Happiness

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. What does it take to be a happy person? Obviously the answer is going to be different for each person, but what worries me is that, as far as I can tell, most people don’t even ask – and those that do don’t have a very good answer.

Ask someone what would make them happy, and their answer is likely to be pretty vague. “A good career”,” they might say. Or, “Family.” “A strong relationship with my partner,” they might add after a moment’s reflection.

There’s nothing wrong with these things, of course, but there’s not much meat to them as answers. They don’t give us much to chew on – which is to say, they’re not really actionable.

And I think that’s because we don’t give much thought to the question. Maybe we’re a little suspicious of the very concept of “being happy”. After all, our grandparents/parents/[insert fabled ancestors here] came to this country with nothing and scraped and toiled to build a better life for themselves – they didn’t sit around thinking about whether or not they were happy. They were miserable and they liked it!

That’s the American Way, right? More and more, it’s the Modern Way, hardly bound to the US borders. Work hard, hunker down, tighten your belt, and make a better life.

There’s no dignity in happiness, not in this worldview anyway. Happiness is frivolous, fleeting, ephemeral. Dignity is found in the grave and serious, not the frolicking and joyful.

There’s another reason I think we aren’t willing to face the question of what makes us happy: we’re afraid that the answer will prove to be something out of our grasp. Maybe you need a million dollars to be happy, and you only have $3.62. Maybe you need a better job than you’re capable of holding, or a bigger house than you can afford, or a prettier wife or more handsome husband, or better-behaved children. Maybe you need to be smarter, better-looking, more outgoing, taller, healthier, more disciplined, thinner… someone else.

I don’t buy it. There are unhappy people in all walks of life. If it were brains, there wouldn’t be unhappy smart people – and there are. If it were money, there wouldn’t be unhappy rich people – and boy are there! If it were looks, there wouldn’t be unhappy beautiful people – and Marilyn Monroe wouldn’t have taken her own life.

And vice versa – there are unhappy dumb people, poor people, and ugly people as well. Just as there are happy rich people, happy poor people, happy dumb people, happy smart people, happy beautiful people, happy ugly people – happy people of every stripe.

What makes them so special?

I think the answer has to be self-knowledge – facing the question of what it will take to be happy head on. It’s obviously not something external to us that “makes” us happy; we make our own happiness. But it’s not so simple as just deciding to be happy. We make our happiness by determining what it will take, according to our own individual taste and character, to be happy, and chasing after those things and only those things.

Maybe you need to be rich to be happy – that’s the kind of person you are. Or maybe you just need to be comfortable, to not have to worry. Or, quite possibly, you need the edge of poverty to come really alive – stranger things have happened! You can’t know if you’re not willing – or not able – to face yourself and figure out what money means to you. Not whether rich people are shallow or profound, whether poor people are lazy or victimized by a social system that needs poverty to secure cheap labor – but what money means to you.

Or maybe you need a different job. But what job? Maybe you need to move – but to where? Maybe you need to get healthier – but how? In what way?

The trick here is to move beyond empty platitudes and hollow stereotypes and really look at our own lives. That’s where happiness starts to take root.

Your assignment – and mine, too – is to figure all this out, to sit down with a pad and paper and start writing out our answer to the question: what’s it going to take to make me happy? Be specific – what exactly do you want from life? How is each thing on your list supposed to help you create happiness in your life? Most important, are you sure these are your answers, and not society’s, not your friends’, not your parents’? It’s so easy to internalize everyone else’s talk about what makes people happy – but the proof’s in the pudding: are they happy? If not, what are you doing listening to them.

Sit down, write your list, and tuck it away somewhere safe. Then go out and do the things on your list, and let me know how that works out for you. Let’s see if we can’t all figure this out for ourselves, ok?

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