Happiness doesn’t seem to be a permanent thing, though. People who say they are always happy – well, either they are lying, or maybe something is wrong upstairs. Perhaps there IS some permanent state of happiness, but whenever life gets too settled into happiness, one of two things usually happens: either we humans get bored with the constant peace, or some big catastrophe hits and our happiness is jarred loose from its moorings. We just can’t seem to be happy for too long.
However, I have to say that as people age, their want for happiness and stability changes. It is only the young, it seems, who can’t deal with the idea of long-standing joy. Growing up, I had much older parents than my peers. My mom was 42 when she had me, and because of this I was around her friends, who were also older. I am very comfortable around older people. My friends would sometimes say, “It creeps me out to think about getting older!” Why? I didn’t understand what my friends were talking about. I saw something in older people, something that was relatively consistent. With few exceptions, my parents and their friends (I am talking people over the age of 55) were content. Yes, “old” people complain about aches and pains, they move more slowly, and don’t seem to want to party anymore. But despite their wrinkles, age spots, thinning hair, and lack of modern style, they are happy. For some reason experience has brought happiness to the more senior members of society.
I know that at age 36 I find myself happier than I was when I was 21, or even 30. I remember very often saying to myself, “When this happens I will be happy.” Or, “When I am such-and--such age/make more money, then I will be happy.” Well, I became whatever magical age it was that I so hoped to be at the time, and I didn’t really find myself much happier. We continually make more money each year (thank heavens) but we seem to always find ways to spend it, and it hasn’t made us any happier. Ask anyone who has won the lottery and they’ll tell you that a year later, they haven’t found happiness – in fact, many will say that money has only brought them grief.
When I was younger I found bits and pieces of joy, but it left as quickly as it came. I said to myself “if” and “when” so much, that one day I realized my youth was gone. I “iffed” and “whenned” it away. And, while I kept waiting for the next joyful moment to come, life happened to me. Sometimes life was great, sometimes the trials were so hard that I wondered if I would ever be happy again.
Through the years I’ve experienced so much: The thrill of anticipation as the day I would marry my best friend approached, and then the happiness that filled my whole being when that day finally came. My stomach falling through the floor when my husband and I found out that his job was no more, and we had just signed a mortgage six months earlier. I felt more love than I ever thought was possible for one person to feel for another person when I held each one of my three babies for the first time. My heart has broken in a million pieces as I watched loved-ones struggle with addiction. The pride I had for my children when they learned to smile, talk, and walk. All the stages of grief I went through when my mother died, oddly mingled with relief that she was no longer suffering. Each experience has re-shaped my definition of happiness.
I think this is why so many older people are content as the years pass, and experience builds upon experience. It is not that they settle for less, or that they have given up on obtaining joy. They have found that happiness was always in their lives, but they were so busy looking for it, that they didn’t see it. After all, how can you be happy if you haven’t known sadness? How can you know joy, if you had never felt suffering?
To help illustrate what I am saying, here’s an example: there was a study I heard of in which they took babies just learning to crawl and they set the baby down on a floor made of glass that was suspended above the floor about three feet. The half of the floor that they put them down on was painted solid white, so that it appeared to be solid ground, but the other half was left clear. They put the mother opposite the baby and had her call for it to come to her, causing the baby to have to cross the clear glass to get to its mother. Each of the babies in turn would get to the part where the white painted surface would end, and even though it would appear that they were up off the ground and might fall, they didn’t hesitate to cross the clear glass to get to their mother. Two months later, after having experienced the trials and triumphs of crawling, they repeated the test again, using the same babies. The second time through, every child stopped at the portion of glass where white became clear, and they would not cross the glass to get to their mothers. The illusion of a fall was enough to stop them from proceeding further, even though they would not have fallen through the solid glass. Before their experiences with crawling, they didn’t know anything about falling, and so they didn’t worry about it. They didn’t know it, so in their minds falling didn’t exist. But after a few falls off the couch, a few tumbles down the stairs, they understood well what going off a solid ledge would do, so they wouldn’t take the chance.
That’s how happiness is for us humans! We think we know what happiness is because people tell us about it from the time we are very young. Our parents tell us stories about what happiness is, what it should feel like, and from time to time we glimpse happiness. After a few happy experiences, and a few unhappy ones, we start to realize what happiness is. By the time we are on the other side of the hill, as it were, we finally comprehend what it is to truly have joy.
I watch my elders and I see that joy is sitting by your lifelong love and watching the sunset. Happiness is the family, all together again, eating good food, laughing with one another, little ones running around the house and playing. Happiness is seeing those same sweet little ones go home with their parents, knowing that you will see them again soon. Happiness is following the same routine, and even though it is what you did yesterday, and what you will do again tomorrow, it’s alright, because it is constant. True joy can be found in nearly every moment – sometimes there are sorrowful moments, but you know that, just like joy is fleeting, so is sorrow, and it can’t stay bad forever. . .
. . .and that’s something you can definitely be happy about!