The Plain Art of Happiness

In general, I think most people would say they want to live a happy life. However, most of the people I talk to on a day-to-day basis don’t really give me the impression that they’re living a life of happiness. Popular answers to the question, “How are you doing?” include “I’m stressed,” and, perhaps even more frequently, “I feel like death.” Now I’m not talking about people who are experiencing extreme suffering, just ordinary, relatively decent life. People can easily say what’s wrong in their life, and how they wish things were, but rarely do people enumerate to me all of the happiness they are experiencing.

We all have these ideas about what will make us happy. We think, if only I can get an A in this class, if only I can get this cute guy to notice me, if only my roommate will stop making such a racket at night when I’m asleep, then I will be happy. But, in my experience, even when these things are realized, I’m not perfectly satisfied. Once one goal is met, I can immediately fix my mind on something else that I simply must have in order to be happy. The fact of the matter is we could go on like this forever without ever allowing ourselves to be happy in the present.

While it’s good and important to have hopes and goals, I think we need to focus a little more on all the good things that are happening in the present. When we recognize that things don’t have to be perfect, and what we have now really is good, then we can have joy.

I think some of our wrong conceptions about happiness come across even in our language about it. We place our happiness on external things that happen to us, rather than our internal state. We say, “It’s snowing outside and that makes me happy,” as though it is the snow that forces us to be happy, and not our choice to respond to the snow in a positive way.

There was a Greek Stoic philosopher named Epictetus, who held that we should only let our feelings be affected by things that we can control. He said we should, “Demand not that things happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do, and you will go on well.” If we recognize that the way our life is going is good, and decide that we are satisfied with it, then we will be much happier.

This idea ties in with something I started doing a few years ago. I’m terrible at making decisions—the knowledge that I could miss out on something good by choosing the other cripples me. And then, when what I choose isn’t perfect, it’s easy for me to imagine how good the other option could have been, and idealize a reality that doesn’t exist. So, I resolved that whatever decision I made I would decide to be happy with it. Even if it wasn’t everything I might have hoped, I would recognize the goodness in it and be happy.

Sometimes all we must do to be happy is recognize that our feelings are our own. We don’t have to let ourselves be buffeted by things that happen to us. Of course, you will be affected by things that happen in your life, but you have control over how much you react, and in what way. You don’t have to go out searching for the illusive thing that is “happiness,” because the tools to make it are already in your hands.

Ally is a first-year student majoring in English and math.

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