Tomorrow is my birthday, and always on the eve of my birthday I take stock of my life – it’s a sort of personal new year’s eve. Hovering in the background, but not always prominent, is the question “Are you happy?” It’s a good question although it is fraught with all manner of complications, mostly having to do with definitions. What is happiness? Good question. We often read about such-and-such country being the happiest in the world. But what’s the metric being used to come up with a winner? Self reporting is not very reliable because different people, even within one country, have different scales of value. Using external measures that can be quantified is no more reliable because there are built in assumptions about what makes people happy – salary, vacation time, marriage duration, health, life expectancy . . . or whatever. Are you invariably and inevitably happy because you have a good job with plenty of time off, a good marriage, a healthy life etc. ? They are all good things, but I don’t define my happiness in those terms.
Asking myself on the eve of my birthday whether I am happy or not is a simpler question because I am in charge of the scale of values; but it is by no means an easy one. My simple answer today is “yes, I am” but it needs explanation, caveats, and twiddly bits. What follows has solely to do with ME and my values. I am not giving advice.
My old college flatmate, JD, and I are best friends and have been writing to one another for decades about all manner of things. A few years ago we discussed happiness and came up with a three-tiered system:
Definitions are not going to be very precise, so I’ll give the general idea. Contentment is about one step above being neutral (which would be, not happy/not unhappy). To be content is better than that. It means that everything is pretty much working out. I’d say that’s been the state of affairs for most of my adult life, with forays into happiness or depression. To be content means there’s not much about your life you want to change. Maybe you’d say that to be content means you have a big comfort zone.
Happiness is of a different order. After JD and I had come up with the system I invented an exercise for myself. I took out my notebook and ruled up a blank page with two columns, one labeled “HAPPY,” the other, “UNHAPPY.” In hindsight I realize that I should have had a middle zone which would have been a grab bag of minor things on either side of the line such as drinking a beer (minimally good) or washing dishes (minimally bad), but I was going for deeper issues. By “happy” I meant things that are deeply satisfying to me; things that when I do them I am totally absorbed by, lost in – that is, things that I can do endlessly without wanting to stop.
My “HAPPY” list was easy to complete – writing, cooking, photography, and travel. They are actually all intertwined with one another. When I travel to new places, for example, I write about it, take hundreds of photos, and learn cooking techniques. A glance at my other blog, www.bookofdaystales.com will make that clear. But they also work effortlessly by themselves. I’m planning a birthday dinner party for tomorrow, and I have spent much of today planning, shopping, and cooking – all making me delighted. It’s hard work at times, but I don’t mind in the least.
Joy, is yet one step higher. You might use other words such as “ecstasy.” I can’t imagine anyone living in a permanent state of joy, but it might be possible. I’ve experienced pure joy a few times. These are moments when I feel utter pleasure with the world, when I feel invincible, when I feel overwhelmed with good feelings. You have either experienced this feeling or you haven’t. If you have you will know what I am talking about. If you haven’t, nothing I say here will explain it.
I’m not going to discuss my “UNHAPPY” column. It’s personal and private, and this blog is not my open confessional. I’ll say only that a couple of entries were surprises to me when I figured them out. My point, in this regard, is that this exercise cannot be idle. You have to really ponder for some time. I’d say it took the better part of two weeks to be satisfied with my choices.
Then what? What was the point? Simply put, I then had a plan of action – do only the things that made me happy, and avoid the things that made me unhappy. The middle ground of inconsequential things was what it was – you have to wash the dishes and take out the trash. No big deal.
From that time until now I have followed that plan. But there’s more to it than simply deciding to do the good stuff. You have to have the ability to do it. For most of my life I have been encumbered by duties and responsibilities that have not allowed me to just travel or write when I felt like it. I’ve had a house and car, a job, a family, and all the rest of it. That means I’ve had to invest time and money on repairs, bills, commuting and so forth. Now it’s different. Six years ago I walked away from my house and eventually sold it and its contents as well as my cars. I paid off all my debts with the proceeds, and have a little left over for emergencies. Eventually I will draw retirement. My son has graduated college and currently has enough money to support himself. That means I am free to do as I please.
Everything I now own will pack into two suitcases and a backpack. I used to have nearly 5,000 books, a kitchen full of dishes and utensils, a house full of furniture, and on and on. I left it all behind. Sure, I miss certain bits. My cast iron skillets that I took years to season were just wonderful, and I used them almost every day. But in Argentina, China, and now Italy I can cook quite well without them. Since leaving New York I’ve had six kitchens – some great, some barely adequate. But I’ve made wonderful dishes in all of them.
The bottom line is that I am happy because I am free. I don’t have to worry about leaking pipes, or clogged fuel lines, or house taxes. In fact I don’t worry about anything. There’s a saying in Italy that comes in similar forms in other cultures. “If you have a problem and you can do something about it, do it. If there is nothing you can do, accept it.” Case closed.
This summer I’m thinking of grabbing a rail pass and tooling around Europe for a month, then settling down to write for a couple of months. In the process I’ll cook, and photograph. Then I’ll teach for a bit to pay for food and housing before moving on to my next destination – unknown as of now. That’s it; that’s my life. I’m happy with it. Something could go wrong, of course. I could get sick, have an accident, have my few valuables stolen. I’ll take care of those things if they happen. There’s no sense in worrying about them now. Tomorrow is another day; today I’m happy.
That’s my birthday eve musing. Last birthday I was living in a hostel in China and was mostly at the contentment level. Now I’m in Italy having stepped up to happiness. I don’t know what’s next and I don’t care. I’m happy now and that’s all that matters to me.