We interrupt this program to bring you a philosophical screed.
Recently I re-read a favorite historical novel, Avalon by Anya Seton. It takes place in early Medieval England, late 900s to early 1000s AD, when Viking raids were common.
Brief synopsis of the last quarter of the book: The main character, Merowyn, is kidnapped by Vikings and taken to Iceland, where she weds an Icelandic man and has a son. After a period of difficult adjustment, she grows to dearly love both her husband and her new home. Later she and a group of other Icelanders colonize Greenland, where she bears a mentally-handicapped daughter. When her husband dies twenty years later, Merowyn returns at last to England, that gentler country she missed during the cold bleak years on an ice-swept land. As a widow, she must make do as best she can and ends up marrying a man she respects but doesn’t love. She thinks back to the silvery-gold early days of her first marriage and realizes she was happy then and didn’t know it.
For some reason that phrase – she was happy then and didn’t know it – stayed with me after I finished the book. And it made me wonder: how many of us are happy but don’t appreciate it, know it, or realize it?
“Happiness” is such a loaded and multi-faceted word that no one can really define what it means for them. It’s different for everyone. Happiness can be found even in places and circumstances you may not like; but it’s often there, buried among the less enjoyable parts. Facets of happiness (contentment, satisfaction, pride of achievement, etc.) can all contribute to the overall qualities of the emotion.
I think what haunts me about the notion of being happy and not realizing it, is how many of us let overall happiness slide through our fingers because we’re too concerned with little things we don’t like. Anyone who takes their health for granted and then loses it, for example, will appreciate how much happier they were when their health was good.
We all have a zillion things we would like to do. As a trivial example, we look forward to when we can make some cosmetic improvements to the house – paint, replace ugly carpeting, that kind of thing – but we don’t let minor details interfere with the fact that we have a nice home that keeps us sheltered, even if the linoleum is chipped.
And if we lost the house, then how much would we look back at the ugly carpeting and unpainted walls and realize we should have appreciated a solid sheltering home when we had it?
The sad thing is when people place contingency measures on happiness. They stubbornly insist they WON’T be happy UNTIL such-and-such happens. They WON’T be happy UNTIL they paint the house. They WON’T be happy UNTIL they get a different job. They WON’T be happy UNTIL their spouse changes to meet their particular criteria. They WON’T be happy UNTIL they achieve a [fill in the blank] goal.
WON’T is a pretty stubborn word. What’s preventing them from being happy NOW?
We all have goals, plans, and ambitions for the future, and I think those are critical (imagine how bleak life would be without goals), but what’s preventing us from enjoying the present NOW?
Dissatisfaction with some aspect of NOW can prevent us from appreciating a lot of beneficial things, even if it can’t be described as “happiness.” What about contentment? What about the satisfaction that comes from fulfilling duties and obligations, even if those duties and obligations aren’t what they want to do? What about the fulfillment that comes from helping others?
I doubt pure happiness is possible, although we’ve all experienced moments of it. But let’s make a concerted effort, shall we, to find and recognize happiness where and when we can? Maybe you don’t like your job but you love your spouse. Maybe you don’t like your spouse but you love your job. Maybe you don’t like where you’re living but you do like your neighbors. Maybe you don’t like your appearance but you shine in a hobby or skill. Maybe you know you did the best you could under some difficult circumstances. Maybe you struggled through and fulfilled a promise, duty, obligation, or vow even when you didn’t want to. I don’t know, pick something – anything – and appreciate it for the satisfaction it brings you.
I guess the goal behind this philosophical screed is to avoid regret. How many of us want to look back after years or decades (like the character Merowyn) and regret not appreciating a point in our life when we were happy, but didn’t know or appreciate it at the time?
I don’t think pure happiness is ever possible on this mortal earth. But contentment is. Pride is. Satisfaction is. Embrace those and appreciate them for the happiness they bring.
Okay, philosophical screed is over. We now return you back to your regularly scheduled program.