Monday, June 3, 2013

The Pursuit of Happiness

What with all my online and dead-tree subscriptions and social media "follows", I get a torrent of articles every day. Every now and then, some chance juxtaposition will grab my attention and tell me more than either article would have on its own. This happened on my Twitter feed over the weekend.

One article, from The Atlantic, was written by a woman who describes herself as "just shy of 40 years old". She mused about how her definition of happiness had evolved from "the high-energy, totally-psyched experience of a teenager partying while his parents are out of town" to "the peaceful, relaxing experience of an overworked mom who's been dreaming of that hot bath all day".

She cited a study done at Northwestern University that scoured 12 million (!) personal blogs to see what words were associated with happy experiences, correlated with the age of the blogger. Younger bloggers, they found, described themselves as "excited, ecstatic, or elated -- they way you feel when you are anticipating the joys the future will bring - like finding love, getting ahead at work, or moving to a new town".

"Older bloggers were more inclined to describe happy experiences as moments of feeling peaceful, relaxed, calm, or relieved - they way you feel when you are getting along with your spouse, staying healthy, and able to make your mortgage payments. This kind of happiness is less about what lies ahead, and more about being content in your current circumstances."

The examples cited in this article fit pretty well with the stereotype of getting old and boring, slowing down, finding contentment in blandness. No doubt, many parents who are crossing the portal into middle age associate happiness with a nice warm bath and no kids yelling "Mom? Mom? Mom?" from the other side of the bathroom door.

As I ease into my late 50s, I have no desire to resume the energetic pace I kept up 30 years ago. However, staying healthy and keeping up my mortgage payments are more a baseline between me and unhappiness than a source of actual happiness. That's like saying I'm content that I can still dress and feed myself. I may reach that point some day, but I'm nowhere near there yet.

These days, I'm less concerned with owning the newest car, showing my employer that I can give 120%, or trying to make myself look like the models in the fashion magazine (thank goodness for that!). With all that out of the way, I have more courage to pursue my own projects and ambitions. I'm willing to take risks that would have (and did) terrify my younger self. I'm willing to go all out for the things that I told myself I would do "one of these days". Like quitting a well-paying job that was draining the life out of me, with no new job lined up, in order to develop my creative side and look for ways to build a truly fulfilling and useful life. There's nothing like a glimpse of your own mortality to kick you into high gear while you still have a high gear.

Perhaps I think this way because my life hasn't been a long linear progression of advancements and material acquisitions. I've been through downsizings, layoffs, recessions, stagflations, you name it. I've learned the hard way that "security" isn't really secure. You can do your best for an employer who turns around and fires you for no other reason than to reduce head count. You can invest as wisely as you know how for your future, and see it wiped out overnight by high-stakes derivatives traders and greedy bankers. The house you proudly invested in and maintained so lovingly can be transformed instantly into a pile of rubble by an electrical fire, tornado, or flood.

I know people whose main goal is to hang onto the status and possessions that they have built up over the years. Often, there is a subtle sense of terror underneath the veneer of prosperous contentment, born of a realization of just how easily these things can be taken away.

I know other people who accept the impermanence of their circumstances, and of life itself. These people radiate a deep sense of serenity. They know that whatever happens, they will find a way to deal with it. They invest in relationships, appreciate living in the moment, and take joy in working toward their highest ideals. Oh yes, they pay bills and make home repairs and invest for their later years, but those things are merely the infrastructure, not the source of their happiness.

The second article I mentioned was much more inspiring to me. It's a post on my colleague Denise Graveline's blog, The Eloquent Woman. Denise describes a commencement speech by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the 74-year-old president of Liberia. Sirleaf is about as far from the stereotype of Gramma in her rocking chair as you can imagine. She began challenging her country's status quo in the 1970s, and in 1980, she fled the country after speaking out against the government then in power. Note: she was 42 at the time, slightly older than the mom in the first article who finds happiness in the bathtub.

Sirleaf returned to Liberia at the age of 47, and was subsequently placed under house arrest, followed by a prison sentence after she made a speech insulting government leaders. At the tender young age of 67, she took office as the first female head of state in Africa. She is one of three people who share the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work".

Denise quotes a part of Ms. Sirleaf's commencement address to Harvard University's class of 2011:

The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough. If you start off with a small dream, you may not have much left when it is fulfilled because along the way, life will task your dreams and make demands on you.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is pursuing her bliss by leading Liberia into the future. She has risked and lost everything -- several times -- and come back stronger than ever. I imagine that she takes a day off now and then to enjoy her grandchildren, or the simple pleasures of sitting in her garden. But being content with nothing more than quiet nights at home petting the dog? Hardly. Maybe the author of the Atlantic article will rediscover her inner fire once her kids are on their own. Or maybe she will just schedule another spa day and settle down with a good book and a glass of chablis.

I think I'm somewhere in the middle. I've never been driven into exile or sentenced to prison for my beliefs, but I'm not settling for bourgeois blandness either. I have things to do, people to see, much to accomplish in the time I have left.


  1. Where's the line between "bourgeois blandness" and "the serenity to accept what cannot be changed"? Put another way, how far does one push a dream before deciding that it will never be a reality?

    There's a saying--with much truth to it, I think--that winners write the history books. It occurs to me now that winners also write the commencement speeches. Of course, Ms. Sirleaf is to be commended, admired, and emulated for her courage and her contributions to the world. But I wonder about other people who may have tried to walk a similar path but weren't on that podium because they failed in their efforts--maybe some that were kept locked up as political prisoners until they died. Should we assume that they didn't dream as large or as passionately as Ms. Sirleaf? Or could it be that they were just less skilled and/or less lucky?

    --Perry B.

    1. I think we all have to answer that question for ourselves. I also think that some people stop too soon. Read the second part of Ms. Sirleaf's quote about how life makes demands on you. If you start out too small, you wind up with not very much. You can't control the world, but you can control how long you want to persevere. If you like what you have, then be happy. Just don't settle for something that doesn't satisfy you.

  2. Second try!I've heard Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speak and I'm not surprised you mention example of survival and achievement. As for the older generation (of which I am proud to belong despite the vilification of the 'baby boomers' and our failure to change the world) I propose to be dragged to my grave. No rocking on the porch watching the grass grow, or rocking in my room watching the paint dry. I will ROCK AND ROLL into the future, optimist to the end. I know you will too: things to do, people to see,much to accomplish? You bet! Rock it! Let the younger generation tsk tsk us and stare in disbelief.

    1. Mickey, this doesn't surprised me in the least coming from you. You are a prime example of living life to its fullest! I can't wait to share a good bottle of whiskey with you and you-know-who.

  3. A small postscript, from a Maxine cartoon:
    Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, wine in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming "WOO HOO what a ride!"

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  4. Peaceful, relaxed, calm, getting along with your spouse -- oh, the horror. And clearly you've never faced one of life's truly challenging and risky tasks - raising children. Somehow, many of us manage to do it without getting old and boring and finding contentment in blandness. Really. Where do you come up with these negative and false stereotypes? As for a truly fulfilling and useful life, there is a path between bourgeois blandness and being president of Liberia. Many of have found it, even if we occasionally indulge in a glass of Chablis (or was it an unpretentious Merlot), and a warm bath. You will also, I hope


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