{Big Ideas} A Meditation on the Pursuit of Happiness

Meditation on happiness by Yalisha Case for RedWhiteandGrew.com
Image copyright Yalisha Case

This long-form response is another response my earlier post on the hedonic treadmill. It was written by one of my online RWG salon members, Yalisha. (Can I tell you how much I love that my friends think and write like this? Wow. ~ Pamela)

I was singing in the kitchen one sparkly summer morning, flipping pancakes and twirling around with a toddler, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! If you’re happy and you know it…” She was laughing and clapping dimpled little hands when her mischievous older brother came dancing into the kitchen, legs akimbo, arms dragging and flopping, sly smile on his face, “If you’re happy and you know it you’re a monkey! If you’re happy and you know it oooh oooh aaah ah!”

“Really? Can’t people be happy too?”

My six-year-old philosopher sighed in his world-weary way, looked up at me with a mixture of patience and pity, that look he often has when there are Big Important Things to explain. “Sure, Mom. But being happy is not the most important thing for us. When people are happy they should still be thinking about how to help others. Only monkeys can simply dance around clapping their hands saying ‘I’m happy! I’m happy!’ Everyone else needs to turn their happiness into doing the job God gave them.”

Ah. Well.

That feeling, that life must mean more than mere happiness, is a familiar one, and I’ve had the same face-pulling, monkey-jerking response all my life to the myriad of ways we’re told that that there’s nothing more important. Hipster art signs, children’s songs, McMansion housing developments, even the Declaration of Independence holds happiness as a revolution-worthy goal. Well, pursuit of, anyway, but isn’t catching your quarry the goal of any hunt? Grab hold of that wild thing, stuff it, hang it on the wall for everyone to see. You bagged happiness like a boss!

But it doesn’t really work that way, does it?

Happiness isn’t a thing you can capture, any more than you can catch a beam of light. In the positive psychology field there’s an idea about the nature of happiness called the hedonic treadmill. This says that everyone has their own happiness set point, determined by a combination of genetics, life circumstances, and self-perspective.* No matter how thrilled or devastated you may be by life events, eventually you’ll settle back at your own emotional baseline, even if the circumstances that caused your bliss (or devastation) do not change.

The genetic component is 50% of your emotional baseline, written right into your DNA. When you were created, given a beating heart and lungs that breathe, you were given happiness too, like a flame of light; functional life and radiant life equally precious and important.  Happiness is part of your design. It’s not a thing you have to pursue. It’s there, in you, and it’s been there all along, just more or less accessible, given the times and happenings of your life.

__Happiness is part of your design. It's not a thing you have to pursue. It's there, in you, and it's been there all along, just more or less accessible, given the times and happenings o

And there will be wonderful happenings.

You’ll fall in love, get the job you wanted, receive windfalls of bounty and good luck. You’ll have a baby or a puppy or publish a book. A random kindness at the espresso drive through will make your morning latte free. Your happiness level will spike upward. It will go through the roof, off the charts. Everything, even the things you never really noticed before, will be beautiful. You’ll feel like you made it to happily ever after. But eventually, whether your blessings are temporary or enduring, your happiness will slide back down to your baseline: less happy than you think you ought to be, given your great good fortune, but still, happier than not. Happy-ish ever after.

And the opposite is just as true.

There will be terrible times. Uncomfortable lumpy bumps in the road and devastating, heart breaking things too. You’ll fall out of love and into hate. You’ll lose your job and your loved ones will succumb to injury, illness, and death. Your spirit will break and your body will fail you. You will be lonely and frightened and ashamed. Someone will scrape their keys down the side of your new car in the grocery store parking lot while your kid is having a nose bleed all over your shirt and the baby is crying and the ice cream is melting and you’re holding up the checkout line because your wallet is nowhere to be found. Your happiness level will dip. It will plummet to rock bottom. Everything, even the things you didn’t really notice before, will look ugly. It won’t seem possible to ever be happy again. But you will. Eventually, even in the face of permanent losses and a road that remains bumpy and unpaved, you’ll find yourself back at your own happiness baseline: more happy than not, despite the pain you now carry with you.

