“It all depends on how we look at things, and not on how things are in themselves. The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”
― C.G. Jung
It would be unthinkable to contest that tastes in food and clothing differ widely. Yet when it comes to happiness (something clearly far less unambiguous than food or clothing) we strangely imagine there is only one standard. At least that is how it appears when some people seemingly cannot find anything happy about their own plight. What book of rules are they reading to come to such a conclusion? Who exactly have they consulted about the yardstick for happiness? What precedent of happiness have they relied upon? Surely every moment of every day cannot be relentless misery? But to listen to them you’d be inclined to think otherwise.
If indeed one purports to rest any conclusion in this matter upon clear thinking, then I believe that logic wins the day. There is in my opinion nothing mystical or phantasmagoric about happiness. Only recently I chatted with a friend who recounted a tale which betrayed more than an element of disquietude. By the time we had finished our discussion however the windup was, “Well, I guess it all depends on how you look at it”. You see, the so-called “spin” which we had put on the facts changed the circumstances from one of dismay and anxiety to one of accommodation and contentment.
It irks me that whenever the expression “Well, I guess it all depends on how you look at it” is used there is an implication that the truth is somehow being distorted sufficiently to alter a bad thing into a good thing. The reason that irks me is because it never occurs to people who think that way that maybe it is their own thinking which is distorting the truth, not the other way around. There is apparently a presumption of misery, not happiness. As a lawyer I am all for rebuttable presumptions, those open-ended principles, starting points which normally serve to provide a fair contest, an even playing ground, things like “innocent until proven guilty”. Presumptions (even if by definition rebuttable) are only worthy of assumption if based upon fact. I know of no fact in the universe which establishes a formula for happiness – other that is than, “…it all depends on how you look at it”. Certainly one must concede a degree of reasonableness in this as in all matters of consideration. I am not suggesting that any situation without exception is a happy one. What I am saying is that the qualification of most situations as happy or otherwise does indeed depend on how one looks at it. One need only reflect a moment upon those many instances in life where our initial reaction was one of disappointment, only later to discover that it wasn’t as bad as we thought and that in fact it was pretty good.
A tautology is a statement which is true in any universe – like 2+2=4. You might say it is true by definition. Many people have adopted definitions of happiness which are often not only preposterous but also inconceivable in many other societies. We are not born thinking that a fast car or a big house or money are the benchmarks of happiness. We are conditioned by self-interested advertising and ignorant peer pressure and fantastic movies which have no connection whatever with fact or reality to prefer those mundane criteria. Only lately is it becoming fashionable for full-figured women to view themselves less than critically. That this is an advance in our development is remarkable because I cannot imagine any one of those Madison Avenue models even contemplating eating a dessert! The marketed agenda for happiness borders on maniacal!
Even when the distinction between happiness or not involves the same thing – like a house – the issue frequently turns upon ownership as opposed to tenancy. In other words, it doesn’t just matter that you have a house to live in, you have to own it to be happy. This illustrates that the view of happiness is external not internal. And it isn’t just how we look at it, it’s how we imagine others look at it. To understand how ridiculous this is, we need only ask ourselves how much we really care about what other people own. At the outside we care about what other people own only to the extent that we speculate our ownership of something similar would advance our own happiness. It is this sort of convoluted thinking which distorts what it is to be happy.
There is nothing wrong with owning a fast car or a big house or having money. What matters is whether you’re happy with your lot in life whatever it may be. And it doesn’t help to make a mockery of the “poor little rich girl” syndrome as though any one of us would happily trade places with her. To think of happiness prospectively is never the answer. It is an odd paradox that if we can manage to be happy now, we’ll always be happy.