If you are old enough you will likely remember this little book by Charles Shultz, creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip. This simple little book put the phrase “happiness is…” into daily vernacular decades ago. It was first published in 1962, but since I was an infant at the time, my introduction to the book more likely correlates with its 1970 paperback release. The simple notions of happiness presented in the book by Shultz’s familiar characters would certainly have resonated with a nine-year old.
Or an eight-year old, like the one who threw me for a bit of a loop the other day when she asked me what was the happiest moment of my life.
Normally I would dodge a question like that. I tend to resist the whole notion of choosing a “best” of anything. I have marvellous friends, but I would not be able to say so-and-so is my best friend. Favourite song? Changes by the minute. Favourite movie? I’ll give you a list. Favourite book? How much time do you have?
But in this instance it suddenly felt very important that I not only come up with an answer, but that it be the right answer. Because I was very conscious that this particular eight-year old was, at that particular moment, experiencing a colossal truck-load of very legitimate unhappiness.
Let me tell you, it’s not easy doing deep personal reflection while your questioner is staring up at you, unblinking, waiting breathlessly for your response.
The first thought that came to mind was the birth of my children. But that didn’t seem quite right because, for one thing, that’s automatically two moments. Furthermore, as soon as I thought about it for a few seconds I began to realize that there were a lot of moments in which my children have brought me great happiness, and how could I say that the happiness I felt at the moment of their birth was greater than, say, the happiness I feel when they accomplish something wonderful or demonstrate their cleverness or their compassion? I couldn’t think of any source of happiness that I could narrow down to a specific point in time.
The closest I could come was the moment, nearly fifteen years ago, when I knew that I would be leaving the hospital and going home to my family. When I knew that we were finally beating the illness that nearly killed me. When I knew that the next family event would be my daughter’s second birthday and not, as we had all feared, my funeral.
But what surprised me, as I wrapped my mind around this memory and struggled to package it in an answer that would make sense to my young interrogator, was that the root source of that happiness was not about being glad I had survived. It wasn’t about me at all. When I tried to name the moment of my greatest happiness it wasn’t a moment at all, but rather a lifetime of moments, all of which revolved around the particular way my family has of rallying in a crisis.
The thing that makes me happiest, I tried to explain, is knowing that even though bad things will happen, I can always count on my family for support. That no matter what the bad thing is — how big or how long or how monstrously scary — there are people I know I can always count on to drop everything and organize whatever help needs to be organized.
Happiness is knowing in the midst of the crisis that you are not alone.
Maybe it doesn’t feel like happiness at the time, but in hindsight it is the joy that comes of walking accompanied through the valley that stands out far more than the joy of celebrating on the mountain-top.
I’m not sure that was the answer she was looking for. It felt like the right answer.