The Psychology of Happiness

Learning to be grateful for the ordinary things in life.

Photo by Christopher Griffith

“Let's all go around the circle and take turns telling everyone what makes us happy,” our third-grade teacher said as she stood before the class, looking svelte and resplendent in the kind of paisley minidress that was big at the time. Even from my presexual, nerd-girl vantage point, I understood that she herself was happy and that this, of course, was why she had chosen the exercise. The class across the hall, led by a gloomy teacher in a burnt orange crocheted shawl, would never have been instructed to go around the circle and proclaim the particulars of their joy. They might, instead, have been coaxed into a heated discussion of Incan farming, but that was about it. Our teacher was happy, truly happy, and like most happy people, she wanted everyone to know it.

One by one the kids in our class said that snow days made them happy; getting presents made them happy; doing nice things for other people made them (supposedly) happy; Carvel made them happy. When it was my turn, I believe I volunteered that my dachshund made me happy. And, finally, when it was our teacher’s turn, she pronounced that we, her students, made her happy, though of course we knew better.

Her happiness, we were certain, had nothing to do with us. She was in love—and someone loved her back. This was the source of her not-so-secret hidden happiness, and it served as an engine that roared her through every single school day.

Happiness, it seems to me here in the middle of my life, long after my dachshund has gone, and long after snow days have ceased to have much relevance, and even after most presents have stopped mattering to me, is a slippery thing. The nature of it changes as quickly as our own lives do.

For years—a period that stretched from high school through college and then deep into the murk of my 20s—my friends and I were intensely aware of all our feeling-states and desires, whether good or bad. Several of us went to the same therapist, whose name was Martha, and her office had a cocktail party–with-a-turnstile quality to it. “Oh hey, how are you, Meg?” someone might say on her way out. “Great shoes.” Personal happiness was something we deliberately strove for, often in the form of men, women, a first big professional success, or a cheap walk-up apartment, though of course we were often beset by dramatic sorrow (cue Martha). This period of flux went on for a long time. Life was peppered with love and excitement and tears, and my friends and I had learned to be human barometers for our own happiness.

But then time sped forward, and while the actual catalysts for happiness continued to change, a strange thing happened: Happiness seemed less relevant as a goal, and things seemed less awful when it didn’t appear. And now the truth is that at this particular moment in my life, I no longer think in terms of “happy” and “unhappy,” the way I did when I was in third grade, or as a young woman in my own era’s version of a paisley minidress. It’s not only that I’ve aged but that the world has, too.