Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Happiest Day

I was happy the other day... I mean, I'm often happy, but that day I was especially conscious of the fact. I was pondering how much I love living here in my adopted country - how I enjoy my work - how my writing career is going moderately well - how I'm whittling away at the long list of things I have to do this month! Anyway, I started thinking, "I think I've been happier here that I ever was living in the States."

Then I stopped myself. I began remembering all the wonderful times I'd had, a decade ago, two decades ago. Parties. Vacations. Plain old ordinary days shared with my husband. Then I cast my mind back even further, to my graduate school days, when I was lithe and energetic, belly dancing, and hitch hiking across the country with my boyfriend, and making love...And I realized that it was a mistake to start making comparisons, to say, "This is the best time of my life."

Happiness isn't really a quantity that can be precisely measured. For one thing, there are a million shades of happy, aren't there? How do you compare the feelings you had at your wedding with those you experience when you learn that one of your students won an award - or when your best friend gets the news that she's cancer-free - or when you find a fabulous review of your latest book? Happiness is a heady blend of excitement, contentment, pride, confidence, relief, arousal, peace ... every happy experience involving different proportions.

More importantly, though, I think that the passion to measure and rank experiences robs them of their distinctiveness - and sets you up for disappointment. After a while you're not directly feeling the great things in life anymore. You're asking yourself, for example, "Is this trip to Japan as good as the last one?" "How does tonight's orgasm stack up against last night's?" "Do I love him as much as I loved X?" And if you find yourself answering in the negative, all at once your prior happiness goes sour. Yeah, it's good, sure, but it's not THAT good...

In the legend of Faust, the main character makes a pact with Mephistopheles. The devil will provide Faust with everything he desires: riches, happiness, sensual pleasure. On the day that Faust declares is his happiest day - the day he wants to never end - Faust agrees to give up his soul. I'm wondering if comparing one experience to the next on some kind of nebulous "happiness" scale is a step toward this kind of bargain, and this sort of result. When I compare one experience to another this way, I'm sucking out its soul.

My final realization (at the conclusion of all this philosophizing!) was that other kinds of comparisons are dangerous, too. For instance, when I compare my looks to other women, I'll find myself either gloating nastily about looking younger than many women my age, or feeling miserable about all my wrinkles, aches and pains. When I compare my sales, or my productivity,or my number of blog hits, to other authors, I'm likely to make myself depressed. It's difficult to write well when you're doubting your own capabilities or when you feel that you have no chance at success.

This realization is a bit of a wake-up call, and I'm planning to turn it into a New Year's resolution. In 2011 I will try not to compare intangibles - but just to enjoy the moment and be grateful.

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