I’ve been thinking a lot about reaching my writing goals, and my last three posts discussed the basics of establishing a mission, setting goals, and managing time.
But there is so much more to life than writing, and I need to remind myself of this on occasion. I’m sitting by one beautiful example of this so-much-more as I write this; while I do my work, he does his—he’s watching an episode of Peppa Pig and eating his cereal.
My shorthand way of thinking about the so-much-more is to call it happiness. That’s a very wiggly word for it, though. Is happiness the same as joy, or am I low-balling when I revel in the simple pleasure of having my best little friend by my side? Is this contented feeling happiness?
And as I write this, and always, at every moment, there is gut-wrenching torture and pain and sorrow in the world. Someone I love is consumed by worry that he can’t pay an important bill. Another person I know is doubled over in pain at the death of her sister. And people I’ll never meet are starving and suffering and hurting in ways I can’t even imagine. This is always true, and there’s something problematic about happiness or joy under the circumstances.
I teach composition at the university level, and in recent classes I’ve been pursuing a happiness theme as a research focus. My students and I try to pin down a definition of happiness. We talk about the relationship of happiness to work, to love, to place, to the spirit, to art—any connection we can make to untangle the idea (or to further complicate it). We ponder what our nation’s founders meant when they said we had the right to pursue it; we probe why polls find significant unhappiness in the U.S., despite our wealth and apparent opportunity.
I’m embarking on a new class, and I just posted some journaling themes for my students. These were pretty easy to generate, because they’re the very same questions I’ve been ruminating over. Here are some:
1. To what extent is happiness a choice?
2. What did our nation’s founders mean when they said we had the “right to pursue happiness”?
3. Is joy just extreme happiness, or is it distinct from it?
4. In what ways is sorrow relevant to/necessary for happiness?
5. How can we best address sadness in another?
6. Why do some polls find U.S. citizens unhappy?
7. What is the main ingredient of your own happiness?
8. How do you deal with sadness?
9. Why do we sometimes laugh in inappropriate settings, like funerals?
10. How can you increase your happiness?
11. Should you try to be happier?
12. Do you ever sort of revel in a mood of melancholy, and if so, why?
13. Does activism require anger?
14. What’s up with people telling us to smile?
15. What is the role of religion in happiness?
16. What is the role of work in happiness?
17. What is the role of family in happiness?
18. What is the role of romantic love in happiness?
19. What is the role of home in happiness?
20. What is the role of mindfulness or meditation in happiness?
21. What is the role of pets in happiness?
22. What is the opposite of happiness?
23. Why do some people feel happier in a tidy or clean setting?
24. What good can you say about sadness?
25. What is one thing you can do right now to improve your level of happiness?
26. Read any article about happiness, scholarly or otherwise, and respond to it.
One thing I tell my students, and something I believe very strongly, is that sustained happiness is not an accident. We may feel a burst of pleasure when we win some money on a scratch-off lottery ticket or we run into an old friend, but it seems to me that a happy life is the result of planning. We have to set ourselves up for it. Luck helps, too—if we have good health and a job we enjoy, we’re mostly just fortunate, although health and employment, too, are things we can strive for.
So as I’m planning for a summer of successful writing, I’m also thinking about soaking up all the happiness I possibly can—and about supplementing the happiness of the people I care about (and I like to think that’s everyone, although I may fall short in a few particular instances).
What will happiness require? I have an idea that I’ll need to write things I care about, but also that I must have time in nature, time with my family, time for navel-gazing and relaxation. My gut says that multitasking is working in the wrong direction, and that to be fully happy, I have to inhabit my life and be fully present in each moment.
I anticipate some disappointments, and maybe some very harsh ones. But right now, I’m reaching for joy, and I’m doing all I can to be ready for it.