Monday, September 19, 2005

What Makes You Happy?

Jacob Stein, who has a column called Legal Spectator in the Washington Lawyer magazine, wrote a piece on happiness a few months ago.

In it, he quotes from Lin Yutang's book Importance of Living, "In this world of ours, happiness is very often negative, the complete absence of sorrow or mortification or bodily ailment."

Stein goes on to say,
No creditor at the door and nobody sick is happiness enough for the wise. Lin supports his statement by the testimony of his expert witness, Chin Shengt'an, a 17th century Chinese writer who enumerated 33 happy moments in his life.
He then presents two of those 33 moments:
I wake up in the morning and seem to hear someone in the house sighing and saying that last night someone died. I immediately ask to find out who it is,and learn that it is the sharpest, most calculating fellow in town. Ah, is this not happiness?
I am drinking on a winter's night, and suddenly note the night has turned extremely cold. I push open the window and see that snowflakes come down the size of a palm and there are already three or four inches of snow on the ground. Ah, is this not happiness?

When it comes to thinking about happiness and what makes people happy, we wonder if the people around us are happy. I do, regularly, if not all the time. And I know for a fact they wonder about me as well because they ask me. Even my son - especially when he knows he's done something to upset me.

What most of us also do is maintain long lists of all the things that make us unhappy. We keep score - against family, friends, colleagues, bosses, the weather, the mailman, the traffic. On any given day, we can rattle of five or ten things that turn us off. We don't really have to think about it too hard.

But do we spare any time at all to wonder what makes us happy? Should we? Is it a frivolous exercise, indulgent even? If we have to sit down and think about what makes us happy, then does it imply that we are generally not happy? And although I don't know how old Shengt'an was when he enumerated the happy ocassions of his life, doesn't 33 sound like an awfully low number?

Well, frivolous or not, indulgent or not, I'm thinking it'll be a lot of fun to tabulate the good stuff, the stuff that makes us happy. It doesn't have to be specific instances. For example, in my case, now that I think about it, one of the things that makes me really happy is when someone laughs (genuinely, of course) at something I've said. The other thing is to see my son's flushed cheeks and twinkling eyes when he's had a good time running around with his friends in the park.

What makes you happy?

Update: Ravi over at Carpe Diem has taken this further and this is what he has to say.


Anonymous said...

Hi Sujatha,
Gosh..your post has just given me an idea for my next post re: on the subject of happiness! And here I was, waiting for an idea to come by to write again! Do check my blog today or tomorrow!
PS: Will comment on your post later!

Sujatha Bagal said...

Hi Ravi. Will do. And please do comment.:))

Minal said...

Lovely post dear, and lots to think about. It's a great idea to come up with a post listing what makes you really happy, and keep visiting it when you are feeling down and out:-)

Sourin Rao said...

What an excellent post. What is the porpose of life, but to be "happy"? Right. I could go on and on, but at the risk of sounding cliched, these dialogues from my fav movie 'American Beauty' come to mind when someone asks me about being happy (and no, i am not smoking anything!):

The first one is when Ricky Fitts and Jane are watching that video in Rickys room

Ricky: It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing. And there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just... dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever.

Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember... I need to remember...

Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it... and my heart is going to cave in.

And when Lester Burhnam lays dying in the end there is this voice over, with that haunting music:

I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me... but it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst...

...and then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life...

You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry...You will someday.

Anonymous said...

a very elegant and thoughtful post, sujata.

gawker said...

I think the problem with enumerating things that make you happy is that happiness is often very relative. Like something that could make me happy today could make me unhappy tomorrow. Like snow. It might make me happy the first time it falls, it might piss me off if it continues to fall for the entire week. Whereas, things that piss you off are often absolute. Like someone speaking on a speakerphone. Doesn't matter if it were a beautiful woman, it would still piss me off.

One of my moments of happiness was when I was drinking in New York with friends in a bar at 4:30 in the morning. Bars in NYC close at 4:30. And we were kinda bummed that everything was gonna close in a few moments. But then, we realized that daylight savings ended the same day and we now had an entire extra hour to drink and get wasted. Boy that was a moment of pure joy.

