a formula for happy

i. the signpost

I don’t like the word ‘happy.’

It is an ugly word, especially one that is supposed to represent something attractive,

a word that tries to signify something as important as the sort-of goal of being-in-the-world.

Happy. Ha-pee. Exhale — ah! — puh — eee!.


Anyway, who needs signifiers? Even the most elegant word rarely touches the Stuff it points to.

And it’s the Stuff that matters, after all; not its signposts.

So let us consider not the word ‘happiness,’ but rather the condition itself. The state of being happy.

ii. museum meditation

I found myself sitting in the atrium of Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum.

Rays from a mid-afternoon sun poured in through tall, clean windows;

a young couple took pictures of one another in the courtyard; a man played a boroq, an instrument I had never before heard.

And I found myself feeling — here comes that ugly word — happy.

Asked to describe what happiness feels like — to draw a list of its characteristics — and we might struggle in the attempt.

Happiness is one of those concepts that is better shown than told. Easier done than said.

So as the gentle pulse of the boroq filled the atrium, I found myself recalling moments in which I felt — well, you know.

And in my notebook I drew three bullet points, and challenged myself to fill them. And did so, swiftly, without effort.

iii. three moments

The first: Floating following a hammam spa, wandering the mud-packed, sun-filled alleyways of Essaouira,

a leathery man crouches behind a cart selling oranges and cigarettes. A boy kicks at a half-inflated soccer ball nearby.

The second: Hands-deep in cool, damp, black soil on a hillside in the French Périgord.

Above, a vast azure sky. Beyond, faint bells from a herd of Limousin cows.

The third: As a kid, floating in a lounge-chair on the mirror surface of Kukagami Lake.

The sun has just now disappeared beyond the jagged pines. Mom calls out that supper is ready. A forlorn loon calls out as if in reply.

iv. a formula

The memory of these moments flowed swiftly from my pen onto the pages of my notebook.

I could have listed three more — ten more, even — effortlessly. Such is the charmed life I bear. Of that fact I am grateful, aware.

Less simple, however, might be the attempt to identify what precisely makes these moments ones coloured by happiness.

In other words: what features do they share in common?

Is there a formula for being happy?

Let’s see. For starters, they all seem elemental. That is to say, they contain natural elements:

Earth (the mud-packed walls); water (the still, cool lake); air (the country sky); fire (dinner was seared over charcoal).

So they share a connection to the Natural.

Also worth noting: in each of these moments of happiness, nothing much happens.

I am standing (in the laneway), or sitting (on the hill), or lying down (in the floating chair). Not moving. Just still.

Yet noticing. Noticing the vibrations, the activity that surrounds me. Studying it like a painting or a song.

In short, I am made aware. And in that awareness there was to be found, in each instance, a deep sense of peace.

It is tempting, then, to distill the formula for personal happiness to the following equation:

the natural + an awareness = :)

Surely it cannot be so simple. Nor could I claim this formula to be universal. It is my own. And it seems to hold water.

And fire, and wind, and périgordin soil.

It remains only to find a better word than ‘happy.’ Blech.

originally tweeted 12 April 2017

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