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A letter about happiness (for all of us skeptics)
This week I find myself thinking about joy.
As a card-carrying pessimist and general cynic, happiness makes me suspicious.
Joy arrives and I overthink it. I test its validity through a rigid set of rules to establish its trustworthiness. And, admittedly, most “happy” moments do not meet my standards.
This last year though, I was feeling like… maybe there’s a better way. I began to wonder whether I might need to change my definition of happiness. (spoiler alert: The answer was yes).
Today I’d like to share the paradigm shift that helped me allow more joy in my life, without being quite so afraid.
Finland has been named the happiest country in the world for 6 years. Perhaps you’ve heard about this already.
(and, I know that I do have some Finnish readers. Hello friends! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.)
What strikes me about Finland isn’t so much the social infrastructure that provides the foundation for a happier society (arts funding! financial subsidies! community bonding!), though that probably warrants its own newsletter altogether.
What I think is most important is this:
In Finland, they have a different definition of happiness than we do in North America.
So it’s a bit of a rigged game, this global happiness survey thing. Ask a Finn if they’re “happy”, and you’re asking a different question than if you asked a Canadian. Thus, you’ll get a different answer.
I think my prior, default definition of happiness matches the North American ethos pretty closely.
I’ve spent most of my life subconsciously defining true happiness as follows:
Something that eclipses unpleasant emotions so that they’re no longer felt
Something in the distant future, once I’ve solved all my problems
Something permanent; a destination, an end point awarded in exchange for finally accomplishing enough
When you think about it, the North American definition of happiness is a lot like how we think about money:
More is better
Save it, don’t spend it
Since more is better, “enough” doesn’t exist
By contrast, here’s what the New York Times had to say about Finnish happiness:
Finns derive satisfaction from leading sustainable lives and perceive financial success as being able to identify and meet basic needs, Arto O. Salonen, a professor at the University of Eastern Finland who has researched well-being in Finnish society, explained. ‘In other words,’ he wrote in an email, ‘when you know what is enough, you are happy.’
Imagine feeling like what’s in front of you, as long as it provides for your basic needs, is enough?!
Imagine if you could erase the MTV Cribs definition of success from your brain and feel safe with exactly what you’ve got.
Doesn’t that idea just make your shoulders relax?
On Ants and Grasshoppers
In North America, we’ve grown up with the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper pounded into our subconscious. Or at least, I certainly have.
For those not familiar, in the fable the ants spend the summer working, storing food, while the grasshopper sings and dances, enjoying the awesome weather. When winter comes, the grasshopper starves to death while the ants survive. The moral of the story has been summed up as:
An idle soul shall suffer hunger
Work today to eat tomorrow
July is followed by December
And lots of other fun and lighthearted things you might want to teach your children.
The message I took from it was this:
When the opportunity for joy arrives, you should resist its temptation and keep working. Save up for a bigger payoff later. Whatever you do, do not spend your joy, lest you suffer in the future.
There’s a counter-fable, also ascribed to Aesop ironically, that I believe is more true, particularly as it pertains to our capitalist society. In this one, a farmer obsessively works his fields. He never feels like he has enough, and so he starts plundering his neighbour’s fields by night. This angers the gods and so he’s turned into an ant as punishment.
Note how in this counter-fable, the gods seem to have an understanding that humans are not built for the sole purpose of work. And, interestingly, greed is connected to overwork, not rest.
The (actual) Moral of the Story
When happiness is seen as a distant destination, available only after all the work is done, all the tiny moments of joy that pop up in our lives feel like a frivolous distraction.
But, in this life, there’s always more “work” to be done, if you’re looking for it. That distant payoff never comes.
Further, when a society never feels like it has “enough”, it will always wind up encroaching on resources that rightfully belong to others to satiate this relentless, ghostly hunger.
On Tiny Sips
What I’ve come to realise is this: Happiness is much smaller, yet much more readily available than we think.
Happiness doesn’t arrive in one large chunk at the finish line. Instead, it arrives in tiny sips that if not savoured immediately vanish and never return.
You cannot “save” joy like money. You can’t stockpile happiness. It arrives, it’s fleeting, and it needs to be spent – soaked in – before it disappears.
True happiness is:
On Vancouver Island (where we recently moved; see last newsletter), there are Hummingbirds everywhere. I’ve never had much experience with them before but I’ve had the good fortune to spend more time with them lately.
These adorable little guys are PURE MAGIC. They’re bright green. They weigh less than a penny. They can hover like a helicopter. They will fly up to you, suspend themselves for about 3 seconds to say hello, and then fly away.
I think happiness is like this. You’re just minding your own business when POOF! This gorgeous moment floats up to say hello. Just because it leaves again quickly doesn’t mean it’s any less magical.
When happiness arrives it doesn’t banish depression, anger, or anxiety. It arrives and is willing to keep these less pleasant emotions company; to sit with them for a time and provide some comfort and light.
I used to have a dog who loved the smell of dead animal carcasses. We’d be walking and suddenly he’d veer off course, find something disgusting, drop to the ground and start rolling around in it. He’d smell like death afterwards and be JUST ABSOLUTELY THRILLED about it.
Stop doubting the validity of the happiness you feel. The joy in your life right now – no matter how small or stinky or weird – is real and worthy of rolling around in, immediately. No questions asked.
You do not need to earn happiness. Ever. Even on the days when you’re feeling especially lazy, and you’re still wearing your PJs, and Netflix has just asked you for the 4th time whether you’re “still watching”.
Remember: You were never meant to be the ant.
Something to Noodle On:
What if, by attempting to save your joy and never spend it, you’re missing the only happiness you’ll ever receive?
What if instead you started taking joy in tiny sips, like the medicine it’s meant to be?
Sending you so, so much love,
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