Happiness in some form is the desire of every individual. Is it possible to attain this desire through effort? If we could catch certain moments of happiness and hold them for a short time under a microscope and see the living nucleus pulsing within them, might we be better able to understand happiness?As I look at my own experiences in happiness I realize that real happiness cannot be qualified. One is not somewhat happy. Happiness is a completely dominating feeling, an emotional state, not a mental one, that is more stable than mere ecstasy yet more active than passive. But happiness is not a simple emotion. It is built up from a number of emotional states that become happiness when the experience has reached a distinct transcendental plane, and, above all, I think, when the experience has about it a certain rhythmic quality.When I was four years old, happiness meant riding on a small seat strapped to the handlebars of my father’s bicycle. We lived in a quiet New England town whose streets were shaded with tall elms. Our house was the parsonage next to the old white church. Father liked to bicycle slowly down the main street, stopping occasionally to speak to his friends, and then, crossing the bridge, to ride out to a great meadow beside the river where he would sketch. I was a very small figure sitting quietly on my little seat, while the big wheel below my feet revolved in fascinating progression. I vividly remember today my sensations on my lofty seat on the bicycle. I was seeing sights that were new and marvelous and dangerous, but the big bulk of my father just behind me meant no harm could befall me. If I could have seen the round earth turn before me it would have been no more wonderful than the revolving wheel which led me on. This was supreme adventure coupled with security. This was happiness.When I was eleven, happiness was a raspberry ice cream soda. Next door to us, beyond a white picket fence, lived old Mr. Jordan who owned the drug store and who knew well what appealed to young, plump girls. On certain special days he would call me to the fence and whisper with elaborate secrecy, “Come down to the store this afternoon and have a sody.” As soon as school was over, I was there, perched on a high stool by the marble counter. The dark interior of the store was full of musty smells, on dim shelves were rows of frosted white bottles. Vaguely I realized that this dull background but enhanced the light and glory of the shining marble soda counter.What kind would I have? Always raspberry. One reason was its beauty. I have never seen anything more beautiful than cream poured into clear raspberry liquid. Like miniature thunderclouds it swirled into the dark syrup, transforming the whole to a pale, delectable pulsating pink. It would go onto the round ball of ice cream, then into the fizzing soda. A quick stir of a long spoon followed, the muted sound of which always made my mouth water. Then came that first delicious pull through the straw. Every thought vanished beside this primary, physical sensation. This was happiness.When I was seventeen, happiness was music. No one in my family or in my circle of friends was musical. No one had ever opened for me the gates of heavenly sound until I went to Dresden for a winter. As I went to the opera night after night I discovered a strange effect it was having on me. I was not sufficiently musical to reproduce what I heard, yet in my mind, all night long and all the next day, I could hear the major parts of the opera so vividly that it seemed as if the actual singers were standing beside me. Each evening as I came out of the Opera House into the great square where the spire of the Cathedral was outlined against the stars, the whole universe was singing. This was ecstasy. This was happiness.When I was a junior at Smith College the weight of the world rested on my shoulders. I had been brought up to believe I had a debt to pay and suddenly I decided the way to pay it was to become a medical missionary. It was an easy decision to make. I had gone to a tremendous student conference in Kansas City attended by several thousand college students and presided over by the great Evangelist, John R. Mott. All day and all night we talked of our responsibilities toward life. We felt our potential power. How wonderful it was to cut the knots that tied my mind and spirit by making one supreme decision. Forgetful of everything else I sang: “Oh Zion hast, thy mission high fulfilling, To tell to all the world that God is light.” This was exaltation. This was happiness.A few years ago I was convalescing from a severe illness. It was fall and all the trees were golden. I was sitting in a garden chair wrapped in a steamer rug, wrapped also in the luminous golden sunlight of a rare October day. My body felt light and unreal. To lift my hand would have seemed an impossibility, but I did not desire to lift my hand or to move. My spirit seemed detached and apart. Suddenly it was as if a clear wind swept through me, taking before it countless little cares and worries. I saw the various conflicting aspects of my life fitting beautifully together in a pattern. This was harmony. This was happiness.Beyond the town in which I grew up is a friendly mountain scarcely higher than a great hill, but with long, dignified slopes and a steep granite boulder on its peak. Juniper and blueberry bushes abound amid sweet fern and trailing blackberry vines. From this spot at sunset time the high New Hampshire mountains are outlined against the sky and in the other direction is a faint blue line of distant ocean. In my mind’s eye I can often see a certain picture from the summer of 1927. It is of my husband and myself walking hand in hand down the mountain slope, our steps raising a rhythm into the summer air. Ahead of us on the path runs our five-year-old son, feet flying, eyes dancing. On my husband’s shoulders rides our second son, chubby, breathless. On my shoulders clings the three-year-old son, soft curls flying, holding tight to my neck. Suddenly I realize life has no greater joy to offer me. Together we come down the path facing the beauty of the sky, sure of our strength, sure of our love. This is fulfillment. This is happiness.Professor James, in writing of the emotions, says that when we see a bear, we run and are afraid. If the emotion follows the condition and it is the emotion we seek to understand, perhaps we can better understand happiness by examining the conditions under which it occurred. These appear to be situations of adventure, of complete physical well-being, of aesthetic beauty, of religious exaltation, of harmony, of love, of creation. The experiences of youth are often wrapped with glittering tinsel of new adventure and tied with a gay ribbon of enthusiasm. The happiness of maturity does not shout aloud. It is more apt to be a sustained feeling than a flash of lightning. It is less the result of circumstances than of an earned attitude toward life.My own experiences in happiness are not unique, but as I stand back and view them now I realize that they are emotional adventures that have more in them than mere feeling or wonder—and that they all contain the element of rhythm: the rhythm of my father’s revolving bicycle wheel, the rhythm of music, the marching rhythm of a consecrated purpose, even the rhythmic pull of the raspberry soda through the straw. When one faces an intense emotional experience with bated breath, in absolute silence, the moment is either shattered by a pain that leaves one weeping or it is sustained by the high, steady rhythm of happiness.
Appeared in: Volume 10, Number 1
Published on: August 22, 2014
Published on: August 22, 2014
Homo AmericanusThe Rhythm of Happiness
A meditation on happiness, personal yet probing, from 1958.