A fluffy kitty sleeping on a porch swing on a warm spring day?
The sound of children laughing and playing?
Found at the bottom of a bottle of beer?
I've been trying to dissect this question lately, in an effort to grasp what it is, because I see it missing so often.
According to wikipedia, which appears to be the new middle school reference location of choice, "Happiness is an emotional or affective state that is characterized by feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction. As a state and a subject, it has been pursued and commented on extensively throughout world history. This reflects the universal importance that humans place on happiness.... States associated with happiness include well-being, delight, health, safety, contentment, and love. Contrasting states include suffering, depression, grief, anxiety, and pain. Happiness is often associated with the presence of favorable circumstances such as a supportive family life, a loving marriage, and economic stability. Unfavorable circumstances, such as abusive relationships, accidents, loss of employment, and conflicts, diminish the amount of happiness a person experiences. However, according to several ancient and modern thinkers, happiness is influenced by the attitude and perspective taken on such circumstances."
I was reading right along, kind of feeling like it was all so superficial, not agreeing much, all up until I got to the last sentence. "...influenced by the attitude and perspective taken on such circumstances." YES. That is the closest description of what I perceive as happiness as I have been able to find.
If Happiness were the thing which resulted from a state of economic stability, supportive family life, loving marriage, my brother in law and my birth mother would both be happy individuals. But they aren't. My mother evidently suffers a chemical imbalance which skews her perspective on her life. Even with chemical assistance, she's generally speaking unhappy. But not directly about anything in particular. My brother in law chose a very harmful addiction to drown out his apparent unhappiness and what I think is depression, despite being in a marriage with someone who loves him dearly, having beautiful children, working a good-paying job with reasonable work/life balance, and hobbies on the side which purportedly resulted in personal fulfillment. Yet, he claims he was not happy either. WHY? We all know of people that live in big houses, are drowning in money, and have from the outside looking in, fabulous lives. Lots of interesting experiences, beautiful children, lovely spouses. Of course we never know what is going on in those relationships, but a lot of people have a shell of prosperity and are hollow inside.
There was a time when my dear friends Ross and Shonna had very little money. They lived in a small rented house, went to school and/or had various low-paying jobs, shared one vehicle, and times were "tough" financially. But they have solid families, they have each other, and they were both happy people. I've met others who are also happy in the face of quite a bit of adversity in their lives, including horrendous early family life situations which resulted in a good deal of emotional scarring. Yet they have pulled themselves up and out of that pit and found happiness within themselves.
THAT is more what I think it is. Finding happiness within oneself. As in, NOT dependent upon what someone else does or doesn't do, not dependent upon anything outside of oneself. Not so terribly easy to do, and I'm sure with huge life obstacles, even harder. Especially if one has been conditioned to only find fleeting happiness within all of the things surrounding us in the world. Relationships, material goods, activities, homes. Not to say that these things cannot significantly augment our appreciation and enjoyment of our lives - definitely this is the case. But to lay the burden of one's personal fulfillment and happiness at the feet of any or all of these things is asking for disappointment and a rollercoaster. Especially relationships - these things are unpredictable, because they involve the heart and soul of other people. To expect another person bear the burden of making me happy is unfair. The person who needs to make me happy is me. I cannot look to my husband to make me happy, nor can I sit and blame him if I am unhappy. He can do things which displease me, but how I choose to respond to those things is my doing. I can find helpful and positive ways to respond, and/or I can find ways to alleviate things which are problems in my life or even our life together. But I certainly will not give another person the power to render me unhappy. If I don't like something, it's up to me to change it or accept it. From a Buddhist perspective, I think the term is equanimity. Being basically ok in the face of whatever life throws us. Being almost neutral to it. I don't want to suggest that being this emotionless zombie is a good idea, or that I have to find a way to accept abuse in my life. But the direction of decoupling one's happiness from things external to us is of key importance.
I know for some, and partially for me, happiness can be found in communion with God. Going to church? Well, I'm sure that can be part of it, but I don't know that it magically just happens by sitting in a church building with a bunch of other people, singing songs and listening to words of wisdom from the pulpit. I think the intention is critical. Why does one go to church? To seek God? To seek communion with others? I can seek God in all the miracles I see on Earth, without sitting in a church. I can seek communion with others without sitting in a church building. In fact, I find it better outside of church, as I don't actually end up interacting on any meaningful level with people in the church building. But that's been my experience - I don't condemn it for those who find what they need there. For me, the purpose of seeking God has been to understand something greater than myself, the creator of me and everything around me. To accept the way I was created as perfect and intentional. To understand the mystery of life, and I don't mean MY life. I mean the difference between a thing being alive and being the same set of elements and matter, but not being alive. I don't think God is up there orchestrating everything we do down here. Free will for everyone lies in direct conflict with Him making us do or not do things. Yet there are elements of life on earth which are not a direct effect of a person's free will, and I do think He finds ways to impact those things, and ways to guide a person to lessons we can learn. But in essence, I think actual happiness comes from accepting that I am an accumulation of what He started out giving me, and what I have done with myself. And it's a heavy responsibility, owning what I have DONE with myself from the time of my birth. But it's an important key to owning my own happiness. The more I can grasp that I am what I make of myself, and my life is what I make of it (and what I appreciate of it), the happier I can actually be.
So how does one go about doing that, BEING happy, if one doesn't have it already? I think if I really had a good formula for that, I'd be a wealthy woman. There's a lot I don't know about what causes depression in people, but I suspect there's a combination of chemicals, life circumstances, and learned behavior at play. So between medication for the chemical issues and deconstructing one's mental framework and rebuilding it in a healthy way, there has to be a solution in there somewhere.
But for me anyway, it has come from a lot of time spent learning and accepting who I am, finding pieces of me that don't fit who I want to be, and having the personal strength to walk alone through the process of changing those things. Changing behavior patterns which are destructive isn't easy, and requires a lot of focus and strength. But in the end, it has led me to be a person who can truly say she's happy with who she is, who has taken responsibility for who she is, and is happy with life. There are clearly moments which cause me frustration, events which cause sadness or anxiety, or areas which are unpleasant to deal with, but those don't affect my overall state of happiness. They come and go like the tide, get dealt with and I move on from them. I don't seek to avoid the troubles that come, I try and face them head-on, and get through them, fully experiencing the emotion of the moment, good or bad, and then learn something from it. I try to accept people in all their failings and humanity for the good that is in them, and encourage them to be the best people they can be too. Am I done with myself? Have I "achieved" the pinnacle of happiness? I'm sure not. I know there are still more things going on inside me that need to be addressed, and as they come up, I've no doubt that I will address them. My intention is not to sit in my ivory tower here, preaching to the masses. I'm more trying to find some way to bundle up the concept and share it with people who aren't happy, in an effort to help them see a way out of it. I don't even know if this is possible, sharing keys to happiness. I wonder sometimes if some people are just incapable of owning it and creating it within themselves. But if they aren't, that is just a sad statement. I don't think it takes nearly as much introspection and "making a mountain out of a molehill" as I have done at times in my life, but I think that's what's been necessary for me personally to get to where I am happy and know it. For people like my husband, I think it's a lot more natural.