What is Happiness?
Maybe we would know if we stop chasing it
I awoke euphoric. Delightfully alive, energized, and of heavenly spirit. Thoroughly intoxicated by joy. Never had my mind and body together felt like this.
The dream was colorful and wild. Animated and vibrant. If you are of a certain age, you remember contemporary artist Peter Max of the 1960s and 70s. The dream featured images like his paintings, awash in absolute magic.
And magic was what I was capable of preforming at will in this dream. Not a rabbit out of a hat, but gardens out of thin air. I could gesture with my hand, a swooping motion like that of an overly emoting musical stage actor, and Peter Max style flowers would appear in front of me, large dense gardens, wild and intense. When they materialized, I became exultant. Dizzied with joy. Why I was able to perform this fete was unclear. Not only did I experience the delight of this ability in the dream, but in my awakened state, too. It was utter bliss even after I had stepped out of bed. I was giddy for hours, more fully aware than I had ever been, a state of mind fueled by something deep in my subconscious ignited by an overdose of dopamine.
Is this true happiness? I thought. Is this what ultimate joy really is?
Never had that happened before nor has it happened since. A moment of ecstasy that came in a burst, lingered, and then faded like the late-day sunlight. Here . . . and gone.
What was that? Was it the essence of pure happiness; a tiny taste of unattainable joy, a bliss only made available through the unconscious mind when it is cracked open ever-so slightly by the swirling and unsettled psyche? Or was it simply an errant chemical messenger. A brain hiccup. And after an episode so divine, am I doomed to forever chase it?
My granddaughter’s one-year birthday is approaching, and looking into her eyes is my latest level of happiness. I’m happy at first light when it’s crisp and clear and I’m listening to the birds. I’m happy looking at the bright, big moon. I’m happy when I hold my wife in my arms. I’m happy when I hear great music—Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 14,” Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,” or Joni Mitchell’s “Night Ride Home.” I’m happy when I read Gary Snyder’s poem “After Work.” I’m happy walking the golf course, scratching my dog under her chin, drinking wine, smoking a cigar by an outdoor fire. I’m happy talking with my adult children about anything, anytime, anywhere. But if I had to explain these levels of happiness, I know that I could not. I’m afraid it would be only a meager and unworthy attempt at comparing them with the buoyant and celebratory Peter Max dream of magical flowers.
So what then is happiness?
It is different for all of us, certainly. But yet, what we seek is so very similar. If you think of happiness only as a drive to discover one pleasurable moment after another—a great vacation in Hawaii, a sip of $300 whiskey, a James Beard celebrated dinner—you will only find exhaustion. We all know that material things cannot feed the heart or soul. Instead, it’s the deeper happiness of being good to yourself and to the world—the happiness of kindness and generosity that we strive to find. It’s gratitude that we are reaching for.
Nick Cave, the punk music artist from Australia recently wrote in his regular “The Red Hands File” newsletter that his goal through his art, in some small way, is to facilitate a “mutual journey toward meaning . . . to draw us all closer to love and to beauty.” He admits they are “grandiose” ideas. But on the other hand, he writes, they are not. Happiness, he suggests, comes to us in a multitude of small ways—saying “hello” to the “cranky old bastard” who lives down the street, smiling at a stranger, or through a “rudimentary act of tolerance.”
If we accept that advice, we are no longer “chasing” happiness, but living it. And what a difference that perspective can make.
I have no idea why I had that magical dream, how it manifested, but I would love to experience it one more time, to feel again that extraordinary and electrifying sensation. But instead of spending my energy trying to evoke a fantasy, to chase that happiness, maybe I’ll remain in the conscious world and simply smile and say hello to the “cranky old bastard” down the street.