I’m going to make a bit of a radical claim here: There is no such thing as happiness. When people talk about what they want, they’ll often say something akin to “I just want to be happy.” But what I’m suggesting is that is insufficient. The “want” requires more digging, and I believe happiness is not a thing unto itself but a collection or confluence of a few main facts about your life.
I’ve spent perhaps too much time thinking about this subject, but I tend to do so when I find a word becomes watery or squishy in its definition. And it becomes important to me to find some sort of more specific and grounded meaning. So, happiness. What is it? I think when you consider basic human emotional needs, it becomes quite clear. I think that happiness is when five main keys to existence, five points along a sort of emotional Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, come together in a recipe to create something sweet. Here are the five points, to me, that are required for true happiness.
1.) Connection: We are a social species. And we deny that fact to our own destruction. I love this country, but one of the biggest faults in the American cultural landscape is this preposterous notion of radical individualism. Isolation is death to any social species, and we can see that all the way from complex creatures like humans, dogs, antelopes, etc. all the way down to flies and ants. But what is isolation, exactly? John Cacioppo is probably the foremost researcher today on the subject of isolation or “perceived loneliness.” His ideas are worth a listen. That being said, it’s more than simply being around people. To achieve this ingredient of happiness, it seems to me that a feeling of being seen, heard, understood, important, and attuned to as a member of a community (even if that community is with one other person) is vital. Without deep connection, trying to make happiness would be like trying to make bread without flour.
2.) Purpose: Purpose is central to happiness, and it speaks to an individual’s hope to look forward in their life. Without purpose, we are adrift on the whims and meaning that others would lay on top of our lives. Meaning, if we have no purpose, we become slaves to what others think of us, what others want of us. And those thoughts and wants will not have a singular message, so a person without purpose will simply shift back and forth on the thought currents of those that surround us. Purpose is the antidote to all of that. It is enough self-belief to say that I have a reason to be here in the world, and I will enact it, and those that wish to admire me may do so for what I value. Those that don’t … well, sorry. To quote the great Christopher Hitchens, “I don’t want to be liked. I want to be loved.” I think he summed up this idea well.
3.) Gratitude: This is a late edition to my list, but a friend brought it up to me, and I was convinced that it required inclusion. The reason for this is that if purpose is hope and direction looking forward, gratitude is hope and understanding the past with the most charitable interpretation possible. I do not know anyone that is both bitter and grateful. That is a powerful idea there. Without gratitude to others and ourselves, it’s easy to become blind to what is coming, to what beauty we could welcome in our lives. Bitterness is just fear. Gratitude is love.
4.) Joy: This is very simple. Joy is the temporal. Joy is, essentially, the fact that we have moments in our lives (That’s what life is about, punctuated moments.) that we “enjoyed.” I’m not talking about the transcendent here. I’m talking about spending time doing something we expected to enjoy, something we looked forward to, and it lived up to its billing. Without that, without a beer with a friend, without the relaxation of a day at the pool or a walk down the greenway, our lives become rather hollow. In this recipe of happiness, think about joy as salt. Salt, even when we don’t taste it, brings out every other flavor. If we don’t practice or have opportunities for joy, I’m afraid the happiness recipe will be wanting.
5.) Bliss: Finally, we come to the last ingredient. It is the spice. It is the unexpected flavor. What is bliss? Bliss, to me, is the overwhelming and absolutely unexpected feeling of lightness and connection to something greater. It’s becoming emotionally overwhelmed and crying tears of happiness and not being exactly sure why. It is the ability to accept the great beauties in our lives. Bliss can only come to an open heart, to a tender and vulnerable emotional place. Think about that first time as a teenager when you bumped knees with someone you liked … think about how important that was and probably still is. I bet you can name who it was, where is happened, and maybe even what he or she was wearing. Pay attention to what you pay attention to. Bliss is dependent on some other points on this list, but without it, it speaks to a numb or calcified soul. Bliss, or a lack thereof, is the absolute test, in my mind, of the invulnerable heart, of emotions wrapped in scar tissue. Without bliss, I think happiness is not a thing.
So, those are my thoughts on happiness. Consider it. Do you have those five points? Could you name how they show up in your life? Am I wrong? Am I missing a point? Is happiness simpler? I don’t know. But your thoughts would be welcome. Try to find some happiness today.