If You’re Happy and You Know it.

When it comes to my mental life, I am very prone to tripping over random phrases or objects and tumbling down a rabbit hole after them.  For example, the other day I was walking through my kitchen, minding my own business, when I happened to glance down at the comics page of my local paper.  There, I saw this comic:

Rose is Rose by Don Wimmer and Pat Brady, 7/7/14

Normally, I don’t care for Rose is Rose; it’s a little too “sunshine and daisies” for my taste.   But this one got me thinking about that song we all used to sing when we were kids.

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”

For the most part, this is just a silly song that gets kids moving, helps them learn to follow instructions, keeps them out of trouble, etc.  But while we were all clapping our hands, stomping our feet, shouting “hooray!”, and doing whatever else our parents and caretakers could think of, we overlooked something that my slightly more mature brain now finds very interesting.

“If you’re happy – and you know it?

The more cynical and rational portion of my mind promptly suggested that the phrase “and you know it” was tacked onto the first half of the phrase in order to make the song more singable, because “if you’re happy, clap your hands” sounds pretty dumb when you try to sing it to the original tune.  I do concede this point because there’s probably some truth to it.

Meanwhile, most of the rest of my mind chuckled at the ridiculousness of those lyrics.  After all, who the heck doesn’t know when they’re happy?

But then there was that quiet portion of my mind that didn’t fit into the previous two categories that responded, “maybe you don’t.”

I was taken aback by this and proceeded to think about that revelation for the next week or so and will continue to do so, possibly for the rest of my life.  Because if people can be happy and not know it, the implications of that fact are huge.

The pursuit of happiness is central to the human experience.  Arguably, it is our primary drive.[1]  We don’t like something about our lives and/or imagine that our situation could be made better, which is what motivates us to do and build and create.  Action does not arise from apathy, so the pursuit of happiness can be named as a major cause of much of the development of human society, as well as the arts and sciences.  We live the lives we live because our ancestors sought new ways of furthering their happiness and minimizing their unhappiness.  If you look around the room in which you are (I assume) seated, practically everything you see has the primary function of making people happier than they would be without that thing.  Your chair exists because it’s more comfortable to sit on it than on the floor. Your mp3 player exists so you can enjoy music at any time and any place .  Your computer exists so you can watch videos of Maru the Cat.

Because Maru makes everyone happier.

We spend our lives constantly surrounded by objects and experiences that have the primary function of making the human life happier.  And, yet, we’re miserable.  According to the CDC, in 2013, 1 in 10 American adults were taking antidepressants.[2]  While I am not saying that depression isn’t a serious condition and one that shouldn’t be medically treated, what I am suggesting is that maybe we are, as a culture, terribly unobservant.

This wasn’t the conclusion I had in mind when I began writing this post but, through writing it, I’ve decided that I believe that happiness is not something that can be achieved.  It is, however, something that can be experienced. I am aware that this sounds contradictory, but hear me out.[3]

Humans are programmed to want to make their lives better, to be some level of unsatisfied at all times.  This is a good thing.  Dissatisfaction encourages change and growth, which is the natural state of mankind.[4]  That being said, it is important to remember that our focus, to some degree, does determine our reality.[5]  If we allow ourselves to be entirely focused on our drive to improve our lives, we risk not experiencing our own current happiness.

Sometimes, when you improve something, you’re taking something that is “bad” and making it “good,” like when a family restores a broken-down house.  That isn’t always the case, though.  Often times, when you’re improving something, you’re taking something that is already “good” and making it “better,” like when cooking or re-writing a computer program so that it runs more quickly and efficiently.  The fact that a thing or a situation can be made better does not necessarily mean that its original state was “bad.”

I don’t believe that it is possible for humans to create an object or situation that is so perfect that it cannot be improved, which means that “perfect happiness” is likewise impossible to achieve.  Thankfully, plain, ol’, run-of-the-mill happiness is still pretty great.  We just tend to ignore it while we look for things to improve.

This has been a real eye-opener for me and I’m fairly certain that I’m not going to look at my life in quite the same way after reaching this conclusion.  While there is a great deal that I would change in my life had I the means to do so, I think that I am, overall, fairly happy in my current situation.  And, if I remember correctly, that probably means that I should start clapping my hands more often.


 [1] Some of you will protest this statement, saying that there are more important motivators, such as seeking food and shelter.  I would respond by pointing out that it’s a lot easier to be happy when you’re not starving or dying from exposure, so pursuing food and shelter is pursuing happiness.

