I sometimes get fed up with all the blather about happiness. Anyone who has inhabited this planet knows that life is composed of ups and downs, and there are no guarantees that each day will not pose some negative challenge. We may be one of the only societies in the world to have it practically assured through our official words that we have the right to "the pursuit of happiness." I believe that the sense that we are all entitled to some kind of continuous sense of joy is misguided, partly because of our definition. Ironically, the United States was found to be only about No. 27 on a scale of happiness, according to a vast recent study of the components of citizens' happiness in their societies.
One of the reasons the United States is not necessarily the happiest country on this planet is because we have traditionally equated happiness with the acquisition of things. The cliché that money buys happiness is behind many of our quests. I recall a celebrity saying that even a new car was only exciting for the first few hours one had it. I certainly don't propose that we all try living in poverty to test our values, but I have recently come across a couple of examples that I noticed because they so represented what I have been aiming for all of my life and may not have attained.
The first was seeing the study results I noted earlier. The ABC show "20/20" tracked the lives of people in "the happiest country in the world," Denmark. Certainly the inhabitants of this country enjoy a good standard of living, security because of the way the state provides for its citizens, physical health and many amenities a family in the middle of Botswana would envy. But the real key to the "happiness index" for Danes was their sense of community. According to the study, the highlight of most people's lives there is the daily interaction with family and friends, the spontaneous and frequent get-togethers with each other for coffee, snacks or even just a good chat. Community does it. The study surmised that three things were necessary for happiness: a sense of optimism, the pursuit of life's goals and the ability to have meaningful relationships.
Then I reread an article in the English newspaper the Financial Times (the Sunday magazine section) that told the story of an Italian taxi driver named Caterina, whose taxi is called Milano 25 (though she drives in Florence). Her mission in life was inspired by the previous owner of the taxi, the recently deceased love of her life, who taught her "how to live—not to see life from the outside but to look inside and see passion." When she took over his business she gave a lift to a family grieving for their terminally ill child. As a result of that encounter, she began providing free rides to sick children and their parents en route to the hospital. Now her Milano 25 is festooned with flowers and teddy bears and has become a symbol of hope. In making her taxi available for free to "those who believe in love," she has learned that "money is not what is important—being with someone is what matters. Not dying alone."
I brought this article back to the snows of Idaho because it inspired me to review yet again what is truly meaningful. Most of us seek the company of people who enrich our lives. Although I spend a lot of time alone at my computer or in creating my fabric art, I, too, crave this universal source of joy. It is up to me to get out of isolation and jump into my community. I can't find this aspect of happiness by sitting alone and stewing about it.
Certainly I want some security and wish to have the freedom money can provide to travel and be with people I love, but as I type this I am looking at another bit of writing I have framed on my desk. It is a relevant quote by Walt Whitman from "Leaves of Grass":
"Will you seek far off?
You surely come back at last,
In things best known to you finding the best,
Or as good as the best, in folks nearest to you.
Finding the sweetest, strongest, lovingest,
Not in another place but in this place,
Not for another hour but for this hour."