A few days back I got into an intriguing conversation. I was asked who I would consider a “happy person”. I drew a complete blank. I couldn’t think of anyone. I pushed myself on the question for hours. Nothing.
I found the thought troubling. Is it possible that there are really no happy people? Am I so blind to happiness that I am surrounded by many happy people and completely unable to notice it? I could name 100 people I think of as angry or miserable people who have suffered greatly, but I could not come up with one person who I would think of whose defining characteristic to me would be “happy”.
I couldn’t come up with an answer that made any sense. I decided to attempt to find someone who considered themselves “happy” and really hear them out on their point of view. I put up a post on my Facebook page seeking someone who considered themselves a “happy person”. I got several responses.
The person I ended up interviewing was perfect. Her story is compelling and thoroughly poignant. She is extremely honest in her answers. She asked that I did not use her name so that she could tell her story as truthfully as possible without the potential problems with being entirely truthful in a venue that can be accessed by anyone on earth. (She was comfortable with me mentioning that she is from Portugal)
You consider yourself to be a happy person. Why?
I always see the positive aspects of everything. I’m an optimist, a glass half full kind of person. Smiling or laughing are my default modes. I always enjoy my meals or the view from my window. I love to put on my headphones and listening to a podcast while I perform boring chores. Some people say their children revived that spark in them but in my case I’m trying to create a permanent spark on my son.
How do you define happiness?
I wouldn’t. As a sociologist I’m very careful with my concepts. I often feel tense or anxious, of course, like all people. But aren’t we mistaking moments for the grand total? I have terrible moments. Rage, sadness. But overall I am very happy, my life has been comprised of more positive than negative.
What percentage of the time would you actually consider yourself to be happy?
90%. I do understand other emotions and I don’t deny them.
Do you believe your happiness is more a product of what is inside of you or of how you were socially conditioned?
The answer is, of course, a mix of both. My mother is very pleasant and a really good person but very pessimistic. My dad was very harsh but also very funny and carefree. I think I took a bit from both of them. I do believe it’s inside of me because my parents always told me I was a very happy child, way before I could understand what it all meant.
Do you think there are circumstances that could change your view of yourself as a happy person?
Yes. I think that continued trauma could change this. But it had to be something big, much like torture. As I told you privately, if we’re taking circumstances, I’ve been through stuff. In the past I’ve had two pregnancy terminations, unwillingly, one as an early miscarriage and the other one due to severe heart malformations. My father passed away earlier this year. Then, I underwent knee surgery. My husband is going to be away from home for a month during the ending stages of my thesis work. In July my scholarship ends and I have no prospects. I SHOULD be unhappy, right? But I’m not. I’m sometimes tense and anxious. But I’m not unhappy.
I still have my healthy mother. If I’ve had those children I wouldn’t have this particular child right now. Because after limping for six months my knee is now fantastic. My partner is an amazing person that is leaving his son to bring home some extra money and it’s only a month. If I don’t pursue the academic life in the future at least I’ve tried it for a bunch of years and I’m able to say that I’ve lived my dream for a while. I live a blessed life, with a happy healthy child, a loving partner, full of gadgets and entertainment and funny people and friends… why should I be unhappy?
Why do you suppose so many people feel unhappy?
Money, life events, the news… life is tough, man. I’ve been lucky all my life, so far. The pros column is full and the cons column has some stuff but nothing that can overshadow a lifetime of success and happy moments. Sometimes it’s really hard to do this math, I’m not a guru or an expert and I’ve had my moments so I truly understand unhappy people. It’s very easy to get swallowed in the vortex of unhappiness.
People use the expression from time to time “ignorance is bliss”. Is happiness a condition of self-delusion/ignoring personal pain and the suffering of those around you (and in the world as a whole) or do you believe people can authentically recognize pain and still be happy?
I am very blissfully ignorant about some subjects that I know will hurt me. I hide Facebook posts about abandoned or hurt animals, for example. Also I don’t watch videos, tv shows or movies with extreme violence or with scenes that can upset me, I see no reason why I should put myself through pain just to “understand”. Not knowing some things makes me less unhappy. But, this being said, my thesis is about children in institutions. I’ve read hundreds of cases of negligence, abandonment, severe abuse. I’m all but blind to this reality that maybe other people can’t stand, like I can’t stand abandoned dogs. My role here – and what makes me happy – is that I’m able to write about their experiences and show them to the world.
What role do you believe spirituality plays in people being able to experience happiness?
For other people probably a lot. For me none. I’m an agnostic prone to atheism and I’m very happy with the fact that I’m here for one life only, folks. No reward in the afterlife, no spiritual guilt right now. I’m responsible for my actions as a human being and as a citizen of the world. I must respect laws and human boundaries. Otherwise I feel free and loved and having God means nothing for my personal happiness. As far as religion and spirituality goes I’m in the “don’t care” category – I don’t care what you believe in, as long as you are a good person. Whatever makes one happy, right?