What Makes You Happy?

        –  Jay Shepherd, August 14, 2014

We live in an aspirational society.

There are lot of good things about that – progress, technology, art, upward mobility, etc.  Society benefits from the aspirations of individuals and their realization.

But at its core, an aspirational society is about never being satisfied.  It has a negative implication, in that it is about never being truly happy with your life.

It was against this backdrop that I realized, the other day, just how many things in my life make me happy, right now, today.

The gold standard is hugs.  This is probably true for most people.  Hugs – particularly hugs from your own kids – generate a feeling of happiness against which all other happiness-inducing moments are judged.  (If you want a real question to answer, answer this:  did you ever really give your own parents enough hugs?)

What got me thinking about this in the first place was music.  Like many people, I will often respond to a song, meaning I let it get inside my head and heart, and it generates emotions.  Which songs do that is not always predictable, although I tend to like songs with strong harmonies (the “hugs” of the music world).  Undoubtedly, though, the right song at the right time will make me feel happy.

Of course, I have lots of music in my life, so songs make me happy a lot, sometimes several times a day.

But there is lots more beyond music, and hugs.  I started to make a list.

Books.  As far back as I can remember, a good piece of fiction – not everything, but something that really grabs me – will leave me feeling happy and alive.  Fiction can be happy or sad, but truly experiencing the alternative world of the author always, overall, generates happiness.

Art – painting, sculpture, architecture – can produce the same response.  There is a lot of art that interacts only with my intellect, and generates no feelings.  But some – again unpredictable – interacts with my soul.  That produces happiness.

The list started to get pretty long.  Waterfalls.  Not Niagara Falls (although that’s nice too), but smaller waterfalls surrounded by forests or mountains.  A view from a high vantage point, like a mountain top or even a building.  Sunrise, particularly on the water.

Overcoming a difficult intellectual challenge also does it, whether at work or leisure.  It could be completing a difficult argument, or a complex cross-examination.  Or, it could be a crossword, or a sudoku, as long as it’s hard enough that you’re not sure you can succeed.

To my surprise, a long bike ride can make me happy, even as the knees groan in pain and the mouth gets dry from insufficient hydration.  I never really understood that one, but scientists have found that exercise releases endorphins, so perhaps it isn’t so surprising.

Putting a smile on someone else’s face is one we often forget.  Many times a day we have the ability to make someone else feel good and, when we do, the happiness generated often envelops us as well.

Doing creative things produces happiness.  I’m not good with my hands, but building something has always made me feel great, despite realizing that the actual accomplishment is mundane.  Painting a picture.   Writing a story.  Modelling in clay.   Even cooking a good meal can generate that feeling.

Funny, though, some things that I think I “like” didn’t really make it to my list.  I “love” wine, but drinking even a really good wine doesn’t make me happy.  Nor does eating great food, or engaging in an intellectual debate, or making money.

Anyway, my list of happy things kept getting longer and longer, and along the way I started identifying things that are not on my list, but would be on the lists of others:  riding a motorcycle, long distance running, yoga, petting the dog, cleaning, mountain climbing, computer gaming, dancing… the list is almost endless.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having aspirations.  Hope for the future, including in particular striving to make it real, is a positive part of life.

But, I wonder if we too often ignore the many things in our lives that already make us happy.  Perhaps it’s a worthwhile habit, every once in a while, to make one’s personal happy list, a reminder of the good stuff we already have.

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About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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