On the lookout for happiness: Get out and find your ‘absorbing errand’

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 22, 2014

Since I’ve embarked upon a column about happiness I’ve realized something. I seem to be on the lookout for it these days, whether it’s my own or someone else’s. And if I catch myself being happy, I try to pause and acknowledge and savor it.
That reminds me of a simple but powerful exhortation from writer Kurt Vonnegut in “A Man Without a Country”: “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’ ”
These days, my happiness antennae are up and attuned to joyful vibrations, and I seem to be detecting them more frequently. And the happy thoughts seem to be crowding out some of the cranky, anxious and melancholy ones.
I think most of us like celebrating other people’s happiness, which is a far nicer feeling than schadenfreude (which, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve all experienced). Schadenfreude is when we feel pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. And speaking of feeling happy over someone’s else’s bad news: when the men’s basketball coach at Wake Forest was let go this week, some students responded by toilet-papering the quad, an activity normally reserved for a big win. Harsh, students, very harsh.
Perhaps a better thing to be happy about is the situation of Salisbury musician Ashley Jo Farmer, who posted recently on Facebook that for the first time in her adult life she is able to afford health insurance for herself and her family.
“I’m looking forward to finally living without the fear of an unforeseen medical crisis crippling our family’s ability to survive and prosper,” she wrote. “Because of the Affordable Care Act, our family’s price for health insurance has gone from around $900 per month to less than $200 per month.”
If that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.
A few people offered very specific things that make them happy. Moss makes my green-loving friend Mary Dalton happy.
Chubby thighs and dimples — on babies, that is — make new grandmother Mary Ann Johnson happy.
Volunteering gives joy to Carole Simmons and her fellow Novant Health Rowan Regional Medical Center Auxiliary board members, including Dotty Clement (who recently took over the presidency from Sherry Wall), Toni Kenerly, Gene Wolfe and Carolyn Hood.
Speaking for her fellow volunteers, Carole wrote: “Research has proven something that we all have known deep down, that people who volunteer are generally happier.” Medical center volunteers bring comfort and hope through service, from giving directions to visitors, delivering gifts to patients, seeing that a frightened child has a “care bear” to hug or organizing the Tree of Hope project.
Volunteers get great satisfaction from this uncompensated ministry, Carole says, adding that one volunteer said she felt her job was to find ways to “soften the edges” for people feeling stress as they or loved ones undergo medical treatment.
I think Carole is right. Volunteering, as she notes, is a great way to connect socially and tends to lessen our focus on self. And both of those things are important in achieving real happiness.
Henry James had something to say on the subject: “True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of yourself; but the point is not only to get out – you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.” The hospital volunteers have found “an absorbing errand” that allows them to “stay out,” in the best possible way.
I hope you’ll keep sharing the happiness, through words or photos. You can email me at salposthappy@gmail.com.

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