This idiot's view of happiness probably illustrates how relative it really is.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Minal and Mandar, thanks.:))

Sourin, thanks and wow! Obviously that movie's made quite and impression! Did you go look up these dialogues on a site somewhere or are they from memory?

Gawker, I think that's why the Chinese writer chose to write down specific occassions of happiness in his life, as opposed to the sort of generalized statements I made at the end of my post. Your example (a jolly good one, I must say) is more closely aligned with the type of instances the writer enumerated.

Anonymous said...

I always remember this movie called "Bawarchi" starring Rajesh Khanna and how he got so much happiness into a house which was constantly being filled with hatred. The message of the movie was- "While looking for big happiness, we loose the small moments of happiness that go by. That should not happen".

Your post..certainly something to think about but for the moment, amusing, in more ways than one.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Hi Aditya, thank you for that comment and for reminding me about that long-forgotten movie. The idea of my post was not to go looking for happiness, but to remember the instances of happiness that we already have in our lives.

Anonymous said...

lovely post, Sujatha... have realised that for most people (me atleast) happiness was always some time in the past - when I had something, when I earned so much, when I was in college... - or some time in the future - again when I get that dream job or buy that car or whatever even less material... trying so hard to find happiness in the now and here when I crack that, think I will be truly happy :)

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

things that make me happy - finding a pair of shoes marked down 75% on sale - in my size :)

my husband coming home early from work

the day's first cup of coffee

nice comments on my blog :))

a glorious sunny day with perfect blue sky

also - if u ask ppl in their late twenties and 30's when they were last happy - mnay of them say when they were 8 or 10 yrs old,... sad na?


Sujatha Bagal said...

Charu, thanks. I know what you mean. This is one of the reasons I like the movie As Good As It Gets. I did not understand that title at all until I heard it said in the movie. That's the trick, to find that fine line that separates being resigned to what we have and constantly wishing for everything we don't have. And once we've found the line, to walk it. Tall order!:)

SF, ok, are you one of those people who could never find the right size at Bata? If you are, you've found a sister-in-arms, because I never could, and I still cannot.:((

Husband coming home early - how sweet is that! About people saying they were happier when they were 8, I think if you ask them 10 years from now, they would remember a time in their teens. As we grow older, I think our old problems somehow disintegrate from our memories and we tend to mostly remember the happy stuff. Thanks for that comment about the Horton post. :))

Anshul said...

Excellent post!
This is definitely an extremely subjective topic and very well written. Here is humor for everyone :)
5 secrets to romantic happiness:
1. It is important to find a man who works around the house, cooks and cleans and who has a job.
2. It is important to find a man who makes you laugh.
3. It is important to find a man who is dependable and doesn't lie.
4. It is important to find a man who's good in bed and who loves to have sex with you.
5. It is important that these four men never meet

Sujatha Bagal said...

Anshu, thanks.

Bharat said...

Hi Sujatha,
Happened to read your take on happiness and the comments that followed. Enjoyed them all.
Here's me recipe for happiness....Rain or shine, life goes on. Good health, good appetite ( not just good food ), laughter during serious bonking with wife, over the seriousness of it all,
rough and tumble with my ten year-old daughter, walks in the park with above-mentioned two or all alone, golf on weekends, golf on weekdays while playing hooky from work,a good book, an interesting movie, songs that make you sing along or smile.....and memories....loads of them.

To most of us who have more than required of almost everything, happiness isn't too far away. But, we just search for it in the wrong places.

' Once upon a time, a cat asked a wise man where it could find happiness. The wise man said that happiness lay in it's tail. So the cat ran around in circles chasing it's tail. Then, the wise man said, "stop chasing and see what happens". The cat did so and found the tail following it.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Bharath, thank you for sharing your thoughts and such a lovely story about the cat and it's tail!

I had totally forgotten I'd written this post. Thank you for making me go back and read it.

Sujatha Bagal said...

cat and its tail.