Happiness: The Splash or the Undercurrent?

“Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness.”



I once had a college professor who said, “If you’re not happy now, you never will be.” That’s one of those pithy sayings that sounds so true that we absorb it without question, which is exactly what I did. I believed his pronouncement for a long time. Until I discovered that it’s not true. Sometimes we simply feel down, and no amount of cajoling our spirits will lift them. But that doesn’t mean we’ll never be happy.

Still, I think I know what my professor meant: Happiness is never found somewhere in the future, because the future is always . . . well, in the future. Like all other emotions, happiness is experienced only in the present moment. But the only kind of happiness we can sustain from one moment to the next is not so much an emotion as a mindset, an underlying settled-ness of spirit, a steady calmness that is present even when we’re sad or discouraged. It’s not the opposite of sadness but the counterbalance to sadness.

The reality is that the joy is in the journey. Okay, I know that’s a cliché. Feel free to roll your eyes. But then think about it. It’s a cliché because it’s true – so true that we’ve shared it until it almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. So how else can I say it? Maybe “the pleasure is in the process.” That’s what I’ve learned in art classes. At the end of an evening of art, it’s great to leave with a painting I can frame and feel proud of, but it’s the act of painting that’s the true pleasure.

Or consider writing. It feels good to sell a novel to a publisher and then see it on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, but that feeling is short-lived. Most of a writer’s life is spent actually writing and rewriting. In process. If we writers don’t find joy in the process, we’re dooming ourselves to hours of drudgery.

The irony is that the joy we feel in the process of any endeavor lives alongside dissatisfaction. It’s that dissatisfaction that often propels us forward. We have a vision and know we’re not there yet. But we can be content with feeling discontent. We can be satisfied and even happy with a level of dissatisfaction. Explorers, researchers, scientists, artists, and inventors base their lives on being dissatisfied. One researcher said that he honestly wouldn’t be happy without something to work toward, some puzzle to solve. The quest was his work, and his work satisfied him, even though at any given moment, he felt a certain level of dissatisfaction. But he was good with that, finding happiness even in moments of discontent.

This will probably sound a bit Zen, but . . . how I feel in the present moment is how I feel. We don’t feel past emotions unless we relive the past. We don’t feel future emotions unless we pre-live what we imagine about the future. We can get a zing of happiness either way, reliving or pre-living, but to be truly happy, we need to find joy in the present moment. In one of Anne Perry’s novels, Brunswick Gardens, a character realizes, “Happiness was . . . knowing the infinite value of what you had, of being able to look at it with gratitude and joy.” That knowing and that gratitude happen in the present moment. We drop the illusion that happiness is based on what we don’t yet have, and we realize the infinite value of what we have right now.

Realizing, making it real, is akin to disillusionment, because it drops illusion and reveals reality. Without illusions, we can real-ize, or make real, the value found in the present moment. For me, at this moment, that’s the ground I’m standing on, the air I’m breathing, the chirp of chickadees at the bird feeder, the scent of jasmine tea in my cup, the rustle of leaves in the wind. And the thought of you on the other side of this strand of words. For the moment, I feel content, even generous, and I count that as a form of happiness.

Happiness is a shape-shifter, showing up at one moment as a contented sigh, at another moment as a belly laugh – or anything in between. Delight, elation, euphoria, ecstasy – sometimes these forms of happiness splash us like a sudden wave; sometimes they ease slowly into our consciousness. Either way, they’re short-lived. Still, as Robert Frost said, momentary happiness usually “makes up in height for what it lacks in length.”

But there is also long form happiness. It’s not the splashy wave, here and gone again. Instead, it’s a constant undercurrent flowing through life. Some people – whether religious or non-religious – seem to embody an ongoing, low-level hum of joy, a general contentment, a sense of wellbeing that David Brooks in Road to Character might call “inner integration.” It’s that settled-ness that buoys the spirit. It helps those who harbor it stay afloat in times of sadness, disappointment, disillusionment, and even grief. It’s that counterbalance to sadness.

I suspect that this long form of happiness, this undercurrent, is created by faith, hope, and love braided together. And that braid is what next week’s post will be about.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.