Tag Archives: Living in harmony

What Is Happiness, Really?

happiness is choice not responseToday is Thursday, April 10, 2014.

Are you happy?

Don’t think to much about the answer.  Just decide yes or no for a moment.  You can change your mind later.

If you said no, get out a piece of paper right now and list the reasons why you are not happy.  If you said yes, get out a piece of paper and list the reasons why you are happy.

For most people, whether you are listing reasons why you are happy or unhappy, your list will feature a lot of things – things you have a lot of or things you lack.  It may also feature people – people who do things that you like or people who do things you hate.  Or maybe it will just feature some people who are around and available in your life or people who are no longer in your life.   It may feature relationships – either relationships that are going well at the moment, or relationships that are full of problems.  Your list might include some situations you are in now, such as a job situation, a family situation, a relationship situation, or a situation with friends.  If you look at your list, whether it is a list of positive things that make you happy, or negative things that make you unhappy, it is still a list of things that are outside of you, as if the only way you can be happy is in response to something external.  Either way, that’s not the case.

Happiness is a conscious choice, not an automatic response. –Mildred Barthel

If you’re happy, all those things that you listed are not what is really making you happy.  What’s happening is that you’re deciding that there’s no need to fight against what is going on right now in your life.  You’ve come to a point where you’re at peace.  Things are in balance in your life.  The energy is flowing and not blocked, and you are surrendering to the experience.  But as soon as one of those things changes, you will be out of luck.  You’ll be unhappy again.  You will be a victim of circumstances.  You will be able to maintain your happiness only as long as everything is going right.  Of course, if you think you can maintain your happiness even when things start to go wrong, congratulations and more power to you.

If you’re unhappy right now, all those things you listed are just rationalizations.  What’s happening is you are deciding to fight against what is going on in your life.  You’re miserable because you have decided that things should be different, and you are feeling powerless to make any changes.  You’re really no better off than the person who said he or she was happy, because you, too, are a victim of circumstances.

Once you realize, however, that happiness is not an automatic response to external stimuli, you can throw away your list.  If happiness is a conscious choice, why are you not choosing to be happy?  Oops…. ooooops…. don’t start whining about the things, the people, or the situation you are in.  Your happiness is not tied to them, remember?

But how, you ask, can I be happy when things are going wrong?  How, indeed!

Maybe this is a good time to figure out what happiness is.  Sure, it’s a conscious choice, but what does it look like, sound like and feel like?  How does it manifest in our lives?

happiness merton
Photo source: SusannaLee on Flickr

Happiness is not a matter of intensity, but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony. 

–Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton gives us one answer.  It’s not a matter of intensity.  In other words, in order to be happy, we don’t always have to go around feeling bliss and joy.  Maybe all we really  need is a feeling of contentment.  Let’s look at these terms.


If you can maintain your emotional balance, even when things go wrong, you are miles ahead.  When we are unbalanced, that’s when we say and do things that we regret later.  It’s one thing to experience a moment of anger.  It’s quite another to maintain that anger indefinitely.  Balance is not something that you can achieve by accident.  It’s a choice.  Think about physical balance for a moment.  To achieve it, you sometimes have to move in a more-or-less zig-zag pattern, and you also have to keep moving forward.  In other words, balance is not achieved by standing still, but by progressing forward and staying focused on a target and making a constant series of small course corrections.


Most people have some kind of routine that they like to follow, which may vary slightly on weekends, holidays, or vacations.  Your routine helps you remember what is important in life, and it contributes to your feeling of safety and security.  Think about the times you have felt the most unhappy.  I’ll bet they were times when the normal order of your life was disrupted in some way.  These are the situations that call for flexibility.  More and more often, these days, instead of getting back to our nice, comfortable “normal” routine, we are obliged to establish a “new normal.”   Most of us have some aspects of our daily routine that seem out of our control.  For example, we have jobs where we must be at work by a certain time and finish by a certain time.  We have project deadlines.   Or our schedules are dictated by the needs of our children.  It’s important to remember that we are the ones who agreed, on some level,  to be put into these situations.  Very few of us, however, lead totally regimented lives.  There is always at least one element that is under our control.  The trick is to find that element and impose your own order.


When you are in rhythm, you are moving in sync, usually to a musical beat.  When you are in rhythm with others, you are moving to the same beat others are.  When we are working in cooperation with others toward some goal, we tend to feel a sense of belonging and accomplishment, both of which bring us a sense of happiness.  The trick is that we must create this situation ourselves.

I once went canoeing with a group of people.  One couple had brought their teenage son with them.  The young man, named John, was incredibly bright, but a little uncoordinated, and he was unfortunately prone to daydreaming, often tuning out the adults around him and immersing himself instead in his teenage fantasies.  John was given an oar and expected to help the rest of us row the boat.  Everyone’s oar was working in sync except John’s.

“John, watch what you’re doing!  Pay attention to everybody else’s oar.  Make your oar do the same,” said one of the men.  It took John a while to learn to anticipate everybody else’s actions and do the same.  Of course, that meant that his usual pastime, daydreaming, was not going to be very useful.

Rhythm demands that we focus outside of ourselves and look at the world around us.  What is happening?  How are things moving?  How can we move in sync with other people, with situations, with events?   When we move in sync with others, we avoid creating obstacles for others – and for ourselves.


Rhythm and harmony are very similar.  Rhythm seems to have more to do with timing.  We sync our actions with  others in time so that we don’t lag behind or rush ahead.  When you are singing in rhythm, you are singing a note when others are singing a note, and you are holding the note for the same length of time.  Harmony seems to be more about doing something different, but complementary.  When you are singing in harmony, you are singing a different note, one whose vibratory rate is complementary to the notes of others.  You are adding value to the note.  You are working in cooperation with others.  Harmony is cooperation.  It’s seeing what needs to happen in order for a common goal to be realized.  It’s knowing that what we are doing is an important part of the big picture.

HappinessisajourneyHappiness is a journey, not a place.
–Sydney J. Harris

One final piece of the puzzle.  Happiness is not a place or destination, not a place that you arrive at and stay there.  It’s a journey, an action,   It is dynamic, not static.

To conclude, you must first make the choice to be happy.  Then you must go about looking for ways to acquire the qualities that will produce happiness: balance, order, rhythm and harmony.  And you must continue doing this for the rest of your life.  At some point, you will realize that no matter what is going on in your life, no matter how many problems you are dealing with, you are basically a happy individual, not because of what is or isn’t going on around you, but because of who you are and how you decide to live your life.  🙂


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