Happiness Finds You When You Least Expect It


September 12, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

Lounging in my lawn chair one recent Sunday -- the newspapers stacked up next to me, a cup of hot coffee at hand, the cats arranged in comma shapes on the grass, the sun dappling the leaves in light and shade -- I thought to myself: This is it. Pure happiness.

Not the blockbuster kind of happiness that we spend so much time searching for in love, marriage, work, success and a good haircut -- but the smaller, more dependable happiness that lies ,, coiled, just waiting to be sprung, in ordinary moments.

Sitting there, immersed in such small joys, I experienced the kind of carefree feeling I had as a child when it was suddenly announced the whole family was going to the beach.

Part of the happiness I felt had to do with the knowledge that I didn't have to be anywhere at any given time and that no one was waiting for me to produce something. But part of it was even simpler than that: It had to do with my willingness to simply enjoy things the way they were, not the way I wanted them to be.

Still I found myself thinking: If happiness is as easy as that -- some free time combined with a mind open to the moment -- why is it so difficult to stay happy over a long period of time? And so easy to stay sad? Is there something about the human condition, I wondered, that directs us away from being happy? Or is it that we have a tendency to misunderstand the nature of happiness -- to think of it as a permanent resident in our lives, rather than a visitor who comes and goes.

The notion of happiness as a permanent state of mind is reinforced in a recent issue of Self magazine. In an article which asks and answers the question of "Who's Really Happy and Why," psychologists and surveys tell us there are individuals who fall into the category of "happy people." Not people who have happy moments, but people who live in a condition of


And, according to the article, there are also specific groups of people who exist in a "happy" state. The hierarchy of happiness, they say, goes like this: "Women are, on the whole, happier than men . . . married women the happiest group of all, followed by married men, unmarried women and unmarried men."

Trying to pin down who's happy most of the time and who isn't seems a fool's errand -- based, as it is, on the assumption that happiness exists as an ongoing emotional trait.

But happy moments -- those moments when you feel fully alive -- certainly exist. They swim by us every day like shining, silver fish waiting to be caught. Interestingly, what I hauled in anecdotally on the subject turned out to be the small fish of happiness, not the big denizens of the deep.

Or as one woman put it: "The weird thing is that the big things I always expect to make me happy never really do. It's often little, seemingly inconsequential things that do it for me. Over the weekend, for instance, I went to my mother's for dinner and she made mashed potatoes. I haven't had mashed potatoes in months and when I saw this lumpy, misshapen mass on my plate, I was thrilled."

Here, then, from my own fully unscientific survey of friends and colleagues, is the catch of the day -- happiness-wise.

Happiness is:

Coming home and seeing the light blinking on the answering machine.

Triumphs by my kids, triumphs by me.

Thinking about the first time someone told you they loved you.

Long driving trips with someone you're completely comfortable with.

Long driving trips by yourself.

A phone call late at night from someone you were thinking about and hoped was thinking about you.

Blue Mountain coffee, freshly brewed.

Seeing someone you love after a long absence.

Waking up without the alarm.

Waking up to the smell of bacon.

A guy who says "I'll call you" and actually does.

A good perm.

Getting flowers at work.

Making coffee for a guy after a good date.

Having your hair washed by someone you love.

Random observations but with some connecting threads: love, hair, unstructured time and coffee.

But, ultimately, what's so wonderful about happiness is that even when you're not searching for it, it can find you. How else to explain the feeling I had a few days ago when a boy of about 2 came up to me in the supermarket and told me he liked my shoes.

I felt happy.

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