[2]http://www.cms.gov/Medicare-Medicaid-Coordination/Fraud-Prevention/Medicaid-Integrity-Education/Pharmacy-Education-Materials/Downloads/ad-adult-factsheet.pdf

[3] Since you’re reading this instead of listening to it, I suppose this should be “so read me out.”  That phrase, however, has an entirely different meaning than the one I was attempting to convey and I’d rather people didn’t do that.

[4] This subject will definitely get its own blog post in the future, which I why I’m not expanding on it now.

[5] Yes, I did just quote Star Wars: Episode I.  Sue me.  Qui-Gon Jinn is awesome.

2 comments

  1. Oh, how I cannot let this one go. Really??? Happiness is a state of mind? Where to begin…

    Happiness is not defined by others, although the perception of happiness is defined by how you appear to be toward others. One could look all the happier, any given day, but in fact not be. Society, or let’s call it what it is…the media, decides on what happiness is and what it is not. Some examples:

    1. The boy who buys a Chia-pet in the commercial, and shouts “excellent” like he really, really wanted a piece of pottery that grows green stuff resembling a cross between moss and grass. That is not happiness…that is some kid getting paid and exploited to sell infomercial quality junk that “you need.”

    2. The teens that appear in the McDonald’s commercials that are skinny, enjoying a double quarter pounder, and saying, “I’m loving it.” Unfortunately, the irony here is that they probably won’t be “loving it” after one too many doubles…and honestly, people don’t go to McD’s because it make them happy. They go because it makes their wallet happy.

    3. This might be the best one yet…Sham Wow. How I never knew that I either needed it or my life would be better if I owned one (or two, or ten). Seriously, Vince is a great promoter, and who wouldn’t want a super-duper-Bounty-like cloth that wipes up everything! But would it make me happy? Nope. Some days I want to just leave the mess where I found it – I didn’t make it, and it will make me happier to leave it for the person who made it to clean up. But to tell me that my life won’t be the same without a glorified “schammy” and try to sell it to me at 11:30PM, well…hmmm.

    So, now I return to the song lyrics…”if you’re happy, and YOU know it.” Think on that for a moment. We are so wrapped up in a world where we care what OTHERS think, and not what we do. Thusly, if I am happy, and I know it – but don’t show it, so what! If someone were to look at me and say, “he’s happy” or “he’s not happy,” that’s their opinion and they’re welcome to their perception of my well-being. I don’t care. For me, happiness is defined by contentedness (if such a word exists in Mr. Webster’s dictionary).

    Contentedness is where we all should be. Be content in yourself, content in the things you enjoy, and content and contemplative in the things you may want to do in the future. You define your own happiness!

    A word picture…

    Many times we see the Sally Strothers’ of the world selling us on what will make people “less fortunate” than we are – happy. They say that if we’d only give them $5 per week, we could feed a family and they’d be happy. Really, would they be happy, or not hungry – and then happier? I’d bet if you asked any one of them if they were happy (or dare say content), they’d say yes. Why? Because, they don’t frame their lives around “stuff” or others’ “opinions” on happiness.

    I like to use the Is – Is Not test. For those who we’re told are less fortunate, true happiness IS living life, with hope and expectations for a better tomorrow. It IS NOT the need for an iPod, a junior cheeseburger deluxe, or your favorite yellow wiping cloth.

    Our perception of happiness should be our own. You may find it hard to quantify, but attempt to write a Top 10 list of the things you enjoy vs. what makes you happy. Your enjoyment list will certainly include things (stuff)…whereas your happiness list will include feelings, emotions, and moments in time that are everlasting.

    Those we own…and should not be dictated by others intent on defining happiness to the Proletariat. I’m happy, and I know it. And, that’s more than enough for me.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. I really appreciate the feedback.

      The intention of my post was to point out that many of us have the unfortunate tendency to focus too much on what aspects of our lives could be improved rather than to look at and truly experience what is already good about our lives. Not quite a “count your blessings” argument, but it’s in the same zip code. I focused on the “and you know it,” phrase of the song. You seemed to be focused a bit more on “clap your hands,” arguing that demonstrations of happiness (materialism and public perception) aren’t necessarily indicators of true happiness. This is a fascinating position and one that I hadn’t considered. Perhaps I will do so as a sequel to this post.

      Again, thank you for your response.

      Best wishes,

      E

      P.S. Though I, too, was skeptical at first, Sham Wows are surprisingly useful! I once brought one on a backpacking trip and was very glad that I did.

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