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An Unaccountable Capacity for Happiness

Who are you, you unaccountably chipper people, or more importantly, how are you? How do you glide so gracefully through life, effortlessly and naturally finding the lemonade in lemons...without clenching your teeth and repeating---a la protesting too much---that there is a silver lining to this cloud there is, there is, there is!

Were you born? Or were you made?

What makes a Harvey Ball?

Who is Harvey Ball? He's the artist behind the original smiley face!

He Made the Whole World Smile

The Harvey Ball Story

When three of Harvey Ball’s comrades were killed by a wayward shell as they stood next to him in Okinawa during World War II, he did not ponder if fate had saved him for a greater destiny. Harvey, a tall, lanky, laconic Yankee from Worcester, Massachusetts, was not much given to introspection, socializing, talking, or even smiling. But when he died in 2001 at the age of 79, Harvey had figured out his purpose in life. As he told People Magazine in 1998, “I taught the whole world how to smile.”

Harvey Ball, born and raised in Worcester, [created, in 1963, for an insurance company] the Smiley Face--that round yellow image that now beams out from Wal-Mart ads, Joe Boxer shorts and Internet icons J.

Harvey later figured out that his compensation for creating the Smiley Face button for the Worcester Mutual Insurance Company added up to about $45. When the lawyers for the company tried to copyright the image eight years later, they learned that it was impossible, because the image, reproduced 50 million times in the year 1971 alone, was in the public domain.


Every reporter who interviewed Harvey Ball asked him the same question: was he angry that he never made more than $45 from the creation that could have made him very, very rich? To every reporter he patiently gave pretty much the same reply: “Hey, I can only eat one steak at a time, drive one car at a time. I’m not ticked off about it. I don’t mind getting up in the morning and going to work. They ask me why I’m not upset. I just get satisfaction from it being so widely used and that it has given so many people pleasure.”

After Harvey died in 2001 in Worcester, his son, Charles, said: “He was proud and pleased to have served his country and raise a family…He died with no apologies and no regrets. His moral compass stayed on north and never wavered.”

Would you, could you, be that big, in that situation?

I see cheerful people. I can be cheerful. I see content people. I can be content. But when I see a truly happy person, one who truly has some sort of internal peace and joy, I sit up, I take notice, I remark on it to myself...and I study that person for clues as to how they got that way.

Happiness is usually transient. So when it is the natural state of being for a person, I'm flummoxed, and entranced.

I've recently become enamored of a blogger who projects a genuine true happiness. Is she always happy? Is life always perfect? I doubt it. However, her genuine joy seems to be her default state, her foundation, at least as much as I can tell through her blog. In every story and in every one of her gorgeous, breath-taking photographs, she seems to say, life is awfully beautiful and great.

I have moments like this. But, unlike Harvey Ball, I am given over to much introspection. I ponder and weigh, and in the end, I take much on myself, adding weight and complexity to my life. Perhaps too much so, because in most situations I see pros and cons, meaning I rarely simply find something simply fantastic. I rarely am transported by joy. Or wonder.

The base of my being is not one of standard enjoyment and joy. I am not, by nature, a person who typically exists in a state of happiness. A state of pondering, a state of reflection, a state of motivation...and even sometimes a state of melancholy. This is my base state.

I was stymied when my OB/GYN asked me this question (after the birth of each of my children) in order to evaluate possible post-partum depression, "Do you find joy in this?" Joy? I'm learning how to breastfeed a new baby, adjusting to a big change in my family and home. I'm sleep-deprived, what do you mean I loved my baby, and occasionally felt wonder and happiness, but I wasn't transported by alt. There was too much to do.

I'm a "make a list and get cracking" sort. I'll note the roses (trim, weed, water) and will occasionally stop to smell them (mmm, smells lovely, that's nice, okay, now then...better fertilize) but I am not necessarily transfixed, absorbed, lost in the moment. I'll enjoy the baby (look at those sweet cheeks, oh sweet baby) and then think about what needs doing. Practical. Is the task joyful? Does it all make me feel joy? Hmm. I felt lost about how to answer my doctor.

So, the first time, I mumbled, "I guess so," thinking I didn't feel per se too differently about this than I expected, and not too far differently than normal (although my answer the second time was to collapse on the chair sobbing, which I think was answer enough for him).

Do I fear happiness? Is it the antithesis to deep sorrow, and do I keep myself more "centric" in order to insulate myself from too deep a sadness, thereby cheating myself of true joy?

Or, am I by nature, simply a person who feels differently than it seems I am supposed to?

"Don't worry, be happy!"

"See the good in everything!"

"Make lemonade out of lemons!"

"Dare to be happy!"

We are surrounded by what I call "Idealogue" instructions. In pursuit of happiness, we are to be light of heart, our brow is not to be furrowed, and our mouths are to smile smile smile.

I find "be happy" as a direction occasionally stressful.

Perhaps Martha Washington had it right, "I have learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not on our circumstances."

I believe happiness is more than just a mood. I believe that it can be a nature, a disposition, an underlying state of being. We can all have happy moods, or feel happy, or be in some way fulfilled so that we are at our best, and enjoying...taking and giving in fair measure. But I perceive a difference in those who are not just in a happy mood or good place---who are experiencing a state of well-being---but who are, by nature, truly happy, irrelevant of circumstance.

What makes this?

I've seen studies that suggest that it is disposition-oriented, although people with high self-esteem and an optimistic or hope-filled nature are more likely to be happy. I've seen further studies that indicate when one is a "happy person" one is habitually a happy person, regardless of circumstance. I've seen studies that contrast "happiness" from "well-being."

