Unusually warm February weather teased me with a taste of spring this week. The sun peaked out from behind the clouds, and I left my office and took a lap of the campus, basking in the warmth, smiling at the students and getting my blood flowing. It was bliss.
Perfect happiness doesn’t exist, but my walk across campus prompted me to reflect on what brings me closest:
Perfect happiness is contentment. No matter what is going on in my life, if I can be content in those circumstances, I can experience happiness. Like most of my emotions, I subjugate happiness to discipline. Contentment takes training and work, so my happiness, when I achieve it, is hard fought. I have to recognize that I can choose happiness. It requires taking my eyes off the swirling events around me and giving focus to what I can learn, process and express in the midst of those events, even if they are negative.
Perfect happiness is expression. Giving form to thoughts or imaginings is a unique pleasure that releases more than chemicals in the brain. Expressing ideas, particularly ones that gain traction and resonate with people, is fundamental to my makeup. To think that expression can live on well after I am gone is deeply satisfying. But similar to contentment, expression takes effort. My first drafts require revision. Being creative feels good, but true expression is work.
Perfect happiness is being present in the moment. Everything about my job in communications pulls me away from the moment. Every “ding” of a received text message, every chirping cell phone ring, every flagged email grabs my attention and leaves my loved ones starved for my acknowledgement. When I am aware of my surroundings — the conditions, temperatures, people, sounds, smells, and vistas — I feel truly alive. This takes so much effort sometimes that I fail myself and everyone around me by defaulting to the device in my pocket, succumbing to the greatest weapon against happiness the world has ever experienced – the smart phone.
Perfect happiness is physical exertion. The theme of hard work is laced throughout each of these descriptions, and for me, putting forth effort makes me happy. Whether it’s cutting the grass, going for a long run, swimming laps, or doing a bodyweight exercise circuit, I am happy when I am in motion and my heart rate is elevated. I like to sweat and push my limits. I want to be active until I die, and it makes me happy to think of myself as an old man puttering around the neighborhood, health club or even the mall, staying in motion.
Perfect happiness is accomplishment. The old adage among marathoners “it’s not about the race, it’s about the training” rings true to me. I also feel great happiness when I complete something. It’s nice to receive recognition for accomplishing a task or a goal, but it’s not necessary for my happiness. Most of the time I can recognize the accomplishment for what it is internally because I know what went into it. This pattern has been repeated so many times in my life I can’t even remember them all: serving as deacon chair for the first time, earning an MBA, writing a novel, running a marathon, canoeing the Ocmulgee River. There was happiness in the moment of each of those experiences, and there was happiness at accomplishing them.
Perfect happiness is relationship. I used to believe that love was measured in effort. If a relationship was effortless, I believed it wasn’t true love. It was just a momentary emotion, and it wouldn’t last. After nearly 26 years of marriage, I have come to believe that while relationships take work, they also provide comfort, affirmation, and embrace of the whole self. When Carla and I are connected and in sync, there is great happiness. I have reached the point in my life when I cannot imagine happiness apart from Carla. She amplifies my happiness because as we join in happiness together, it grows exponentially and infects each other and our children and those around us. When we are happy together, people are drawn to us, and we are our best selves.
Perfect happiness is sharing. Being able to give a part of myself away makes me happy. Whether it’s sharing my money, my French fries, the bed covers, my writing, or my attention, I am happpy when I am focused on others. Contributing to something greater pulls me out of that dangerous and destructive emotional space of self. I believe life isn’t about me, even my own life. It makes me happy to make life about others, giving to them, being with them and sharing with them, particularly humor.
Perfect happiness is laughter. It’s not a great revelation to profess laughter to be beneficial. Everyone knows and quotes the old saying “Laughter is the best medicine.” It is both a symptom and an ingredient in my idea of perfect happiness. The physicality of deep laughter robs me of breath like a workout. The emotional cleansing is more thorough than weeping. Laughter resets my mood and emotions better than meditation. Finding laughter spontaneously rather than seeking it or forcing it gives it power. It’s the one item from this list that is more effective for me with less effort.
For me, this list are the components or ingredients required for me to be happy, but individual sources of happiness that contribute to my wholeness. It’s probably not even an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start.
I would do well to remember this list and reflect on it often.
What is perfect happiness for you? Leave a comment and let us in on your ideas.