Picture this. Me sitting in a chic Chicago cafe, just having paid $5 for an Arnold Palmer on a strangely humid afternoon in fall. Deep in thought, typing wildly. I admit my cliché badge is prominently on display. I’m entirely aware that several months have passed since my last email and that my annual letter has arrived every August for the past 8 years, but the delay has not been without reason. I’ve been conducting research and can finally share some results.
Over the summer my mom called. Usual subjects-- weather, work, and when do I plan to move back home, buy the house next door, start a family, and provide her with eight grand kids? Reassuring her that’s all underway, thankfully, a different topic arose. We talked about what my life was like when I was younger. She recalled, I was usually practicing, prepping a performance, or packing for an adventure in a new place altogether. “This is when you were happiest,” she offered. Great thing about mothers is that they are likely the only consistent witness of our development throughout life. They are probably the only people who possess any real accuracy when comparing their adult child to the rugrat who once didn’t eat his peas, struggled with organic chemistry, or bought his first car. They know us well. Point being, her comment did two things. One, it simply reminded me of values that I hold; and two, our conversation resonated such that it required me to think more intentionally about happiness. This has been my research-- exploring what happiness might mean day-to-day. Here is what I’ve discovered, and here are the questions I’ve posed around this sometimes not so clear cut, perhaps esoteric, often elusive, yet deeply rewarding concept.
Happiness is a noun.
Weird. Like a glass a water, a piece of tree bark, or the fuzz between your toes when you take off your socks, happiness is supposedly a tangible thing. If you reach for it, it's just going to be there-- like a coffee table book or a broom at the back of a closet, right? Easy. But according to all-knowing Siri and a dusty dictionary I checked, happiness is the state of being happy. Hmm... "a state of being" that's also readily available like chalk, hand sanitizer, or sand on a beach? I'll leave the philosophy to the pros and avoid getting too Descartes-y, but that’s already kinda trippy, non? By comparison, it's as if just recognizing the glass of water on the coffee table automatically quenches our thirst, but without ever having swallowed any. God forbid there be yard work or a heat advisory. Bluntly put, happiness is weird and it's a complicated idea right out the proverbial box, regardless if you've mastered it or, like most of us amateurs, if you're still parsing it out.
Over or underwhelmed?
I read a book that had me envision a see saw. On one end I was to place the concept of being overwhelmed-- like cooking dinner for 40 people, operating on a US president, or whatever would fall conceptually into this camp. On the other side, I was asked to place the opposite, the concept of being underwhelmed-- a dead end relationship, small avenues for professional growth and self empowerment, or perhaps a bowl of plain oatmeal with no toppings. We all hate that. Then it was posed, “what direction should the see saw tip?” Well, that’s like asking what pit I would want to fall into first-- lions, or sleeping lions? Either way, I end up a tall and handsome piece of catnip. No thanks. The answer is neither side. Instead the author describes that happiness lies in our ability to simply be whelmed, being whelmed is enough. By doing so, we actively avoid the extreme ends of the metaphorical scale and avoid the imbalances that delay, and even deter, happiness. Recognizing when the scale begins to tip and teeter is what's key. The goal, is to gradually eliminate the extra weight.
Pencil yourself in
I was in England over the summer. During my travel, I passed through Penrith, a small and dusty town in the far north, yet with epic scenes and lovely, lovely locals. This is what some might describe as the middle of nowhere. I decided to have lunch in a pub hundreds of miles from anything, literally an-y-thing. It sat a few kilometers from the base of a very large hill that reached upward, infinitely into a grey and foggy sky. The old cobbled building was surrounded by herds of sheep basking the in damp English countryside. Clusters of carefree ewes scattered themselves wildly across a lush field, wet and green as far as I could see. Before eating, I chatted briefly with a herdsman and his wife to learn that, not once, in 30 years, have they ever missed having tea together in the pub. Come rain, shine, or winds the couple showed up, no matter what. That astonished me as their story was corroborated by other regulars of the pub... While many of us map out the day to pick up the dry cleaning, take the kids to rehearsal, and to get the Buick an oil change, I wonder: who among us makes time each day for happiness-- not that it is a byproduct or an afterthought; but instead, re-framed, that it also becomes just as important to the day, that happiness becomes a beautiful habit and our most necessary chore? Two people definitely have me beat.
Happiness requires the right equipment.
A tricky thing happiness is. It sometimes feels as though it exists at the top of a mountain, and below near the base, we peer up and scream, "how the mother fricking frick do I get waaay up there? I don't climb. I can barely make it through Zumba!" With self-discovery as our only guide, we set out onto a bumpy terrain, just hoping to arrive somewhere near the top. But what good is this type of hope, especially without a helmet, a harness, and a few sturdy ropes? In spite of how narrow or intricate the path, and in addition to a general sense of the route, it's important to gather and maintain any required tools. Happiness is no different. Like scaling Kilimanjaro, it demands a mix of both simple and sometimes more intricate inner tools to help achieve it. Challenge is, there is no catalogue, no app, or no such archive to which we can turn to order our supplies. In fact, there really is no definitive map. Instead, here is where the work is done and the effort we must supply. Here is where we must learn to take stock. Here is where it's imperative to identify what is critical and necessary for the climb.
Purpose. It's the most important thing.
I'll end this year's annual letter by harping back to a subject I wrote about when I crafted a Fulbright proposal and was rejected for the third time. It's linked so closely to the theme of this letter. I wrote about purpose. More specifically, I wrote a little about Downton Abbey, Isobel Crawley, and a compelling monologue she gave before leaving the Abbey. She says, "It might surprise you that I wish to leave such a paradise, but I require that I be useful. I must go where I have purpose. It is the only way to see and feel my happiness." What is so striking about this concept is the suggestion that each of us posses a similar inward compass. That each of us is innately guided by the same identical nudge that directs us, ushering us towards the bastion of our values; towards the richness of purpose; and towards the very center of complete, abiding, and sublimely rhapsodic happiness.