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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Simple pleasures... and then some

When I think about happiness, I think about an overall sensation of contentment. Happiness, to me, is a state you are in as a general rule of life. I can go through a yucky day and still consider myself a happy person, because overall, I have lasting feelings of satisfaction, gratefulness, enthusiasm and peacefulness.

This does not mean that I look at the world with pink colored glasses, seeing only the good, oblivious to all the bad, the unfair, the painful, the cruel, the sordid (and heavens know there is also a lot of that). This does not mean I am a happy-go-lucky who thinks "all is the best in the best of all possible worlds". It does not mean, either, that my life has been a succession of good things with never a pain, never a loss, never a despair.

Despair, by Edvard Munch

It simply means that happiness is one of my characteristics. Whatever happens, I will acknowledge it, deal with it, and try to make things better if I think I can. I will allow myself to feel frustrated, disappointed, sad, angry, scared. I am willing to be patient if something particularly hard to handle happens: negative feelings can (and they have in the past) become overwhelming for a while. But I will not let anything make me an unhappy person. Life is too short for that, and too precious. Everyday I nurture my happiness. It's a life choice.

I have been in different waters in the past. I used to be a worrywart. Like everyone, I have faced hardships. Granted, I was born in the right place at the right time, I never experienced extreme poverty, and I was never  targeted as member of a group to be exploited/exterminated (although I have felt some discrimination at times). That's a good start of course. But I did have my struggles, including depression, which is a curse I wouldn't wish to my worst enemy, and which I would never take lightly: if you feel deeply depressed, and it's not getting better, please do get some help. Even if you're convinced it will not do anything for you. (That's just your depression talking.)

The beauty of it all is that despite those hardships and struggles, each of us has access to happiness. If only we make the decision to be happy. I was amazed to learn that people who live in the slums of Calcutta, who can barely feed themselves and their family, who can barely find shelter, and for whom the only way to make a little tiny bit of money is generally through something either unhealthy or just plain dangerous... I was amazed that these people still find a way to celebrate on a special day, spending to their last penny for some colorful piece of clothing and some sweet piece of a treat. When it comes down to it, we are all the same: we need pleasure.

I do not equate happiness with an easy life. I don't equate it with pleasure either. Pleasure is ephemeral, and it depends on something tangible. We cannot afford to depend on something tangible to be happy. It would be too fragile. I know I want my happiness to be strong and durable. Which is why I cultivate it as a personality trait, that transcends (or tries to transcend!) everything else.

There are moments, however, when I feel first hand the powerful effect of pleasure on my happiness. It can be so simple. One of my extremely simple pleasures in life, for example, is to put clothes on the clothesline. For some reason I find it therapeutic. The repetitive movement, being outdoors in a cool or warm breeze, listening to the birds, taking a moment to observe the sky, the flowers or the trees. I usually do it in the early morning which also means it is still very quiet and peaceful outdoors.

Those kinds of moments cost nothing and originate from almost nothing. They make me happy because in the face of something so simple and so down-to-earth, I take my "happiness wand" and touch every single bit of the moment with the tip of it. Everything becomes sparkly and joyful, or sometimes just blissful and peaceful. I look around and not only do I see things, I notice them. Was the the bird bathing in the bird bath a source of pleasure until I looked at it, paused, smiled and thought about how wonderful it is to have a bird bathing in the bird bath we installed there? If a cute squirrel is running up a tree in the the forest and no one is around to see it, is it still cute?

But exit the pictures of cute squirrels. What I want to talk about now is one particular moment of simple pleasure I had on the weekend, spending part of the afternoon in our neighbour's brand new pool, chatting, splashing around, having a cold drink, just enjoying this nice summer day. Of course, being who I am I could not refrain from bringing a deeper topic up for conversation; after all I have just finished reviewing/editing that PhD thesis on Chinese philosophy, and after being immersed in it for so long I had to share some of what I learned with other people. Luckily enough, T and M were interested, and this turned into a fascinating debate over the respective merits of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Christianism and atheism. We got to the deep meaning of life. Discussing this while wearing a bathing suit and sipping on a bottle of beer is certainly the kind of pleasurable moment that makes it to my top ten.

Then this morning I went for a run with my friend at the break of dawn. The air was fresh, and the sunrise was painting the sky with pink and orange and purple. While pumping those hearts and legs we got to chat about so many fascinating topics (including the new tendency for highly regarded, highly paid business people to drop everything to follow their - much less lucrative - passion. I will come back to it). A joyful moment for sure, and such a great way to start a day!

Then there's always those phone conversations with my friends:

With M, who was the one to call me and who exclaimed "Oh sh***" as soon as I answered the phone (her washing machine was having technical problems). I love it that she feels so close to me that she won't hesitate to start a conversation with "Oh sh***". But what I love mostly about how comfortable we are with each other is that we can pretty much talk about any topic. I find that priceless.

With B, who is the bubbliest person I know in spite of whatever life throws at her. I love the fact that whatever we do, and however busy we are, we always end up chatting for hours.

And I won't even start on the wonderful email correspondence I keep with members of my family close and afar.

Those little joys, those kinds of moments are just a drop in my "happiness bucket", and I don't need them to be happy, but they certainly contribute to it. In addition, keeping my happiness bucket quite full ensures that I am well equipped to deal with the less-than-ideal circumstances of life when they occur. For example, I can turn to a wonderful memory to put sunshine in my life when I feel like everything is going in a downward spiral. It doesn't make today any better, but it puts everything in perspective, and it reminds me that despite the bad moments, there were and there will be good ones. Life might sometimes be tough, but this is all worth it.

How do YOU make sure your bucket stays full?


  1. Love, love, love (and share) your ideas on happiness! My bucket stays full with long walks/runs on the mountain and time with my husband and dogs. Or a good book, read in the sunshine. Surprisingly I also love hanging up washing (and never want to have a tumble dryer)! Thanks for putting it all so eloquently!

  2. Back in August 2012 you wrote this post ... today January 2015 I've read it for the first time. I think it's a great post and one in which I agree with many of your view points. Perhaps in this somewhat crazy world of ours it has even more meaning.

    Thanks - it's made me think.

    All the best Jan