In the end, I still have questions. Chiefly, what does it mean for those of us who feel ourselves struggle to enjoy, or be happy?

I've mentioned before the positive power of negative thinking (aka defensive pessimism) that I learned about from Bub and Pie.

As much as the happy person attracts and intrigues me, I don't feel I am missing anything. When I sit back and reflect, I don't feel I have some error to me that I need to correct. I see the use of my method of thinking, and being. It doesn't make me a miserable person. It doesn't make me an unkind person. There is a huge amount of real estate between "happy" and "sad." I shoot from end to end of that gray area.

I do however, at times, envy how easily the "happy people" come by all the positive and positively reinforced aspects of life, such a being happy, taking things well, having a good attitude, being super nice, etc. Or maybe I envy the positive attention.

I've pondered this deeply as a parent.

I know my personality type is the one most harshly criticized. I've been called everything from high-maintenance to high-strung. I've been told to lighten up one too many times, and had one too many people tell me "don't worry, be happy." I've been told to "let it go, let it roll off your back" to the point that I wonder if anything is supposed to matter.

I determined to provide my children with fabulous self-esteem so they could be happy, and receive all the accolades of the world that happy people receive. Then my actual children---versus the theoretical---came into my life and I saw Patience, my deep thinker, and I worried.

Eventually, I had to learn to accept myself in order to love my daughter, unconditionally, as she was, and not convey any inadvertent "critiques" of whom--and how---she is. I do accept myself, about 85% of the time. The rest of the time I accidentally fall into my habit of apologizing for being too complex, and not happy enough.

Then I say to myself, Aristotle.

You think this was a man light of spirit, and happy by nature?

I think people like me are important. We make good philosophers, artists, comedians, deep thinkers and analyzers. We prepare worst case scenario preparation manuals.

And we make the happy people look really cool.

Where do you fall on the happiness scale? As a mood, and by nature? What do you think of the constant demands to be happy?

And what about happiness as a marketing tool: buy this and be HAPPY!

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

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Gwen said…
Very thought provoking. I have been described by people as laid back and relaxed but since you read my blog, you know that isn't true. I would call myself even--as in, I'm never hugely sad and I'm seldom ecstatic. This feels normal to me, but for someone like say, my husband, whose emotions are much "bigger," I might appear, oh, perhaps, dead. I've only recently realized that I feel plenty of emotions and deeply, (just recently? I know! how pathetic) but I don't always recognize these emotions or act on them because being in control is so important to me. I always valued my intellect until I read Lydia Millet's book, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, last summer. One of the characters, who just happened to be Oppenheimer (hello very large brain!) remarked that he'd always assumed that understanding was the most important thing until he saw where all the understanding of human science led: to the Bomb. And he began to envy people with a simpler, less complicated thought process. When I read that, I realized how lovely it would be to get out of my head more often, to be less thinky.

This isn't to say that happy people (I would define myself as content, I guess, but not happy) aren't intellectual or smart. Not at all. Maybe it really is dispositional, like you and Martha Washington theorize.

Huh. Here's a shocker: I have no answers for you.

...and I study that person for clues as to how they got that way.

This may interest you...
Cultivating Happiness with the Secret Smile
Mad said…
I tend to think of myself as a fundamentally happy person--but a critical person, an aware person as well.
Julie Pippert said…
Mad and Gwen,

I don't see any distinction of awareness or intelligence between happy by nature and other by nature folk.

What i see is a distinction,more often (but not always) between *enjoying* what you are doing versus just doing what you are doing, with perhaps a sense of fulfillment when you accomplish it.

Does that make any sense?

I am the latter sort of person and am intrigued by the former sort of person.

Thanks for good points!
Pioneer Woman said…
Julie, good post. Great topic. Thank you for your kind words, and you can't know how "happy" it makes me to know that I've affected someone positively, if only in a small, internet-based way. :)

I have the advantage of having a mother who was always joyful and positive. Not airheaded or overly idealistic, but she generally assumed that most situations in life would work out for the best. I need to remember to thank her for giving me that gift as a child.

That said, I have my days. But I've found that it really is just as easy---usually, easier---to embrace and enjoy life, and to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Unless it's my time of the month. Then you'd better steer clear. ;)
kim said…
I'm all about the lemonade, but it is a determined choice rather than a natural inclination. My husband calls me a Goth cheerleader.

Whenever I'm around happy people I find myself wishing I could be more like them because so many feel the benefit of their happiness.
Girl con Queso said…
Great post. I think I'm probably over on the happy side. But I'm very extremely anti 'buy this and be happy'. I think that's gross. And I'm in marketing.
Julie Pippert said…
Pioneer Woman, that's great about your mom. I often wonder how who I am does affect know how much is nature versus nurture on this matter. My younger daughter is pretty happy-go-lucky but then she's still so young...who can say. I'm sure we all have our days. ;) Thank you to you too, and you are so welcome.

Kim, Goth cheerleader! I love that! Can I try out for the squad? I think I'd be an AWESOME fit. :) hit one of my big sticking points. I hate that "buy this and be happy" as if (a) the required state of being is happy, and (b) things can achieve that fr us. That's such a transient happiness anyway, and can be so confusing to young people especially. I'm pleasantly surprised by how many people say they are happy people. Very cool.
Lisa said…
This post couldn't have come at a better time for me! :) I am usually very positive and upbeat, but the past couple of months I have been the complete opposite. Why? I would love to know.

Thanks! :)

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