I’m teaching the culture part of a unit on sociocultural psychology. We talk about values and norms and the ways that people in different cultures remember, learn, and express what they know. We talk about learning how to behave in our own cultures and becoming part of new cultures. We talk about expectations. We talk about what it means to be happy.
Most of the time, happiness for me actually means contentment. It means feeling okay with and good about what’s happening immediately around me. Less “Wow, how awesome!” and more “This is really nice.” In the book How Emotions Are Made Lisa Feldman Barrett explains that there’s a difference between North American “happy happy joy joy” and East Asian tranquility and equanimity. We don’t all conceive of happiness in the same way and those differences are very important for the way we view the world. I was in the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown back in high school and the closing number, “Happiness,” got me every time.
Though we sometimes forget it in the age of Instagram, Buzzfeed Top Ten lists, and selfie sticks, happiness is in simplicity.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. Several times over the last few weeks, a conversation from half a year ago has returned to mind. I was with a friend who I’ve only seen once or twice since, neither of us speaking much that day. We were both concerned with and unsettled by the future. We were uncertain. Jobs, choices, change, moving, moving on. After some moments of silence, my friend asked, “What makes you happy?”
I remember it took me several seconds to respond. I remember the knot in my stomach and how I had to acknowledge it, experience it, and admit to it before I could let it go. I was not feeling happy in that moment and answering the question took time.
“Lots of things,” I replied, intellectually knowing this was the right answer even if I couldn’t quite feel it.
“Oh, you know, things.” It took a moment, but there’s a lot to be said for state-dependent memory (and learning). Once the ideas came, they came quickly. “The smell of coffee. Sunny mornings with a breeze. Being outside. Books. Writing. Taking pictures. Being with friends and family. Intimate moments. Traveling. Learning new things. Delicious vegetables. Making food for people.”
That conversation has come back to me strangely often in the last few weeks. I’ve been experiencing a sort of mental shift, I think, one that started when I was in Europe at the beginning of April. Over the last month, I’ve grown more accustomed to the calm and quiet that my mind has found. Sometimes I find myself feeling okay in a situation or with thoughts that would have bothered me just weeks ago. This is good.
Maybe this is what it means to grow up. Maybe there’s wisdom in letting go, in observing, and in accepting today without judgment. There certainly seems to be freedom there. The only thing I know for sure is that a better version of myself is one who sees happiness in all the small moments that occur every day, and I’m glad to be there right now.