Finding the Words for Happy


If I had to tell you what kind of things make me happy, I could come up with all kinds of answers. Christmas lights, for instance (or any kind of lights on a string, for that matter), are at the top of the list. I can stare at them for hours, feeling all sparkly and amber inside.

Laughter – the kind that comes from deep inside your belly and leaves you aching for hours – makes me feel content, alive and bubbly. Happy. So do warm, long hugs and orangey pink sunsets from a wide open sky.

But how do I define happiness, itself? That’s a tough question to answer.

A young woman with big, round eyes and a pencil in her hand recently asked me to do this. She was part of a college freshman class at a nearby university. I was invited to speak to this room full of undeclared majors, or as I like to call them, Incredibly Brave Students. Brave, because they have the confidence and courage to hold up their hands and say, “I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up, but I’m willing to figure it out!”

So I spoke to them for about an hour, giving them my, “Top Ten Tips for Getting a Life.” They were receptive, responsive and full of energy. We danced. We blew up balloons. We laughed and contemplated. One daring co-ed persuaded me to demonstrate my disco moves, even though none of them had ever seen Saturday Night Fever (I took a poll), and really, who can blame them?

It was after I finished my presentation, during a lively round of questions and answers, that the pencil-wielding student asked me to define happiness. It took me off guard. I paused, thought for a moment, and then said something like this:

Happiness is living an authentic life … knowing what your talents, skills and abilities are, your desires and needs and dreams, and then honoring them in a very genuine, open way.

This was the best I could offer with only a 10-second preparation period. I thought it was pretty good, given the circumstances. But then I kept thinking about my answer. Did I say enough? Did it mean anything at all, and how can one person possibly define such a complicated concept in a single, limited response?

It was later that I figured out one more thing I’d add: knowing your weaknesses, your failures and flaws, and loving yourself anyway – in spite of them.

For now, I’m satisfied with the modified answer, but I’m sure it will change again soon. What words will I add? What more can I say? What lessons will I learn about this elusive state of being? I have no idea.

Until then, I’m doing my best to feel happy, but it’s not always easy. I grab those moments, whenever they come, and roll around in them – snuggle, enfold and embrace them. That means I stare at twinkling lights, hug anyone who will allow it, and laugh whenever I get the chance. It’s not all there is to being happy, but it’s a good start.

Michelle Freed is a journalist, humorist, public speaker, playwright, and sometimes … a cheap therapist. She is an Indianapolis Star correspondent, a corporate communications specialist, and is a closet disco queen. She is passionate about women’s issues. Find out more about here.

©2013 Michelle Freed

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