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The Secret to Finding True, Unadulterated Happiness

posted by Jen on 8/27/01

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 life needs?

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 personal freedom.

However, at base, money and power are not the final answers for me in the quest for happiness.

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 of emptiness.

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 a favor:

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 retardation.

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 life.

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 self-content.

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 feed hungry 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. 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
2) Autonomy/independence
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.





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