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by Julia Sneden

When I was a kid, one of my grandmothers gave me a small calendar that contained a lot of inspirational sayings. Oddly enough, the only one that stuck in my mind was:

“Happiness is not a goal: it is a way of life.”

I don’t recall if that sentiment was attributed to anyone in particular, but if you go to The Quotations Page and type “happiness” into their search engine, one of the many quotations that comes up is a similar thought from a man named Roy M. Goodman, who said it this way:

“Remember that happiness is a way of travel, not a destination.”

The site doesn’t note which Roy M. Goodman they’re quoting, but it’s probably either Roy M. Goodman the conductor, or Roy M. Goodman the New York power broker. If it’s the latter, it’s a good thing he felt that way, inasmuch as his political career in New York State didn’t turn out happily at all.

There is much to be said for the idea that happiness isn’t a thing that can be found just around the corner, even if you look hard. It isn’t an object which one may grasp and possess. You’ll note that Thomas Jefferson didn’t say “…that among these [certain, inalienable] rights are life, liberty, and happiness” when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He said: “…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Mr. Jefferson was a clever man. He recognized that what makes one person happy may not be the same as what makes another person happy. All that his declaration advocated was allowing citizens to pursue whatever they thought might make them happy. Even then, there are obvious limits on how we may pursue our happiness. Murdering your mother-in-law might make you happy, but if you pursue it to completion you won’t be happy when the cops show up.

There are very few material things that have made me happy for very long, but there was that shiny new post-war bike with a bell and a basket, and a fire-engine red prom dress, and the first house that we bought. All were immensely satisfying for a short while, and they even have a mild glow in memory, but in fact, the delight didn’t last. The bike became dented and wobbly (I was a rough rider); the net along the edge of the strapless prom dress itched like crazy, and the new house had to be kept clean; it also came with a backyard that flooded in a good rain; and a black snake took up residence in the basement.

There are, of course, degrees and kinds of happiness. The most rewarding kind, for me, is the brief, unexpected moment when happiness sneaks up and brushes against me, and I suddenly recognize that in that instant I am completely happy. Those moments can’t be sought or manufactured; they just hit you with a kind of quiet, amazed joy. It’s usually small things that set them off: feeling the warmth of a beloved dog leaning up against you, or sitting on the floor by the fireplace and rubbing the back of a grandchild stretched out on the rug next to you, or sitting at the dinner table with old friends, laughing and reminiscing at the end of a good meal.

Those little instances are deep and sustaining, unlike the ecstatic rush of joy that follows giving birth, when the endorphins flood your brain with relief and triumph. I’ve often wondered if the “Baby Blues” that follow in a few days are nothing more than a reaction to the drainage of those wild endorphins, fair weather friends that they are.

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