I read an interesting article in the Personal Journal section of the Wall Street Journal today. (I'd link to it on the Internet but it requires a subscription to the Online version of the Journal.)
The article talks about a recent survey that asked people whether they were happy. A small number of people said they didn't know whether they were happy which surprised the author. It doesn't surprise me because it seems as though the sponsor of the survey didn't define happiness. Happiness can be a mood like any other and it changes from day to day (or for those who are particularly unstable like yours truly, from minute to minute). I suppose the question was meant to gauge whether people were generally happy or not happy but it's sort of an unfair question. My answer would be "It depends. I'm happy a lot of the time but it's the beginning of March with no spring weather in sight so I'm pretty crabby. If you force me to answer such a ridiculous question right now I would have to say I'm not so happy."
Which leads me a different definition of "happiness." Happiness is sort of an internal rating of a particular thing or state of affairs, unrelated to our moods. So, I can be happy with my marriage but unhappy with the way my ass looks in my formerly-favorite pair of jeans. I can be happy with the weather but unhappy that my kids don't want to go for a walk but would instead like to watch yet another hour of Spongebob episodes. Granted, my internal rating of things can sometimes change with my moods - work is a whole lot suckier when I have PMS for instance - but I can hate work and be happy watching American Idol at the same time.
Which is why the answer to "Are you happy?" has to be "It depends." And it's an unfair question (especially for a lawyer who can't give a straight, non-wordy answer to even the simplest of questions.).
The interesting part of the article was its brief review of how the definition of happiness has changed over time and how it differs among cultures. In our culture (probably dating back to the "inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence), happiness is a goal in and of itself. So many of us search for people, places and things that will "make" us happy. Despite the fact that everyone knows that "you can't buy happiness" and "happiness comes from inside" we still have this feeling that happiness will come when we find our soul mate, when we have kids, when we get a plasma TV or when we can finally afford that vacation home. And we feel that we have a right to happiness which, when you take a step back and consider it, is absurd. It's one thing to say that the government shouldn't interfere with our pursuit of happiness but it's a big leap to thinking that we have a right to feel happy all the time.
As I've blogged about before a couple times, I have a thing for self-help books. I keep thinking that I just need the right program and then I'll have it all figured out and I'll be happier (and thinner and more organized and a better parent). It's not that I'm unhappy - I just figure I could be happier and sometimes I just can't figure out how to do that.
Frankly, even if I could figure out what will make me happy once and for all, this focus on personal happiness isn't healthy anyway. I love something that Reese Witherspoon said in her Oscar acceptance speech last night. She said that when people would ask June Carter how she was doing, she'd say "I'm just trying to matter." When I was a teenager, I worked at a small hamburger joint. One day a co-worker told me that she had considered suicide but the thing that stopped her was the realization that she mattered to her sister. That thought has helped me during my own bouts with depression through the years - I know I matter to at least a few people and that keeps me going even on the worst days.
I can't always figure out what will make me happy at any given moment. But maybe if I concentrate more on mattering to the people I care about, I'll be happier and I'll be able to make some room on my bookshelf!