If you are like most people around here, your first word this year was “Happy.” You then hugged and/or kissed the person next to you, before texting your friends and posting something fun on social media. If you are like me, you don’t remember what your first word of 2015 was because you were deeply engaged in a solo project in the comfort of your home. And if you are me, you also just finished rereading Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. In this chuckle-inducing book, Gilbert explains why we, humans, make decisions motivated by this pursuit of happiness, yet are absolutely awful at predicting what will or will not make us happy. I didn’t buy the book (I found it), and I don’t buy everything that’s in it either. However, it’s a fascinating, instructive, and humorous read. Combining this with those New Year resolutions that suddenly got my gym super crowded, I found myself thinking about that agreeable feeling called happiness.
How does one define “happy”? Writers, philosophers, and armchair psychologists throughout history and around the world have explored this topic at great length. Movies, documentaries, and research studies have also gone over this, as people have searched for happiness everywhere from inside our genes to outside the physical world. I’m not going to even attempt to define happiness, or claim to have found the key to Happiness. What I can contribute, however—other than an insightful statement on the wall of a mall in Singapore—is something that a friend once shared with me.
Tony wasn’t just a favorite teacher turned friend; he was also a role model and someone who would end up making a deep impact in my development as a young adult. When I met with him twelve years later, he had made some significant—and unexpected—life decisions, once he’d realized he wasn’t actually happy. I asked him whether he had any piece of wisdom to impart, based on where he was now in his life. “Wisdom doesn’t come with age,” he said after a pause. “It comes with paying attention.”
Wisdom doesn’t come with age; it comes with paying attention.
Unlike psychologist Barry Schwartz’s idea that “the secret to happiness is low expectations,” this concept of mindfulness sounds, to me at least, like a much more promising direction in the search for our unicorn. Even if Tony was speaking of wisdom rather than happiness, paying attention means we’re more tuned in to our needs and the needs of others, and we’re probably more adept at recognizing symptoms, patterns, and potential solutions to our problems. We would be less likely to repeat the same mistakes and more likely to enjoy our daily gifts, find ways to grow, and be patient with ourselves when we falter.
… to the big and small things, inside and around us
I happen to have been paying attention, you see, and so naturally if you were to ask, “What makes you happy?” my immediate response would probably be “Food!!!” What, I do love food. Happiness might be a destination, but it is absolutely part of the journey as well! Sure, pursuing happiness does not equate pursuing food, but I would be a liar to claim that I don’t get excited about, say, a brioche au sucre from Flour. And I love the smell of baking in the house, the smooth feeling of a pen gliding across Clairefontaine paper, the way my office gets flooded with warm light from the setting sun in the evening…
Paying attention means not taking good things for granted, including the small things in life. It’s a bit like creating your own version of Julie Andrew’s “My Favorite Things.”
Paying attention is also one way to get to know yourself, your strengths, and your limitations. (I mean, you’re kind of “stuck” with yourself for the rest of your life, so you might as well be nice and get to know each other…) In everyday life, that can help you keep your New Year resolutions, or at least understand why you broke them. You’d be aware that one brioche au sucre is probably enough. You might also recognize when you’re not being yourself and should walk away from a pointless fight. I’m working on that myself. On a larger scale, it can mean breaking away from a vicious cycle or, in Tony’s case, asking yourself some difficult core questions. For me, the hardest and most rewarding decision of my life could not have been made without acknowledging that voice in my head, supported by hundreds of diary pages in which Younger Me kept making the same mistakes. Sometimes, it takes courage to be happy so let’s pay attention… unless we believe that ignorance is bliss, in which case let’s just forget about this and be merry.