When I visited poor families in El Salvador,
I was surprised they seemed as content as I was.
Poet Jane Kenyon wrote, there’s no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal.
Jesus didn’t talk about happiness. Blessed is the most accurate translation
for the first word used in his Beatitudes in the Gospel of Luke.
When we first learned our daughter was disabled,
our fear was she wouldn’t be able to lead a satisfying life.
In his bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert claims
research has shown humans are ill-equipped to predict what will make them happy.
* * *
I can’t predict who among the elderly I know
will accept aging, illness and death with equanimity. I am often surprised.
For many years psychotherapists tried to define the basic human drive.
Freud proposed sex; Adler proposed self-actualization; Frankl proposed meaning.
Once people who committed suicide were buried outside the churchyard
because they had committed a sin. Now they are diagnosed with an illness.
At times I experience intense joy. I believe it’s a habit—not something
I can create. If I try to analyze the feeling, it disappears immediately.
Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his development
of hedonic psychology, the study of what makes life pleasant or unpleasant.
* * *
Our daughter is miserable when she doesn’t have a job. What matters most to her
is not the money she earns. She can be quite happy volunteering.
Pascal claimed all seek happiness, without exception. He said, This is the motive
of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.
I can’t remember who said that the height of our joy
is usually commensurate with the depth of the sorrow we’ve experienced.
In explaining his theory Viktor Frankl liked to quote Nietzsche:
He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
A Wall Street Journal article analyzed the happiness scores of the richest
Americans. Their scores were slightly higher than those of Swedes or Masai tribesmen.
* * *
Jesus said his Father in heaven makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good,
and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
After 36 years of caring for cancer patients, my husband is still amazed
there is more laughter in cancer clinics than in most other places.
Poet Beverly Rollwagen complains everyone wants her to be happy all the time;
but she says, there is value in the thread of sadness in each person.
I believe we are born with individual optimism thermostats.
Some people feel hope easily, while others rarely feel it.
We worked hard to remove barriers from our daughter’s life, to make it easier
for her. Now that she’s on her own, she seems to thrive when she deals with some challenge.
* * *
Recent research shows that brain chemicals cause depression; but families still
use code to describe a daughter’s suicide: her unsuccessful struggle with sadness.
My mother loved her beautiful possessions: china, silver, jewelry, clothes. I was
surprised she let them go easily as she moved into smaller and smaller spaces.
Gilbert reports healthy people rated 83 illnesses as worse than death.
But actual people with these illnesses rarely take their own lives.
When I hear about a successful suicide I always want to know how.
My husband says he always wants to know why.
As I’ve grown older I’ve come to believe
that the fairy tale ending they lived happily ever after is not a blessing.
—from Rattle #33, Summer 2010
Ann Floreen Niedringhaus: “My poetry writing started about seventeen years ago, fairly late in my life. After seven years of grant writing as part of my job as executive director of a not-for-profit organization, I decided to quit and do my own writing. To my surprise it came out poetry. Writing centers me now. I enjoy learning about poetry and trying a variety of approaches, including some of my own making as that used in ‘Happiness.’”