“Happiness is not given to us, nor is misery imposed,” Matthieu Richard, Buddhist monk and author. In his book, “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill” he contends that happiness can be cultivated in spite of a person’s situation. I read this today in the Q section of The Chicago Tribune. It was in an article called “Hurry Up and Get Happy Already” by Tania Padgett.
I don’t know if I agree or not. I wouldn’t characterize myself as unhappy at the moment however, discontent, impatient and frustrated would come closer.
I want. But does getting what you want make you happy? If the perfect teaching job fell in my lap, if I was offered the opportunity to be a published writer, if I met the next great love of my life – would I be happier or just content and satiated?
Happiness is a big thing to us here in America. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is how it goes, I believe. I am often what can only be properly categorized as “happy”. Even after all that has happened in the past few years, I was more often happy than not. Although it is true that I felt alone, overwhelmed, sad and angry at different times, was that due to an absence of happiness? Because there were times when I didn’t feel any of those things, and can’t honestly say that it was happiness at work?
When my husband was first ill, I was offered Zoloft to help me deal with the stress. I declined and I still think I made the best choice. Chemically diminishing unhappiness doesn’t necessarily mean that happiness will pour into the vacated spaces especially if the circumstances that cause the stress or heartache or whatever remain the same. I am happiest when I am in control of my life regardless of the situation.
So maybe that is what the monk means when he says that happiness is not a given. We have to set the stage, build it even, which would explain why wealthier people perceive themselves as happier than those without the financial means to decorate the sets of their lives. I think that in my late twenties and early thirties I was more inclined to feel unhappy than I am now, but that is just a matter of perspective. Everything is a catastrophe when you are younger and haven’t yet experienced real misery or you have and just really enjoy the drama of it.
Which brings me back to the second point, misery is not imposed. Can unhappiness be forced upon the unwilling, the insanely optimistic? Is it positive thoughts that keep some people upbeat despite everything and negativity that sinks others? A teacher I took graduate classes with insists that anyone can overcome bad circumstances with determination and hard work, and I don’t disagree with the premise.
But what about people who have no “success”, “happiness”, or “optimism” model to work from? Can they “get happy”? If you have never known happiness, can it still be yours? I know I am asking more questions than I am answering. Pursuing happiness though is tricky business.
My Catholic upbringing tells me I can’t be happy without God in my life and if I am not going to church, I am godless in a sense (because God doesn’t get out much and if you want to commune with the big guy you have to go to him). Society tells me that as a widow I should be slogging through a twelve-stepish grief and I that can’t be happy until I have. My sister thinks I should be dating, happiness is a replacement man. Friends think I should be active. Activity crowds out unhappiness kind of like exercise induced endorphins.
The trouble is I don’t feel unhappy (and I have to admit that I am no longer clear on what unhappy is). Loneliness is not unhappiness. Sadness is not unhappiness. Frustration is not unhappiness. Perhaps all of these emotional states together make up unhappiness, but everyday I seem to find something funny enough to laugh at and I make plans for my future. I read and write. I exercise (because I just can’t seem to give up eating – not for the endorphins) and I feel happy. It would be ironic to find that in the midst of tragedy I have somehow discovered the secret to happiness, but I don’t think that I have. I could have gone under but stubbornly decided not to. I refused to be imposed upon and cultivated instead.