I’ve known a few military servicemembers and spouses who seemed abidingly happy. Cheerful souls who, no matter where they were or what they were doing, had a sunny disposition and always had a kind and uplifting word. On the other hand, there have been a few folks along the way who have been doom and gloom through and through. You could tell that they actively sought out the dark underbelly of any scenario or situation. Not that they were all miserable people and unpleasant to be around. Sometimes they would have a delightfully wry comment or amusingly snarky observation. But just because they weren’t sparkly and effervescent doesn’t mean they weren’t happy. And just because the shiny pennies at playgroup are always smiling and laughing doesn’t necessarily mean that they are delighted with or even satisfied with their lives or situations. Happiness is a difficult concept to get a handle on. Not every upbeat person is happy, and not every sour sad-sack is miserable. Demeanor and personality are not perfect indicators of happiness. Not every smile suggests inner joy, and not every glum look conveys misery.
So what is happiness? Many years after an old teacher threw that question out to our class, I still haven’t arrived at an answer. But I have come to a fuller understanding of what it is not. In our younger days, we thought happiness was a cheerful mood or a fun time – “This is so awesome!”—or getting that one thing, whether buying it yourself or getting it as a present, that seemed to make your life complete. Until the next thing you just had to have…
I think happiness has something to do with the good life. But that notion too has problems. When we think of ‘the good life’, we might think of a life of leisure or wealth. We envision those living the good life as cavorting with fabulous and entertaining people, surrounded by opulence and refinement, and dining on only the finest delicacies. But I think you’ll agree that the affirmation of other people or the possession of material signifiers (expensive ‘stuff’ we show off to let everyone know how successful and wonderful we are) are fleeting and empty satisfactions. Because when we are alone with ourselves, well, there we are again…with all of our flaws and insecurities, our problems and our disappointments. You have to put the crystal champagne flute down sometime. You have to say goodbye or good night to your charming friends sometime. And there you are…left to assess your life anew.
Happiness, I think, is not a mood or a feeling. And sadly, I think it grows harder and harder to experience directly. Often, I think happiness can only be identified in retrospect. Remembering how things were just ‘clicking’ at the old post…recalling the uneventful but hugely gratifying time in the old neighborhood. Remembering those tough but rewarding hours you spent volunteering at your kids’ school or for their athletic teams, or for one post-related event or another. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘nostalgic’ in the sense of romanticizing the past. Sometimes, happiness descends upon you after a tough day, one filled with challenges and headaches. Sometimes we go to bed weary and exhausted, ready to bury the harried and unproductive hours we just logged. But sometimes, if we're lucky, we go to bed--tired, yes--but with an energized satisfaction of having contributed something to the world that day. Oh, it wasn’t ‘fun’ in the sense of ‘having a great time’. But there was something noble and fundamentally decent about what you achieved or had brought to the table.
We are a few months removed from the Summer Olympics. I sometimes wonder what exactly goes through an athlete’s mind a few months after the Olympics have concluded. At this point, when the hysteria and whirlwind has died down, when the media circus has packed up and moved on, when the Gold Medal an athlete has spent a lifetime striving towards has been polished and enshrined on the mantle…what exactly is life like for such an athlete? I think it’s instructive to consider that after an athlete has competed at the highest level of competition, when his or her whole life has targeted the Olympics, when years of toil have culminated in that cherished medal, that athlete might be struck with a harsh realization that an Olympic medal wasn’t the ticket to perpetual bliss. Oh, they’re pleased to have won that medal. They’re proud of their accomplishment. And rightly so. So why aren’t they besotted with happiness for the rest of their days?
This is just a theory, but I’ve always suspected that athletes were the happiest they’ve ever been in the months leading up to the Olympics. During their most grueling training, when they were sacrificing the most –stringent diet, minimal socializing, constant fatigue—they knew deep down that something tremendous was happening in their lives. They knew they were bringing the best out of themselves. Maybe they weren’t even great athletes, maybe they didn’t even make the medal stand. But they knew that something great was happening within. Harnessing their highest potential. Galvanizing a steely resolve to exceed themselves. Flourishing in a way they never had before. Oh, it wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t enjoyable. But they were happy. And I think they knew it.
I sometimes wonder if the same notion applies to our deployed servicemembers. Certainly, a deployment is often a devastating ordeal. Lives destroyed, families shattered. I am certainly not going to glamorize war. It is an often brutal, catastrophic torment. But I suspect that, at least for some of them, no matter how colossal a struggle being deployed was, and no matter how grueling their experience had been, they share something fundamental with that Olympic athlete: They knew they were living great days.