Happiness and the Present Moment

This Raymond Carver poem entitled “Happiness” was the opening to my women’s writing group this past week:

So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
The are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

It is not a complicated poem — the moment it describes is quite ordinary, really — but this poem generated about an hour of conversation. What is happiness? When do we feel the most happy? Why do we struggle to find, recognize and keep those moments? What are some things we can do to maximize our opportunities for true happiness?

As you might suspect, these are universal questions that extend far beyond one poem, or one class. For many of us, these questions emerge in one form or another almost daily. I heard from some of you last week, and two things really struck me about your thoughts on being present: 1.) Every person associated real happiness with very simple things, and 2.) those flashes of pure joy, pure calm, pure bliss all came from paying attention to and naming the small details in those simple moments.

Those precious experiences included a list of things that would make lovely poems in and of themselves: a morning cup of coffee; a bowl of chocolate ice cream; listening to a cat purr while curled up contentedly on the couch; going for a walk in the evening and watching the sun descend slowly; a mother noticing the warm smell of the top of her baby’s head; and catching the second when friends are seated around the dinner table and noticing three things — the candlelight flickering on people’s faces, the sound of utensils clinking on plates, and the comfort of familiar voices and laughter.

We do not live in a culture that readily acknowledges the urgent value of the present moment. We tend to be obsessed with the past or to fixate on the future — both realms over which we have no control. And of course, it isn’t the things themselves — in the past or future — but our addiction to trying to control or change them that cause the suffering.

The 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi had this to say about recognizing the sacredness of each moment by letting go of what we cannot control and embracing what we can:

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.
Don’t try to see through the distances.
That’s not for human beings.
Move within, but don’t move the way fear makes you move.

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty & frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that we often attach an idea of happiness to a quantity of things that could or might happen — I would be more happy if… — but the moments that we recognize as actually making us happy are pedestrian and predictable. The sun sets every night. Cats sleep on couches every day. We eat a meal every day. But we never say stuff like, “I would be truly happy if the sun would set tonight.”

If we did that, then, really, what excuse would we have left for not being content, for not being madly in love with the hours given to us?

So perhaps what we are missing in our quest for happiness is just the willingness to stop and call out the names of the ordinary things that are filling us with true joy. The study of our brain’s chemistry tells us that when we do this, we are simultaneously releasing a whole raft of chemicals that help us to ward off things like depression and anxiety and we are training our brains to think that way again and again by growing new connections that reinforce the activities that bring us pleasure and contentment. Our lives tell us that it isn’t even the moments themselves but our attention to them that really opens us to the experience of happiness.