For a while Happiness may be contained in bucket lists or slipped into shopping bags. For a while Happiness may tear through the ventricles of our heart and roar through our veins. For a while Happiness is the sweet taste of our lover’s mouth. For a while it is the brush of their skin.
In his first novel, Le voyage d’Hector ou la recherche du bonheur, author François Lelord writes about the experiences of a psychiatrist called Hector who embarks upon a journey in search of what makes people happy. The book and the subsequent movie (2014) portray the shape-shifting quality of happiness.
Happiness is as unique as our fingerprints. As immeasurable as the dust that slips from a barn owl’s silent wings. We don’t know who or what will meet us on this journey we call life. We may lose our way on the Yellow Brick Road or discover that the great and wise Wizard of Oz is just a conman from Omaha, Nebraska.
Hector says, “the basic mistake people make is to think that happiness is the goal.”
Many people think that happiness comes from having more power or more money. We live in a world marinated in a collective belief which permeates our lives with admonishments to “Just Do It” or slogans that announce unequivocally, “Impossible is Nothing.” Simplistic formulaic slogans may sell cars or sports shoes but they cage the human soul, leach our happiness, clatter through the hermitage of our peace. And as Hector discovers,“making comparisons can spoil your happiness.”
For a while we believe that happiness lies in quixotic pleasures, in things that can be bought and sold. For a while we believe that we can “Open Happiness” when we open a can of Coke. Yet Happiness evaporates in the uncompromising distance that spans polarities – we were happy then, not so happy now. These one-dimensional assumptions about ourselves are embedded in mainstream culture and rooted in the often misinterpreted Herbert Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest”.
Mostly, happiness often comes when least expected. It may bloom in the unexpected delight of a first kiss. It may pervade our entire body as we watch the sun setting over the coppery rim of the ocean.
For most of us, Happiness is feeling completely alive.
Often our happiness hides in the smallest places in the intimate folds of daily life. Poet Mary Oliver writes, “once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and — it was the most casual of moments — as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given.”
Happiness is answering your calling.
For a while we believe that happiness lies in pleasing others. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. “I’m taking one day at a time,” the woman says in a voice planed with sharp blade of cutting grief. Her eyes, the colour of denim jeans that have seen many years and many washes, fill with tears. “The thing was, you know, we had our ups and downs over the years, but I thought I made him happy.”
Hector discovers that when it comes to love, sometimes Happiness is not knowing the whole story.
It is in our intimate relationships that our survival strategies emerge like monsters from fetid caves. When there is already a well-worn neural pathway, it takes time and wholeheartedness to encourage the growth of a new neural pathway, to allow new behaviours to flow through new riverbeds of relating. The old track is always there; the familiar well-trodden winding road.
For most of us, Happiness is being loved for who we are. And yet, as Hector discovered, “Avoiding Happiness is not the road to Happiness.”
Happiness, we know, is a state of mind. A choice we make, mostly. Every day of our lives. We may decide to forgive ourselves for something we did in the past. We may decide to forgive someone who has not loved or appreciated us in the way we wanted them to.
Hector discovers that sometimes a long stretch of unhappiness can teach us what it is like to be happy.
For some of us, happiness lies in silence. In switching off the technology that tyrannizes. In shutting out the ceaseless noise and movement of the world and entering the inner sanctum through contemplation or meditation or prayer.
Author Brene Brown spent twelve years of research exploring the relationship between joy and gratitude and says that she never met a person who described themselves as joyous who did not practice gratitude. Gratitude for what is right about the world ushers in more awareness and more mindfulness and invites happiness into our lives.
Hector discovered that Happiness is knowing how to celebrate. And yet how many of us have the courage to wholeheartedly celebrate with presence and joy?
Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast said that “in daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.” He suggests: “pausing right before and right after undertaking a new action, even something simple like putting a key in a lock to open a door. Such pauses take a brief moment, yet they have the effect of decompressing time and centering you.”
Happiness, like gratitude, may require an internal shift, a pause to centre and soften. A willingness to open and to receive. Perhaps just for a shimmering moment this new day, as we close our eyes and bow our heads to our hearts, we can find one thing to be grateful for and smile!
Sheryl Crow – Everyday is a Winding Road
Illustration by Julie Paschkis