Life experiences, all those happenings, make up only 10% of your emotional baseline. Sometimes, especially when you’re young, your life can be so plot driven, so full of new and exciting changes, that it’s easy to think that the thrill of discovery is you live. The highs and lows that follow each adventure, each new place and person that you meet, are steep and fast, careening along so wildly and with such short rests of calm between, that you might be forgiven for not realizing that the in-between is actually your home, more than any of the roads not-yet-taken.

As you settle into mid-life the peaks are slower coming and softer, less unexpected.

Things can feel slow, boring, even while you’re busier than you’ve ever been. Your last baby is out of diapers and out of your arms. You’re not making a lot of first impressions. You know the people and the place and the chores that need doing. You wonder if things are as good as they’re ever going to be. Some of your dreams are not going to come true, and need to be put down so that you can concentrate on the work that needs doing right now. You struggle with which to let go, and you weigh your energy and time against the need to keep hold of the pieces of who you could have been.

There’s an awareness too that harder times are coming.

Your parents will need more caring for, and your spouse, and yourself, and all that caring will take more of your attention just as your children start needing less. There will be more funerals than weddings and you’ll feel your body wearing down. It will be easy to feel stuck in a dead calm. You’ll miss those earlier times when things were always happening. You’ll count your blessings but wish you were happier, even though you can’t put your finger on exactly what is wrong.

You may chase the thrill of youth in classic midlife crisis fashion, shaking the cobwebs off by manufacturing events. You might have an affair, take up gambling, cash out your retirement funds and buy a speedboat or new boobs. You might get some happiness that way, though it will likely come with heartbreak too, and it won’t take long to remember, painfully, that nobody stays at peak happiness for long.

That’s why the biggest bang for your buck, the best investment in your emotional health, is in the 40% of happiness that is perception.

How you see yourself and your place in the world is more important than what happens to you in the world. And this part is entirely up to you. It means recognizing your own inherent worth; being grateful for your blessings; helping others when you can and accepting help when you need it; taking care of your body and your mind; understanding that different seasons in your life require different parts of you, sometimes nearly all of you; allowing yourself to feel anger, frustration, and sadness when things are infuriating and difficult and sad; showing yourself grace when you stumble; and finding as many angles, as many windows as you can, to let that light in you shine out.  Simple ideas, though practice is needed to make them habit. But with care you can change your perception and permanently raise your happiness baseline. You can magnify the light you were given at birth.

That light, that first half of your happiness, it’s there to illuminate your soul, to show the way even when everything else is dark. It’s meant to shine bright enough for you to find the work you were made to do. This is different from finding your bliss or just doing what makes you happy. Lots of things might make you happy, but I doubt your beating, human heart and divine light were given to you for the purpose of eating pints of ice cream and watching Netflix marathons. No. It might be that unwinding with a TV show and a treat is, in a season of hard work that threatens to swallow you whole, an easy bit of happiness to see, but your importance lies not in how you rest but in how you fulfill your calling. It’s your work, after all, that lets your light shine onto the world. And it’s your light, the inheritance of divine happiness, that allows you to see, and do, the work.

Sometimes that work is so hard your arms will burn to let it go. Sometimes it’s so boring you’ll feel like you’re sleeping through it. Sometimes, though, the work will be so breathtakingly beautiful you’ll cry out in amazement.

And sometimes?

Sometimes it looks exactly like bare feet monkey dancing in the kitchen, between pancakes, clapping your hands and singing as you twirl, “If you’re happy and you know it, stomp your feet! Oooh oooh aaah ah!”

Yalisha Case is living happy-ish ever after and writing about it at Denizen magazine.

* Yalisha recommends The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky  {To locate or purchase the book, you may use this Amazon Affiliate Link, for which I receive a small kickback.}


Explore More:

  • All RWG posts about the hedonic treadmill can be found here.
  • Neuroscience has some good tips on how to be happier. Great article here on the topic.

    Big Ideas Series _ Pamela Price of RedWhiteandGrew.com