Some years ago I had occasion to write a letter to my daughter on the subject of happiness. I subsequently posted it on Viewpoint and a reader digging through the archives read it and reminded me of it, and I thought I'd like to share it again. Here it is:
I've been thinking a lot about the talk we had the other night on what happiness is and how we obtain it, and I hope you have been, too. I wanted to say a little more about it, and I thought that since I was going to be away, I'd put it into a letter for you to read while I'm gone.
One of the things we talked about was that we can't assess whether we're happy based on our feelings because happiness isn't just a feeling. It's more of a condition or quality of our lives - sort of like beauty is a quality of a symphony. It's a state of satisfaction we gain through devotion to God, living a life of virtue (honesty, integrity, loyalty, chastity, trustworthiness, self-discipline), cultivating wholesome and loving relationships with family and friends, experiencing the pleasures of accomplishment in career, sports, school, etc., and filling our lives with beauty (nature, music, literature, art, etc.).
One thing is sure - happiness isn't found by acquiring material things like clothes and toys. It's not attained by being popular, having good looks, or being high on the social pecking order. Those things seem like they should make us happy, especially when we're young, but they don't. Ultimately they just leave us empty.
To the extent that happiness is a feeling we have to understand that a person's feelings tend to follow her actions. A lot of people allow their feelings to determine their actions - if they like someone they're friendly toward them; if they feel happy they act happy - but this is backwards.
People who do brave things, for instance, don't do them because they feel brave. Most people usually feel terrified when in a dangerous situation, but brave people don't let their feelings rule their behavior, and what they do is all the more wonderful because it's done in spite of everything in them urging them to get out of danger. If they do something brave, despite their fear, we say they have courage and we admire them for it.
Well, happiness is like courage. You should act as if you're happy even if you don't feel it. When you do act that way your feelings change and tend to track your behavior. You find yourself feeling happier than you did before even though the only thing that has changed is your attitude.
How can a person act happy without seeming phony? Well, we can act happy by displaying a positive, upbeat attitude, by being pleasant to be around, by enjoying life, and by smiling a lot. Someone who has a genuine smile (not a Paris Hilton smirk) on her face all the time is much more attractive to other people than someone whose expression always tells other people that she's just worn out or miserable.
One other thing about happiness is that it tends to elude us most when we're most intent on pursuing it. It's when we're busy doing the things I mentioned above, it's when we're busy serving and being a friend to others, that happiness is produced as a by-product. We achieve it when we're not thinking about it. It just tags along, as if it were tied by a string, with love for God, family, friends, beauty, accomplishment, a rewarding career, and so on.
Sometimes young people are worried that they don't have friends and that makes them unhappy, but often the reason they don't, paradoxically, is that they're too busy trying to convince someone to be their friend. They try too hard and they come across to others as too insecure. This is off-putting to people, and they tend to avoid the person who seems to try over-hard to be their friend. The best way to make friends, I think, is to just be pleasant, friendly, and positive. Don't be critical of people, especially your friends, and especially your guy friends, either behind their backs or to their faces. A person who never has anything bad to say about others will always have friends.
Once in a while a critical word has to be said, of course, but it'll be meaningless at best and hurtful at worst, unless it's rare and done with complete kindness. A person who is always complaining or criticizing is not pleasant to be around and will not have good, devoted friends, and will not be happy. A person who gives others the impression that her life is miserable is going to find that after a while people just don't want to hear it, and they're not going to want to be around her.
I hope this makes sense to you, honey. Maybe as you read it you can think of people you know who are examples of the things I'm talking about....
All my love,