How Would You Define ‘Happy’?

“The world is so full of a number of things,

I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”

– Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child’s Garden of Verses

Taken in a childlike spirit, Stevenson’s lines evoke wonder. Yes, we think. So many amazing things in this world to see and hear, to touch and taste and smell and do. For an adult, the same lines can raise an eyebrow. The world is indeed full of a number of things, not all of them pleasant. And anyway, does being a king make you happy, even if your world is “full of a number of things?” Or is that an illusion – that kings are happy?

All of us – children and adults – have dreamed about what we think might make us happy. Some of our dreams are passions, high hopes, grand goals to work toward with all our heart. Some are simply wishes that we have no real intention of pursuing. And lots of dreams are illusions in which happiness shimmers, mirage-like, in the distance, and draws us toward it. That’s not a bad thing, really; it’s a natural part of coming of age (and we’re always coming of age). The desire for happiness propels us forward.

But if we’re heading toward a mirage, at some point we become disillusioned. Still, that’s not a bad thing. Disillusionment can send us down an unexpected path toward what is not an illusion, toward what is solid and true and reliable. Somewhere along that path, we usually discover that what truly makes us happy is not at all what we expected.

According to our USA Founding Fathers, making ourselves happy is a quest. In the Declaration of Independence, they proclaimed that we’ve been divinely granted “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Note that it doesn’t say that Happiness is one of our Rights but the pursuit of Happiness, which, ironically, is likely to make us unhappy. Pursuing the elusive state of happiness has, perhaps, doomed people to more unhappiness than we can measure. In Pensees, Blaise Pascal wrote, “[S]ince we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.” That’s not one of Pascal’s more uplifting thoughts, but like the Founding Fathers, he has a point.

Over coffee one day, a friend told me, “You deserve to be happy.” I rolled my eyes. I wasn’t even sure I could define happy. It seems like a spike in the emotion graph, spontaneous applause that quickly dies. It’s as fleeting as the soap bubbles we blew as kids. They bobbed up and away, refracting the light into gliding, glinting colors that delighted us – for about three seconds; less if you managed to catch one.

Sipping coffee that day with my friend, I couldn’t picture what happiness would look like to me. I knew only that it’s hard to find happy when you’re carrying around a backpack full of sad. Still, I trust my friend. She cares, and she asks insightful questions. What’s more, she was willing to carry some of my sadness with me. So I began to consider what happy might look like.

The first truth I know about happiness is that it’s impossible to make another person happy. In the supermarket one week, at the end of the cereal aisle, I became aware of the song playing over the store speakers. The singer pleaded, “I just want to be the one who makes you happy.” Nope, I wanted to tell him. Not going to happen. Been there, tried that. It doesn’t work that way.

Several years ago, our church assigned people to small groups that met once a week for food and friendship. Care Groups, we called them. The first meeting was at our house, so I cleaned, baked brownies, and set out glasses for drinks. By meeting time, my husband and I were ready for our guests to arrive. We eagerly waited. And waited. And waited. An hour later, we carried half the brownies to our next-door neighbors and renamed our group the I Don’t Care Group. I learned that I can set the table and bake the brownies, but I can’t make anyone come. It’s the same way with happiness. I can do what I think will make someone happy, but I can’t make them happy. The converse is true as well: No one can make me happy.

So, then, what makes us happy? This week, try to be aware of what makes you happy. Next week: what I think happiness is.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy