Note: A few years ago I wrote a series of pieces on "What's Important." They got a decent amount of traffic on my old blog, so I've decided to re-run them on my new site.
“I was happy but happy is an adult word. You don’t have to ask a child about happy, you see it. They are or they are not. Adults talk about being happy because largely they are not. Talking about it is much the same as trying to catch the wind.”
By Jeanette Winterson
In the last installment of this apparently opened ended series of blog posts on "what's important," I talked about how difficult it is for introverts to be social on a whim. I mentioned that it was particularly hard for me to be social on demand after being social for 40 hours a week at work. Clearly, I surmised, my only solution was to stop working.
But that's not so much possible.
I've noticed something about my generation: we have no idea how to be happy. Or, more to the point, we have never thought to make happiness a priority.
I think we might be the last generation to do this. I think the generation that followed us were raised in an environment that emphasized emotional health as much as material gain, or even personal responsibility. Really, being happy was fulfilling the obligation of personal responsibility.
It makes sense, if you think about it. My dad once pointed out to some friends of his (in front of me) that their children were the first generation that really couldn't be more successful than their parents. It's true, particularly if you come from a middle class background. Look at how large the middle class was when we were born. Look at how big it is now. An awful lot of us are living below the standard we were raised on.
But that's what we learned. We learned from our parents, who were exceeding the expectations of their
parents, that our goal should be to do the same. We were raised to not only be tangibly successful, but to be responsible citizens, and those two things mattered above all else. You were to get a job, have a family, and live up to the commitments that you make. You had to represent your upbringing.
There's nothing wrong with any of that. Perhaps the personal responsibility aspect was played up a bit more for me because I was raised in the Midwest. Maybe there are people who were raised in other parts of the country whose focus was more on the material gains. But in the end, you had to behave in a certain way and achieve a certain life for that life to be considered a success.
At no point in time did happiness ever really come into it.
Which, again, makes sense. The definition of happiness has changed a great deal over the last hundred years or so. The fact that each generation was able to improve upon the previous one on so many different levels (rights, education, money, etc.) was more than enough. I would think that, on a very basic level, the feeling of moving the line forward was enough to make anyone happy.
But that doesn't exist anymore. The best my generation could hope for is to live at the same level as our parents, and I think that's left a lot of us wanting more -- but having no idea what that "more" is.
I have a lot of friends with kids and if I've learned anything from them it's that the number one thing they want for their kids is happiness. Oh, I'm sure there's an ideal situation in their heads as to the fate of their offspring, but when push comes to shove, all that matters to them is that they're happy. There are no asterisks to that, which is something I don't think you could have said about the generation that brought us into this world.
If this is true, I should be ecstatic.
It's a difficult thing to wrap your brain around, the idea that perhaps you have no idea what happiness means or, if you do know what makes you happy, no idea how to go about getting it. Even if you're lucky enough to know what makes you happy and to know how to get it, there's a part of you that fights it, because happiness isn't a priority for you, or at least it shouldn't be.
Happiness is a byproduct, not a goal.
So when you decide that maybe, just maybe, you need to make happiness a goal, what do you do? How do you figure out what things you're doing because you were told you were supposed to and what things legitimately make you happy?
Doing things to make myself happy generally makes me feel guilty. As my mother would say when I refused to finish my dinner, there are people starving in China. There are people starving right here, and yet I'm worried about my happiness. I should be happy with what I have.
Which is a valid point: I
be happy with what I have. Which then begs the question: am I not happy with what I have because it doesn't make me happy, or because I won't let it?
And that, I think, is the crux of the situation.
"Happy" by Ned's Atomic Dustbin, who
make me happy.