“Don’t let this silly world trick you into starving your soul for material things. Cause someday you’re gonna be sitting out under the sun and realize how little you actually need to be truly happy.” ~Brooke Hampton
Three years ago, at the height of pandemic, I made many pitchers of lemonade from scratch. This newfound ritual was one of the better things about being on lockdown.
I’d hand squeeze a big bag of lemons for about one-third cup of juice, and experiment by adding vanilla extract, mint, and tablespoons of honey. I’d bring my drink outside, where I sat for as long as I dared in a lawn chair, sipping the elixir and daydreaming. It made me oddly happy, and even after a return to normal, I still like to indulge myself this way.
My family wanders outside to check on me when I burn up a Saturday—and sometimes dinner—doing this. I’m just as annoyed as they are by the intrusion, little decorated paper straw sticking out of my glass, open book from Target on my lap.
Isn’t that kind of expensive, my mother asked me once, and I had to laugh because the answer to that question is both yes and no.
Does self-care cost the same as going out to a really nice meal, a vacation, clothes shopping? No. Then again, sitting for long periods, with a cold drink in your hand and doing absolutely ‘f-ck all’ as my teenaged son would say, isn’t how you’re going to afford a full and active lifestyle.
I began to wonder if having fun and happiness are the same thing.
I interviewed about a half dozen people on the subject, from therapists to friends—most were of the opinion that having fun and being happy are not mutually exclusive.
“We don’t talk about our happiness. When we’re happy we’re busy being happy, and the unimportant things fade away. I never could keep a journal outside of the bad periods, because I forgot to write it down when the good was happening,” wrote a friend on Twitter.
Dr. Sigmund Freud boiled happiness down to instant gratification:
“What we call happiness, in the strictest sense, comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree.”
I think when I was a kid, I embodied Freud’s words. At age ten, I was the proverbial lab rat, pressing again and again on the same bar, hoping instant gratification would come out.
Benny’s Oyster Bar in 1983 was that pellet. My family didn’t have much money at the time, so it was a real treat when we ate out.
A hole in the wall, Benny’s was about two blocks from my Dad’s office, yet I can’t remember if we walked there or drove. In my unsophisticated mind, that restaurant—now a bike repair shop—was the best place on earth for hotdogs and crinkle cut fries drenched in ketchup that you squeezed from a bottle, while listening to a jukebox that competed (and lost) to noisy air-conditioning.
We always chose to go there on a whim, and it only happened about four out of every ten times we were dragged to my dad’s place of business.
He sold insurance, relying on my mom for clerical help. If we went to Benny’s, it usually meant my dad was having a good day.
Thinking back on Benny’s makes me see that one of the main components to happiness is feeling safe and loved in equal measure.
It didn’t have to be a trip to Benny’s Oyster Bar to make me practically swoon with happiness as a kid. Sometimes it was pretending to be mermaids in my friend’s pool, binge watching The Smurfs, or spending time with my cat.
As an adult, my happiest moments remain just as uncomplicated.
I’m a good guinea pig for this happiness experiment since I’ve never actually been depressed. That being said, I’ve only been “truly happy” a handful of times—my it doesn’t get any better than this moments slipping through my fingers before I’m aware they ever happened.
I asked a psychologist, who works for a Florida county school board, how he’d define happiness.
“Happiness can be one of the four core emotions. It involves dopamine hits to your hypothalamus. Easy. Then you have the cerebral cortex interpreting that which makes humans more of a pain in the ass to understand,” he said.
What I took from this is that human happiness can be as unique as our thumbprints. It’s difficult to define, no matter who you are or where you come from.
An artist I know put it this way:
“Personally, I believe happiness is fleeting. I’m trying on using the idea of contentment instead. Am I content? Are there ways I can work on aspects to be more content in my life?”
She may be on to something.
I’m sure we’ve all heard expectation is the root of suffering, so maybe instead of expecting anything to make us happy all the time, we just need to prioritize the things that bring us joy—even if they look like “wasting time” to everyone else. Then we could visit our happy places more often and stay as long as we like when we get there.