Defining Happiness

In the past few weeks, I have been fielding a lot of inquiries about how on earth I could possibly be certain enough about Jack to get engaged to him, having now known him for a cumulative total of two and a half months, and having been with him for only half that time. This post is not going to be the answer to that; however, these questions have been bouncing around in my head, and they’ve made me think a lot about happiness – what it is, where I’ve experienced it and how strongly, and from that, what is real happiness and what isn’t. Particularly that last bit.

Europe 2013 (plus 200 photos of home) 110

Forget everything else – happiness is Irish sunlight and a magpie on your shoulder!

When I returned from Ireland last year, that last question – what is real happiness? – was a canker in my brain. I couldn’t escape from the knowledge that I’d just come back from a golden, fertile heaven and the happiest three weeks of my life, and that the world I’d plunged back into, and the life I saw stretching before me, was a barren waste of a place, sand-blasted and indistinct, its two defining geographic features a canyon, depths divorced from light’s love, and a looming, massive carcass, all rotting rib-bones and melting organs – my future, and my relationship. I had the sneaking and horrible suspicion that I would never again find that summer-country of joy – that, like a season, it was ephemeral, but unlike a season, it was not coming back. Each day brought the double pains of loss and dread – doubled again because they were shared.

My happiness in Ireland absolutely devastated Ian – not because he’s some sort of anti-joy monster, far from it, but because it was when I was thousands of miles away from him and Vancouver that I was finally able to immerse myself in my soul’s deepest delights, and he lived in the quaking, gut-twisting fear that he could never make me as happy, or ever know me when I was as happy, as I had been for those three short weeks. The same worries pounded in my blood. So I sought reassurance in books, looking for a piece of knowledge, any knowledge, that would perhaps put my feet back on earth and allow me to reclaim that state, that peace, that fulfillment. Naturally, I consulted the divine secrets of the Dalai Lama (wouldn’t you, at a time like that?), and before I had read much more than a chapter of his book, I encountered the notion that was at the heart of my problems: that pleasure and happiness were two different things. Two very different things. So, was my time in Ireland pleasure or happiness? And what was my relationship? And me being who I was, and attempting to prioritize my future over my past and a two-year relationship over three reckless weeks, I decided, heartbroken and in need of security, that Ireland had been naught but pleasure.

When I told this to Ian, he reacted rather differently than I’d expected. He was concerned that I was wrong – that in fact, he was the pleasure, and that Ireland was true happiness. No, I said. No, no, that has to be wrong – I won’t let you be right! I couldn’t let myself believe that something I’d invested two years in, something I’d tried so hard for, could be something that did not make me truly happy. I’d just have to find elements of Ireland elsewhere. I’d have to work to find that pleasure again, and bring it to my everyday life.

What is the difference between happiness and pleasure, anyway? When I think of it now, the difference lies in limitations. Does happiness include resignation? No. No it certainly does not. But resignation enters pleasure where you can see where it will fail. My time in Ireland was limited by a return ticket, but I could be entirely myself, and play music, and work, and not a bit of it was blighted by any thought besides time. For months after returning, I ached for Ireland, and still if you show me a picture of the place I find that the wound of longing has yet to close (but I also find that I never want it to). But I knew, with my relationship, that there were certain things that would always be limitations, such as where we each wanted to live, and what kind of careers we each wanted, and how long we could spend together before one of us needed a break. Basic, fundamental things. We could do nothing about those. Was that happiness?


I ache for this place. Photograph courtesy of Aurelia Garnier.

Happiness walks between another two concepts as well – fulfillment and contentment. As you probably know, these are two extremely different things. Ireland was the ultimate in soul-fulfilling adventures: I was surrounded, in the end, by a fascinating community of people, and had meaningful work every day, and spent hours wandering around in the beauty of the Irish hills, and played inordinate amounts of my favorite type of music. I wanted for nothing for the three weeks I was at Bere Island. Fulfillment, then, is knowing your soul to be satiated. Contentment, like pleasure, includes an element of resignation to limitations. You can be content with something because you don’t believe there’s anything better, or any way to improve it. Ultimately, contentment comes from having striven for more, and gotten less, but being unwilling to keep trying for reasons good or ill.

Ian’s suggestion that I could have been backward in my assessment angered me at the time – which, looking back, is another sign that I was indeed incorrect (back then, I hated being wrong more than pretty much anything). I returned to Vancouver with a determination to make things work, forgetting a vital detail: if you have to force something, if you have to make it work, it is not solid. It is not real. It is not the living, organic thing it should be. It belongs to that desperate world of pleasure – the desperate world that doubts truth and trusts only the comfortable. The seductive. The known.

Since then, I have grown to distrust my feelings of happiness. So often I ask myself, “Kate, are you happy? Like, really, genuinely, honest-to-gods happy?” For many years, I’d reply, “Yeah, things are good enough – I’m happy, I guess.” Now, I think instead about the limitations of the life I’m leading, and poke at anything that feels like resignation, trying to make it sting. I wonder whether I am fulfilled, or just contented – whether I have found pleasure, or happiness. And what I find as I turn over the stones in my mind is that I feel this world is open to me, and that I want for nothing, and that my soul is tenfold fuller than I ever expected it could be. But more importantly, all these musings have become strangely secondary – before I can ever think anything else, I know the answer: yes.


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