We Find Happiness in the Simple Things

What is happiness? In definition, it is a state of pleasure or contentment. The former is an active state, the latter passive. Yet, either seems difficult to achieve or, more definitively, to maintain. Life is just a rough journey and we seem to expect too much out of it.

Perhaps our problem is that we are “purists.” We want not just to be contented; we want nothing but contentment. Anything less than pure unadulterated bliss will satisfy. Of course, life isn’t ever perfect. Even getting to a condition remotely resembling pleasure can be a taxing journey; the laborious car ride through windy roads to get to the strenuous hike up to a magnificent view from an Appalachian “bald,” for example. Often, it hardly seems worth the effort, easier to plop down on the couch and watch the latest Netflix series.

Even in the best of times, pleasure is ephemeral. A magnificent magenta sunset that fills your heart with joy and wonder lasts but a few moments before the rotation of the earth drives the sun below the horizon, removing that scene from reality. A similar event may occur tomorrow, but this particular one, that evoked a special feeling, is gone. My mothers’ admonition, “Nothing lasts forever,” rings true.

Yet, despite all the caveats life is full of joy and happiness. Most often, it is not when we expect or demand it. Structured events rarely produce the desired effect. But in those “other,” unplanned moments, if we open our hearts, there is much joy to behold and experience.

Often we feel such joy vicariously through others. Witnessing the response of a child to a new experience can be uplifting. We were recently on vacation at the beach and saw a mother walking her toddler to the edge of the shore. As a gentle wave caressed the child’s toes a wide smile broke across her face and a giggle filled the air. Such a simple thing. It has happened to me a thousand times, but it does not engender the same emotion anymore.

On the way back to our RV that day we stopped at a dog park. Our two Golden-doodles took off on a dead run, chasing each other around. You could almost hear from their heart, “Wheeee!” We tossed the ball into the pond as they bounced up and down barking, as if shouting, “Throw it again! Throw it again!” They jump and sprint and chase until they collapse with their tongues hanging out, exhausted in their bliss.

Oh, that life was so simple. It is rare that I walk barefooted across a freshly mown yard and feel the blades of grass between my toes. I can’t remember the last time I lay in a field and looked up contentedly as the clouds paint animal pictures across an azure sky. Yet, these were the things of my childhood, now left behind in the pursuit of other material objects society says will make me happy. They rarely do.

A child. A dog. They can teach us so much about feelings and emotions we have packed up and locked away. As we grow older, life gets more complicated. Even on my holiday, there were the nagging prompts in the back of my mind, “Don’t forget to call this guy or send that email.” In fact, writing this very column is fulfilling an obligation; my editor expects this by Tuesday, and I am trying to get ahead of the game. Despite the fact that I am sitting outside on a beautiful South Carolina morning looking out at a stand of live oaks with rays of light steaming through the Spanish moss, I am diverted by a requirement born of another place. One more complication that removes me from the simpler joys of life.

I am getting long in the tooth and my years have given me knowledge (although perhaps not wisdom). Yet, this has also obstructed my sense of wonder, which seems an essential precursor to joy. Often it is the surprise of experience that creates the feeling of happiness. It is not that we sit night after night expecting the sun to paint the sky as it sets, rather it is the splash of color that bursts out as we round a corner that catches us off guard. The cynical old guy retreats; my worries are shoved to the back, overwhelmed by a momentary event. Something truly commensurate for the human capacity to wonder breaks free.

The little child emerges but for a moment. An involuntary smile. I am happy!

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