For himself Mabbut had never thought of happiness as a natural state. To him it was just the postponement of unhappiness. But now he was beginning to think differently. By accepting a looser, more general definition of the word, meaning things being not too bad for a significant amount of time, happiness was perhaps not such a far fetched proposition after all. So, bit by bit, as the book crept forward and winter faded into Spring, Mabbut came to accept the unfamiliar feeling of being, by and large, content.
From The Truth by Michael Palin
Sure it’s a first world problem, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Happiness, or the pursuit of Happiness.
What is it? Should we expect it? How do we know we have it? Is it an all the time thing or a some of the time thing? If now, why not? More importantly, at what cost?
In the first series of ABCTV’s Rake, Scarlett disrupts her marriage in the pursuit of… something more. Her husband, Barney, doesn’t know what hit him. He’s perfectly content and can’t understand why she can’t be.
In the last episode of series 2, Scarlett says to Barney:
‘I think I know what my problem has been. Ever since I was a little kid I thought I should be happy all the time… there’s always going to be shit we cry about, shit we ought to cry about. What business do we have wanting to be happy 100% of the time? So, what do you reckon? 70/30 happiness and unhappiness?’
Barney tells her that the woman he was having an affair with is pregnant. ‘I guess we’ll put that down in the 30% bucket,’ he says.
I’d nodded when Scarlett made the 70% comment. Whilst I haven’t done what she did, I’ve always understood the restlessness…and the selfishness… that drove her, as a character, to do the things she did. It’s not about what she did have- the job, the caring husband,the kids, the beautifully renovated home in the Eastern Suburbs. It was about what she thought she was missing out on- the passion, the excitement, the risk.
It was her misguided one night stand, her pursuit of happiness (or what passes for it) that caused the spiral that brought them all undone.
My husband made the comment that I’m a lot like Scarlett- but perhaps without the recklessness…
‘You’re always looking for more,’ he said.
‘I don’t understand why you can’t be content,’ he said.
Happiness to me has always felt like it should be a whirlwind of fun and laughs- exhausting and exciting, fresh and new.
That can’t be sustained even for 10% of the time, let alone 70%. In itself, that sort of happiness is a selfish, immature thing, a reckless disregard for the feelings or concerns of anyone else- the type of thing that can bring you undone.
Ask a friend if they’re happy, and you’ll often get a cautious “maybe”…or “I think so”… or I could be if:
- I was 30kgs lighter
- I had a partner
- I had a better job
- I had more money
- I had a bigger house
- I had a publishing contract
…yep, that last one’s mine…as well as the first one.
When we’re asked if we’re happy, we don’t think about what we have…but rather what we don’t.
Yet how often do we see people who have achieved great things- the sort of weight loss that gets them in a “lost half their size” magazine feature complaining because they’re still not happy- nothing else has changed?
Maybe, like Mabbut in the extract above, I’ve been defining happiness incorrectly.
I’m not a half empty girl, so I’ve never defined it as the postponement of unhappiness ie that if really bad shit isn’t going down, things must be ok, and if things are ok, I must be happy.
That’s how I’ve always defined “content.”
But happy? What is that? Contentment on steroids? Perhaps.
Maybe what makes us discontented is the possibility that mindful contentedness is really what it’s about?
Maybe being mindfully content and letting go of the rest, or the “if onlys,” is what it’s about?
Maybe in that state we are sufficiently open and sufficiently aware to feel gratitude for what we have, recognise and accept opportunities when they come along…and better able to cope with disappointment if they don’t?
This year, when I wish friends and family “Happy New Year” what I’m really wishing them (and myself) is contentment, the recognition of opportunity, the health, courage and enthusiasm to pursue their dreams, and the ability to live for now without caveats.
That’s my new definition of happiness.
Last year on holiday in Bali, just after I’d finished the partition job, I turned to hubby one time as we were walking back from the pool to our room and declared that I felt as close to happy in that moment than I ever had been. There was no excitement, no roller coaster, no alcohol (ok, perhaps a Bintang or two) and no conditions. It just was.