Examining Happiness

Lately, I have been thinking of happiness and letting go, and the opposite of letting go as well -- having a choke-hold on the past, hanging on to it for sustenance, but the wrong kind of dependency, you see, one that poisons you from the inside out. I have also been making an effort to parse out what happiness stands for -- is it the same as contentment? Is it a sense of giddy excitement, or one of calm acceptance? I am certain it is safe to say that it is an individual phenomenon -- I enjoy bookstores and coffee and knitting and Downton Abbey; you may not. Et cetera. However, there is one very strong quality of happiness that I have come to understand even though I have not been able to implement that understanding in my daily life consistently so far. Happiness is a state of mind, not a milestone. What do I mean by this? Let's examine.

The way I have seen happiness my entire life is thus: It is a reactive emotion. I will do something good, I will meet a milestone, I will be rewarded, therefore I will be happy. As children, my sisters and I chalked out an elaborate plan to raise enough money so our parents could buy us a bigger house. We sketched floor plans of our imaginary living space, designed furniture layouts for rooms, started collecting decorative accents for the cozy home library in our new house. This went on for months. We got the idea of starting a neighborhood car wash -- it was either from Archie comics or Sweet Valley Kids books. This would never happen -- three girls running a car wash service in Pakistan? Such shame. Besides, no one would trust their vehicle to schoolgirls who were so spoilt they couldn't even braid their own hair. We thought about selling our collection of books at the Old Books bookstore to raise some money, and we did, after which I cried for weeks at the meager sum and the loss of my beloved books. All this for the idea of a new home, more space, our own rooms, because surely then we'd be so much happier, we'd fight less, we'd feel grown up, we'd have a library and a playroom, and our own little kitchenette, and that would make us happy. New house = milestone = happiness. It took our parents weeks to realize what kind of plotting and planning was going on right underneath their noses. We were taken out to dinner, we were told books don't buy houses, and are like dear friends -- you never sell them, and a car wash or lemonade stand was most certainly out of the question. My father commissioned new desks from a carpenter complete with locking drawers for each of us. New books were purchased to quell our broken hearts. I was given the adjoining room to branch out. We spread ourselves in the space we already had. We felt happy -- reasonably so -- in the same circumstances as before.

No lesson was learned back then, unfortunately. Until recently, I thought of happiness in this very negative and reward-driven way: "I will be happy when I write a poem -- then, when I publish the poem -- then, when the poem wins an award. I will be happy when I am successful -- success, undefined, an amalgam of lofty plans and unrealistic goals. I will be happy when the baby starts sleeping through the night -- then, when the baby is sleep-trained -- then, when the baby starts talking." And so on -- one milestone after another. All the while, I didn't realize that happiness is something deeper. Like sadness, happiness, too, is pervasive. It is a state of mind. It is there, or it isn't. And if it is not, then one must go looking for it, because it is rather pliant, it gives at the slightest push, at the most cursory of investigations. How I have started to think about happiness very consciously is thus: "I am happy when I read and write poetry, therefore I should make an effort to do so. I am happy because I have a rewarding career. My baby makes me so happy, period." I have started to remind myself to recognize the various parts of happiness, this state of mind, and it has thrived under this attention. Of course, I devolve, I become morose due to years of habit, I start to go down the spiral of "If only X happens, I will be happy," but I try to correct myself. It was harder in the beginning and it is still rather difficult, but it gets easier each time. If I find happiness in something, I just go and do it, without preamble, without explanation, without feeling guilt over it, without trying to justify it to myself -- I simply allow myself to be. It is absolutely more arduous than giving myself up to melancholy, but it is so worth the effort.

Photos by Rebecca McCue