide whether your compulsions to send me sinister e-mails are of free choice or
determined by an evil God.
3. Send an e-mail to yourself and respond to it.
Then respond back to that e-mail. Then respond back to that. And again! And again!!!)
So, do I think developing loving, intimate relationships with others is necessary to
growth, development, and eventual happiness? Yes. Do I think it's the answer to ultimate
happiness/self-content? No. And so, I continue.
Don't you forget about Doogie
How about seeking happiness solely through intellectual pursuits -- i.e. reading
time-honored literature, watching classical cinematography, qualifying for Mensa
affiliation, watching Jeopardy religiously -- can such pursuits lead to happiness? Well, I
considered this idea pretty carefully. In fact, I considered it so carefully that I signed
up to take a test at the local Mensa chapter nearby.and actually got lost on the way to
the testing site. The proctor left a message for me that not only should I just
forget about the whole Mensa thing; I should probably consider being tested for mental
Uhhh, don't forget to rewind your watch.
My special needs aside, I don't think intellectual pursuits alone can lead to
happiness, if only for the simple reason that not everyone is intelligent. In fact, some
people aren't even capable of becoming intelligent, no matter how hard they work at it. Do
the unintelligent deserve to be unhappy?
Being the good Catholic girl I am, I considered the idea that religion could be the
ultimate answer to finding happiness. I spent four years in Catholic high school, and
another four at Georgetown, where about 95% of the student body is Catholic and practices
religion with loud, unerring devotion. So, I thought if I joined them, committed myself to
God (and I'm not talking about the GOD who hangs out in the W-D forum), then I
too could find the spiritual fulfillment that could transcend everything lagging in my
Circle gets a SQUARE.
I prayed furiously every night, went to Church on Sundays, talked to God when things
seemed the worst and begged Him to make things better immediately for me.and they just
didn't, for a long, long period of time. As every Catholic will tell me, "God listens
to all of our prayers. But you have to be patient! He answers our prayers on His
timetable." Well, that's nice. But what about my neighbor who just couldn't wait for
God's timetable? What about people in third world countries who tirelessly put their faith
into a universal being who is NOT going to answer their prayers for centuries to
come because it's not on His timetable? And why are really, inherently shitty people
surrounded by all the trappings of success? I just don't get it. I don't subscribe to
Deism or anything; in fact, I do think that God speaks to us in different signs and in
strange ways. But, unless you are Mother Theresa or Siddhartha, faith as a foundation for
ultimate happiness requires much more mental work, patience, and dedication than we are
capable of enduring, in all of our humanity. I will continue to practice my religion,
quietly. But I don't think it's the final stop for any of us in the quest for
Along a similar vein, can selfless, charitable acts bring us an
ultimate sense of happiness? Given, Aristotle has made it more than evident that virtually
no acts are inherently selfless. We work at soup kitchens.to feed hungry people.so they
will feel happy and satiated.and we will ultimately get that warm, fuzzy feeling inside
that we did something "special."
Regardless, even if all actions done for others are, at base,
self-serving, can we derive a feeling of self-content from performing charitable acts in
the least self-serving way possible? To take this notion to the extreme, what if we
devoted our whole lives entirely to serving others? What if I abandoned my lifelong dreams
of becoming professionally successful, of developing my pathetic intellectual acuity to
the highest degree, of one day meeting the man who could understand me like no other.and
just devoted my whole life to serving those less fortunate than myself? I certainly think
this idea is worth pursuing for a year or so. I think all of us could benefit from a year
of selfless, benevolent service done solely for the benefit of others (ignoring "The
Nicomachean Ethics" for a second here).
On my way to save the world
However, I'm not sure that lifelong devotion to such a pursuit could ultimately bring
us total fulfillment. Because devoting yourself entirely to others requires you to put
aside a large portion of your own personal needs. While you would develop your character
significantly and immeasurably, you would have to give up family, friends, and any
emotional needs that distracted you from helping them. Such a pursuit is certainly the
most laudable thing I could imagine, but just doesn't seem practical for an entire
lifetime. Of course, my self-involved ass should NOT be making snap judgements about a
lifelong decision I've never even considered. But then again, this is just an opinion.
So.do I have a point? YES..I'm getting there. In my opinion, the way to self-contentedness
(and I'm probably not pioneering this idea, so don't write to tell me that I ripped off
some Judy Blume book) is through several avenues.
The base of happiness, seems to be forged by portions of all of the above.
An ample supply of money, meaningful relationships, a sense of intellectual competence,
doing some societal good; I think these are the basic, inalienable foundations of
"happiness" as I will define it. I think spirituality can offer a greater sense
of purpose and inspiration in life, but I don't think it's absolutely necessary. I happen
to know several happy, well-adjusted agnostics.
But I think ultimate happiness requires one to find himself a talent. Because once you
have a talent in life, you gain so many cool things, such as:
1) A healthy ego
3) You know what?
4) This article is starting to sound like something that's going to induce a
lot of hate mail.
5) I will end it here and put you out of your misery.
I guess I really haven't come to any formulaic conclusion for finding ultimate
happiness. But I think we all have our moments.