“There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself.”
– Henry David Thoreau
I was 19 and sitting in a classroom off the Midway. The class was discussing happiness, the topic introduced by a visiting lecturer known to resent working with undergraduates. He began the session with a question. Are most people happy? The class fumbled, tossing thoughts around the room, not quite sure what he was looking for. He stopped us. Ladies and gentlemen, I want a simple yes or no. Our consensus was no. His was yes, but he did appended his thought. He believed that happiness was generally unrecognized because it was a state of mind that was taken for granted and overlooked because it happened so often.
He moved on. What is happiness? Is it more than a trendy word that describes a feeling? That opened a kettle of worms. Words like joy, delight, awe and contentment were thrown out. He insisted these were components or expressions of happiness, not happiness itself. So, what then is this happiness we are looking for? Our definition, for the duration of the class, considered it to be a state of well-being that occurs when life fulfills personal needs.
So, then how does joy differ from happiness? My definition, unrecognized by anyone other than myself, is that joy is the expression of happiness in the extreme. We had a cynic in the class who viewed joy as a liquid for washing dishes and two divinity students insistent on the biblical view of joy as salvation through Jesus Christ. There were only 12 of us in the class and because we were a crew with strong opinions, the discussion put me on edge. At that moment, I would consider joy to be a mercifully quick end to the class. Years later, I would joined the ranks of women who experienced true joy when our babies were first placed in our arms. The arguments of philosophers and theologians paled in comparison.
The group concluded that delight was merely an outward expression of happiness or joy. It was thought to be a fleeting emotion, usually felt when something new was encountered. Babies are particularly good at expressing delight with new things and I have memories of a toddler we saw while hiking in the Smoky Mountains. Sometimes nature and fate collide. This little guy happened to be stream side when a swarm of butterflies emerged from their cocoons. His delight was contagious and I can still see his small hands trying to catch them as he jumped up and down. I also remember the smiles on the faces of the adults watching him.
Awe was easier for us to define, though individual experiences of it varied. We agreed it was the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world. Personally, I’ve experienced awe when I saw the ghost-like plumes of the Aurora Borealis streak across the dark Norwegian sky. Equally memorable was the time I saw Sajia Ozawa conduct the Chicago Symphony. Bob and I had been gifted orchestra seats 10 or 12 rows behind the conductor’s podium. Ozawa was 27 at the time and, with that great mane of hair, he looked for all the world like a dragon whose baton was breathing fire. The sound that came from the orchestra swarmed and enveloped me, creating tonal memories that I carry with me to this day.
Emotions are like money whose value is appreciated only when it falls short. So, when we weigh the relative merits of contentment versus happiness we have some choices to make. Contentment is a way of life and a component of happiness, but because happiness is transient we have to weigh the merits of what we seek. Certainly the two are compatible. I like to think of contentment as home ground, a place where my basic needs are met and my general well-being is insured. Happiness is a destination that provides moments of satisfaction and excitement that enhance contentment, but it is unsustainable because what delights me today may not please me tomorrow. Should that professor from my youth resurface and again ask if I was happy, I’d smile. I’m content because the peace and equilibrium that come with contentment is priceless.