Monday, 10 June 2013

What Does Happiness Look Like?

Happiness is an interesting thing because there doesn’t seem to be general consensus about what it actually is. Contemplating the word makes me think that it’s a feeling. Yet when I listen to people or when I look around at culture and media messages, I come to the conclusion that it might well be a picture. A few conversations I have had with different people about the topic come to mind.

A friend mentioned to me that he remembers being eight or nine years old and having a conversation with two of his friends. One of them said that he wanted to be a chartered accountant and the other one said he wanted to be a lawyer. My friend pointed out that at a child of that age cannot even know what being a CA or lawyer entails and that we’re culturally conditioned to believe we want certain things in life. This friend and I are in a similar situation in the sense that we feel called towards the way of the artist. Neither of us is really interested in going down the traditional route solely for financial security.

I remember talking to a family member a few years ago about the same topic. She said that being happy means that there is nothing bothering you. More recently I talked to another family member about a personal decision and the way I view things. The subject of happiness came up and I said that I didn’t think people value happiness enough. She was quite surprised and said that she thought they did. I think she probably couldn’t understand why I saw things that way and I couldn’t quite understand how she thought that people valued happiness. On the other hand, my status as a misfit can mostly be ascribed to the fact that I don’t seem to want the same things out of life as most of the people I know. In retrospect it makes sense.

The way in which people generally present themselves often makes me think that everyone is super happy. I sometimes wonder where I fall out of the bus when everything doesn’t look rose-coloured to me. Yet when I look at all that goes on in the world I don’t think I can be fooled that easily. If everyone really was that happy then the world wouldn’t have been in the state that it is in. Scratching a little bit deeper under the surface of the happiness that is presented to me I often find that a lot is swept under the carpet. Not that it has anything to do with me – other people’s lives are none of my business. Yet the psychologist Carl Rogers’ theory of the organismic valuing process and incongruence comes to mind. Carl remains one of my all-time favourite psychologists because he seemed to have believed in people’s natural tendency to be whole. When looking around I cannot help but wonder if the general concept of happiness has become one of Carl’s “ideal self” (the one that can never be obtained) rather than the one of Carl’s “real self” (that which we are, in progress – a process of growth).

Thinking about what happiness represents to me (if I had to picture it) a few things come to mind. One of them is an archetype; let’s call her the Earth Goddess. She wanders in forests and thrives during night time. She is made from the same substance as the trees, the rivers, and the night sky and has an ethereal quality. I see her dancing in a spiral of light coming from the stars and the moon. The light that she receives from the heavens is sent forth into the world.

Another image that comes to mind is that of a flame that moves really fast through forests in the night, about a meter and a half or so above the ground. It’s like a miniature representation of a comet that moves parallel to the earth’s surface. The flame is continually on the verge of breaking through an invisible barrier. I’m not sure what would happen if it breaks through; I think there will be no more flames and it will move much faster as pure energy without its physical attributes. I’ll call the flame the spirit of a runner. It’s not surprising I see it that way because I’m probably the happiest person alive when I’m doing a half marathon on a scenic route.


But happiness is much more than an image. It is watching the orange of the sunset blending into the blue and black of the night sky with the silhouette of the mountains and thinking, this is just amazing and I am so grateful to be alive just to be able to witness it. It is knowing that no matter how many times my heart has been broken, I can still choose to love. It is knowing that for as long as there are still people making music and my body is in sound condition, I can dance for the sheer joy of it. It is knowing that no matter how tired I am of trying and failing, the song in my heart will always return. Happiness is triumph over suffering; it is life itself wanting to continue expressing itself. It is knowing that my natural inclination is to return to a state of wholeness. It is the urge to survive because I love life so much. The spirit of the runner that I visualise as a comet on ground level is not about winning others but about personal victory because no matter how tired one is, one can still continue running.

Happiness is being able to recognise the songs other people are singing and to identify with it. It is knowing that no matter how lonely I am, there are others who have come before me and there will be others who will come after me.

I remember a family holiday to Southern Africa we had when I was a teenager. I can’t remember where exactly but I think it was in Zimbabwe, late one night in the midst of political unrest. We drove past a local shebeen with the most beautiful music coming from the place. It didn’t sound anything like a professional band yet it was far more moving. People were singing and it sounded like they were using kitchen utensils for instruments. What I remember is not what the songs sounded like but what I felt when listening to the music. I felt connected to something larger than myself. I felt like I could see into the souls of the people making the music and feel their experiences in my heart. My father’s best friend wouldn’t stop talking about it for days. He remarked that it was the best music he had ever heard. He had simply wanted to join the people’s company for the sheer joy they emanated through their music.


Happiness is being able to sing the song of your soul despite all of life’s setbacks. It doesn’t always have to be a happy tune because sometimes the most beautiful notes are contained in a sad song. The happy person recognises that the beauty of the universe outside her is also within her. She knows that light will eventually come back to light up her life despite dark times. Happiness is the will to keep the sacred flame alive out of sheer gratitude for being here to experience it all.