Toby cat on fence

What makes you happy?

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When I was five years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.

— John Lennon

At different times in my life, I’ve had different ideas about what I thought would make me happy. During my twenties, when I worked in boring nine-to-five jobs that made little use of my interests and talents, I dreamed of becoming a successful novelist, filmmaker, and/or singer-songwriter; living in the best place in the world (which varied between Hawaii, Hollywood, New York City, and Seattle, depending on my mood and goals); traveling everywhere; working on my own schedule; not having to commute to an office; having all the money I needed; and having no responsibilities that would interfere with my being a full-time, world-renowned, professional Artiste.

Ironically, at age 38, I’d achieved what I’d asked for, although not quite in the form I’d envisioned: I was making my living as a professional writer (albeit writing technical manuals rather than best-selling novels), living in Seattle, traveling throughout the Pacific Northwest, telecommuting from my company’s headquarters in Atlanta, setting my own schedule (as long as I completed a manual every three months, nobody cared what hours I worked), and making enough money to pay all my bills, put a down payment on a house, and buy lots of expensive musical equipment. I was single, childless, and petless, so I had no responsibilities to anyone but myself.

It was great—for about three years.

I got to the point where I could do my job in 20 hours per week, but I was so bored that I resented having to put even that much time into explaining to software users how to type their first name into the First Name field, click in the Last Name field, type in their last name, click in the Email field, type in their email address, and click on OK, after which Windows would display some other dialog box.

On the social front, I’m an introvert, so it was easier for me to stay home alone and occupy myself with my creative endeavors rather than find ways to go out and interact with people. I began to feel lonely—something that never had happened to me before. Whereas once I’d wanted a life of complete freedom, which I now had, it began to seem like “just another word for nothing left to lose,” as Kris Kristofferson so eloquently put it. I became discontented with my situation, and I asked the Universe for a change.

Within the next two years, I bought a house, went on an epic dating quest to find my soulmate, found her, got married, became a stepfather, acquired a dog in the process, and got another conventional nine-to-five job in which I had to interact with other humans in person and commute to an office. I now had the opposite of what my twenty-year-old self had wanted, but I was contented again.

I’m not sure that contentment and happiness are the same thing, though. Looking back on my life, I’ve always been an essentially happy person. My parents say I was a happy baby who smiled most of the time and rarely cried. I had a happy childhood and was equally into the arts and sciences. In elementary school, I had my place in the tribal order as the Class Brain, for which my schoolmates liked and respected me. It was only during my adolescence, when machismo and athletic prowess became more important than artistic and intellectual abilities, that I became unhappy for a season in my life. That passed by my senior year in high school, though, and I returned to what would become my normal state of “happy, but with minor areas of discontentment.”

What, then, do I think would make me happy now? Having Koa Leaf become at least a part-time business (we’re still evaluating different ways to earn income that are consistent with “living aloha”), seeing Pam be able to retire from a stressful job, maintaining our health, retiring in either Hawaii or North Carolina (that’s another story), having enough money in retirement that we don’t have to worry, and seeing Pam’s sons have their own versions of happiness. That said, I love my current job, Pam will retire in 2020, Oregon is still a wonderful place to live, we’ve saved enough money for a decent retirement, and Pam’s sons have found happiness, although with the challenges that inevitably come with life.

So I’m happy now, just as I’ve been for most of my life. It occurs to me, as I write this, that my ideas of future happiness are about maintaining my happiness, rather than becoming happier. As someone once said, “Happiness plus an ice cream cone doesn’t equal more happiness.”

What about you? Do you consider yourself happy? If not, what do you think would make you happy?

Featured image at top: Toby was a neighborhood cat who was everybody’s friend. He liked to make the rounds and visit people who appreciated cats. Every morning and evening, when I walked our dog, Jordan, Toby would join us. The two became good friends. Eventually, Toby started following us into our house, where he’d spend a day or a night before meowing loudly to be let out so he could proceed to his next social engagement. He was a happy, gentle soul who brought joy to our neighborhood.

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