Sunday, May 10, 2015

Simple happiness

Final exams were last week, and a few days ago I was contemplating a post to bookend the back to school diatribe I wrote nine months ago. It would have detailed the fundamental and visible ways that the end of the academic year differs from its start. The mood on a rapidly emptying campus is a mix of elation and indifference born of exhaustion. There are no novices on campus now, no wasted steps, and virtually no one is in a hurry. Traffic is practically bearable. Summer's oppressive heat has been replaced with Spring breezes.

This is where it all went wrong. By the next day, when I got serious about writing, it was 89 degrees and humid. The magical state of inspiration was shattered. My disillusionment was beyond what the change in weather alone would dictate. I groused like my grumpiest Facebook friend.

I think this is one reason that grownups can't often achieve the same unabashed happiness that kids get out of five minutes on the merry-go-round.* Adults have complicated lives, with too many degrees of freedom in their bliss equations. Kids don't worry about tomorrow, or regret the road not taken. They are zen, unstable and uncaring. The rest of us bind our happiness to innumerable threads of achievement, entangled and often pulling against each other. Food, shelter, career success, happy and well adjusted children, regard of our peers, romantic bliss, must all coexist before we allow ourselves untainted joy. We must scale to the top of Maslow's pyramid to be unburdened, while an 8 year old is good with a hot dog and 15 minutes in the pool.

The playground may be rubber, but at least none of these kids are texting.
Image from here

I am not sure how much of this behavior is learned, and how much is a natural consequence of the way we are wired. There is a lot of gray matter surrounding the happy place in our brain. I'm sure it's there for some reason. And there is definitely a hormonal component. Self doubt and regret seem to come with puberty.

The good news is that I think the capacity for simple pleasure returns with age. Ask an eighty year old what makes them happy, and they are likely to say a good bowel movement, or a day in the garden. Our family gatherings used to devolve into stress-filled group therapy sessions. These days my family laughs through most of our time together.  I have watched my mother's happiness threshold for holidays like Mothers Day moderate from -- unachievable, really -- to lunch  and a call from her kids.

So it seems there is hope for us all, even my grumpy Facebook friend. Have a simply happy Mother's Day, everyone.

* I realize merry-go-rounds are much too dangerous for today's children. Do iPad games and Disney shows produce the same giggling elation? A question for another day -- and someone with kids -- I suppose.


  1. it IS getting easier with each passing year to get lost in a moment here or there... i'm post-peak on a mediocre career that has provided an extremely comfortable lifestyle. i have given up any and all delusions of changing the world, or making a difference on a grand scale. my adult children are out of my house, and wallet, and pursuing lives that were deliberately and thoughtfully chosen.

    A motorcycle ride today, taking backstreets to drop in on a friend's outdoor bash... joy. i could think of nothing else, other than the ride. It wasn't so stinkin' hot that sweat globules dropped into my eyes. i was happy on that merry go round - wearing a kevlar plated jacket, instead of having rubber mulch on the ground to protect me.

  2. I think this is our compensation for pretty much every other thing associated with aging. I am surrounded by the ambitious and successful -- a few individuals extremely so -- and I find myself feeling sorry for them more often than I envy them. Enjoy the rides!