In his classic novel, ‘Trinity,’ author Leon Uris made a statement that really caught my attention. He wrote, ‘It seems that we have to have moments of turmoil to contrast with moments of peace in order to truly understand and appreciate that peace…. What we have confused is the belief that heaven and paradise are the same. So long as we are capable of moments of paradise here, we ought to cherish them, because we may not find paradise in heaven.’
The point here is not about religion or heaven, but about happiness. I interpret the quote this way: ‘It’s OK that things are not always perfect, because that helps us appreciate the great times more.’ This strikes me as an enlightened and realistic approach to happiness. When we hear the word ‘reality,’ many of us assume that happiness cannot be part of the equation; incorrectly supposing that happiness can only exist in a different realm from the here-and-now. But why must it be that way? Why can’t we experience contentment and joy amidst the stresses and occasional traumas of everyday life? In short: Why postpone happiness?
Don’t misunderstand. I’m neither glorifying nor minimizing pain. But as far as I’m concerned, the more happiness, the better. We all deserve it, as long as we’re willing to accept the responsibility of acquiring it and holding on to it. Of course, sometimes it may be impossible to be very happy, but happiness should be the rule, not the exception. Why does the presence of SOME stress have to equal the exclusion of ALL contentment?
Psychology professor Dr. Michael Fordyce has done years of research into the subject of happiness. He reports on his website that ‘findings on happy people have proven to be so consistent that the nature of happiness is far more stable, understandable, and basically universal than most have ever suspected.’ He isolated a number of traits that happy people typically have in common. Some of these characteristics include: trying to be outgoing, refusing to spend a lot of time worrying, engaging in productive work, continually developing one’s inner self (including character and personality, as opposed to only focusing on external goals), optimistic yet realistic thinking, and a willingness to accept and be yourself.
Though he concludes that social/personal contact is a crucial component of happiness, I submit that meaningful activity is at least equally important. If you can find meaningful work in your career, that’s ideal. If you cannot, then you might find it through other endeavors such as raising children, engaging in a serious hobby, working for a charity, etc. All of these things contribute to one’s self-esteem by making the individual a happier person and, therefore, more comfortable in social and personal interactions.
One way to see this in action is to observe how different people respond to retirement. Retired people who feel that they’re doing something meaningful and productive often avoid depression, while those who see their daily lives as empty and pointless tend to be prone to depression. Being married or having a close relationship does not necessarily prevent this, which suggests that personal relations, while very important for happiness, are not enough to sustain it.
I once heard happiness described as a ‘skill.’ It takes effort and intelligent perspective to not only achieve happiness, but to also maintain it. Happy people are not exuberant and joyful every second of the day, month or year—indeed, there are perfectly valid reasons to sometimes be less happy—and it is that contrast that helps create perspective.
The contrast works in two ways. One is the attitude, ‘Wow. Before, there were a lot of unpleasant things going on—and now things are better. I’m going to savor it and enjoy it all I can.’ The other attitude comes into play when things are difficult, but one can still ‘carve out’ times and situations in which to be happy. I read an article recently about a man who had a fulfilling and rewarding job with a company where he was kind of a ‘star.’ Suddenly, in a downturn, he lost that job. It took him the better part of a year to find something comparable, and ultimately he triumphed. During that year he diligently and purposefully created ‘scheduled happy time’ with his wife and kids, instead of moping over something he could not immediately control. He said that these times sustained him. Note the element I mentioned earlier that’s associated with a lot of happy people: The refusal to engage in constant worry.
The character in Leon Uris’ book had it right when he said we don’t need some imagined notion of ‘perfection,’ but just the capacity to be happy in our own lives. It’s almost always achievable if you sharpen your ‘happiness skills’ and change your thinking. If contentment is the reward, then it’s worth a try, isn’t it?