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happybirdssky2.jpgIn the last couple of days two friends I hadn’t spoken to in a while asked me separately, “Are you happy?” They asked in the soft, nice, actual-question way that most of us do with people we genuinely care about but don’t talk to that often. It’s an overall system check–“You happy?”

It’s also a yes/no question, one that doesn’t inherently lend itself to a lot of explication. Not like the question my friend R. loves to ask and be asked: “What have you been thinking about lately?” (My favorite is, “How is your heart?”) But “You happy?” always flummoxes me. In surveys, most Americans say they’re happy, but as a nation we fall very low on the happiness scale when things like poverty, percentage of population in prison, health care, divorce, crime, and other stats are taken into consideration.

There’s a shame that we often feel about our individual unhappiness–those of us who have it and are aware of it. Like we’ve failed somehow if we assess and come up with an honest No, I’m not happy. Which is much more common than we’d like to admit, I think, even to ourselves. It reminds me of that quote in the movie “The Big Chill” from Meg Tilly’s character Chloe–the one who says the things everyone else is afraid to: “I don’t know very many happy people. What are they like?”

The first person to ask me recently was my friend J. last Saturday at a post-Purim party. I had sipped a bit too much sake (which as alcohol goes seems to be the most systemically kind), and so was especially at a loss. When I’m asked questions like that something in me feels duty-bound to find the right, most honest answer possible. Like something very very small would break in the universe if I answered carelessly or inauthentically.

I start with wondering what I should be taking into consideration–what are the personal equivalents of crime rates and housing prices? For me it’s not a question about mood, because god knows with my ups and downs it’s not a valid measurement of anything much. It’s not even about state of mind–a less variable but nonetheless shifting factor. It’s about a bigger picture, a snapshot of overall state-of-life wellbeing.

So I have to pull back into the sky of my world and hover to see what’s there–and see if I like what I see. There are the externals–health, job, career, home, relationship, friends, family, etc. And then how I’m internally handling anything “missing” in those. How am I doing with the whole single thing right now, for example? How high is my emotional resilience? Because from what I can grok from every happy person I’ve met and every study done about happiness ever, is that once basic survival needs are met, circumstance means almost nothing when it comes to happiness. It’s how you see what you’ve got (or don’t) that makes you happy or miserable. Which is where gratitude comes into play. Maybe the real question, in fact, is: You grateful?

Saturday night under the swaying influence of sake and Kool & the Gang and being acutely aware I was one of a small handful of single people and feeling the soloness of that in a way that was making me a little sad, I pulled back inside from the moment to survey my skies and answered, “Yeah. I’m happy. Sad too, but happy.” My friend seemed concerned and glad at this mixed response. “You’ve got the gratitude, though?” he said/asked. “Yeah,” I nodded. “You’ve got the gratitude,” he said again without the half question mark. I nodded, feeling more certain, more aware of the fullness of gratefulness already in me. “Yes.”

I get his point. As long as the gratitude is stronger than the yearning–or I can be grateful for the yearning as a sweet, poignant sign of passionate life–then happiness can be present. And maybe one day it’ll be a simple question that can be honestly answered without thinking. Maybe real happiness just surges out of its seat when it hears its name:

“You happy?”

“Yes! Here!”

Are you happy? How do you determine that?

FYI:

This is a cool-looking resource for evaluating happiness: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx

A cool blog about testing scientific theories of happiness:
http://www.happiness-project.com/ 

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