OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have been reflecting, yet again in the last few weeks, on what I require in order to be happy for the rest of my life. I know this is a topic that speaks to most of us; human nature seems to insist that we seek happiness for ourselves, that we covet it when others have it, that we try to buy it, sell it, achieve it, or destroy it. I’m pretty much obsessed with happiness, but strangely, most of my life has been marked by a distinct lack of it. It’s not that I’ve never been happy, but more that happiness has had a fleeting quality, indefinable and misty as an oasis on the edge of a desert. Periods of brief happiness have always struck me as surprising and unsustainable.

Recently, I’ve been going through what I would term my second “divorce.” I put that word in quotes only because I was never formally married to this person, though we lived together for the last seven years. That time together, unlike my first (actual) marriage, was not exactly unhappy. It just wasn’t truly happy, either. It was easy to mistake peace and security for happiness after years of misery and instability. But what I found was that in the end, I was mostly peaceful and secure because I was left alone. By the time I realized that I wanted more than simply existing alongside another person, the relationship was well and truly over.

As life often does, it delivered me a new relationship around that same time. I was immediately struck by the passionate, emotional highs and lows of this new love. I realized very quickly that I had a capacity for enormous happiness and heartbreak that I had almost forgotten over the previous decade. And when happiness hit me this time, something else happened: I became determined to figure it out, hold onto it. This time, I want to be deliberate in my joy.

The funny thing is that after much wrestling and epiphanizing (that’s not even a word, but damnit, it should be!), I have also had to face the fact that the things which I require to make myself happy are not necessarily the things that make other people happy. Or maybe others do need these same things, but they haven’t yet realized it, or perhaps happiness does not hold the same urgent weight for them; I’m not sure. This has made it hard sometimes to recognize the roots of happiness, since the things other people claim bring them happiness are not the keys to it for me. After much reflection, I arrived at a list that I think is probably happiness, for me, in a nutshell. In the face of all the messages I receive about what should make me happy, as opposed to what does, I thought it would be a good exercise for me to list the six things I now believe are necessary for my daily bliss.

Keep in mind that I don’t think I need to have all six of these things every single day. It would be unrealistic to expect that sort of consistency from life, with all its beautiful unpredictability. But what I’ve found is that if I have all six of these things, I AM happy, and if I have fewer than say… four of them, then I AM unhappy. If I am missing one of these things for any serious period of time, I can take action to try to bring it back into my life. That’s reassuring in a complex world.

Jess’s Six Keys to Happiness (Your Mileage May Very Much Vary)

  1. A comfortable place to live

It’s remarkable to me that, living in our appearance-based culture, I’ve only just figured this one out: comfortable has nothing to do with beautiful. For many years, I’ve believed that a beautiful home, like something in a magazine, would make me happier. I’m clearly not the only one who has fallen for this. I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read about making my home “a pleasant place for entertaining,” as if my friends can’t have a good time in a house that lacks “flow.” I’ve fallen for the Martha Stewart Industrial Complex just like everyone else around me, swept up in the need to make my life, and especially its outward manifestations, look perfect to everyone else. In the end, though, my pretty houses haven’t made my life happier. They’ve just been big, expensive things to get rid of when I move on.

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So what does define a “comfortable” home? I have come to realize that it is this: I need to live somewhere that is both functional and safe. A functional home should have a comfortable place to sleep, and to eat, and to socialize. But it doesn’t have to be gorgeous, or fashionable, or expansive. I need to be able to keep it reasonably clean and uncluttered. I need to have room to be able to do the activities that matter to me. If my home allows me to relax and work and sleep, it’s probably functionally fine, even if the kitchen vinyl is dated. A safe home involves a place where I feel valued and not threatened or ignored. It also means I need to have my fire alarms working, that my neighborhood isn’t dangerous, and that my family can have some privacy in their daily lives. In a broader sense, I need to live in a safe country, where my rights are respected and my overall privacy is ensured.

  1. Satisfying work to do

I’m going to spend the majority of my waking day outside my home, working. This is the reality of most people’s lives: we work for others, with others. If I’m going to be happy, I need to feel that this time is being spent on something worthwhile. One of the eight Buddhist steps to nirvana is to have “right employment,” and this is absolutely true – I am rewarded by a sense of purpose in my day.

I know not everyone goes to work. Some people are retired, or unemployed. I’m not sure that the point is to be happy “at work,” so much as to have work that makes us feel good. This could be teaching, as it is for me, or it could be gardening, or it could be making music, or it could be creating crafts, or it could be working on the house. It could be searching for a more satisfying job. It doesn’t matter what one is doing, precisely. It just needs to provide a sense of, as the book Drive puts it: mastery, autonomy and purpose, most of the time. My father has spent his life working as an artist, which is a notoriously unstable job, yet overall, he is happy and fulfilled in what he does. My mother was an engineer, traditionally an occupation associated with stability, and she was absolutely miserable, surrounded by coworkers who were idiots and bosses who were sadists. They both, of course, had periods where what they did was more or less satisfying. It just goes to show that it isn’t the job description, but the way the job serves to enrich our lives, that matters.

  1. Good food to eat, relaxation time, and a healthy body 

Yummy food that I mostly prepare with my family from fresh, healthy ingredients makes me happy. Occasionally eating out makes me happy (but not eating out too much, or because I have no other options). Meals eaten with friends make me happy. Of course, I also need time to chill out each day and let go of stress. Maybe this involves a bath, or a movie on TV, or even a cocktail. It doesn’t matter, as long as I feel like I can breathe a bit.  Some physical activity (walking, stretching, gardening, weights, cycling) every day makes me feel better too. It’s literally impossible to be happy when I’m in pain or sick. To be honest here, just eating delicious, healthy food is half the battle won!

  1. Time with family and friends

Being alone for any length of time is not conducive to my happiness. It’s not that I can’t be alone. Of course I can, and sometimes a break from everyone is a good thing. There are nights when the idea of eating crap no one else thinks is dinner (goat cheese on crackers and a can of beets, anyone? Anyone?), watching movies that my family will hate, and crafting obsessively really appeals. But the truth is that, and it’s taken me a long time to really understand this, I can’t achieve true happiness if I’m not with the people I care about on any given day. This includes conversation, snuggles, games, support, and forgiveness with/from those I love. I need to be there for my family, see my friends regularly, go out and do things with people whose company I enjoy, let others challenge and change my opinions, and be with my family. I need to deliberately stay connected to my family and to my friends so that I’m never truly isolated. This is a weird concept for me, as I’m fairly content to be passively involved in the lives of my companions, but it might be the most important key of all.

  1. Physical affection from a partner

This is really, really important: full, rounded and joyous happiness involves lots of sex, snuggles, massages and touch from a man I love. Truly, I need this every damn day. I have to pay attention to my partner and myself physically, even when that’s hard because of life. Without touch, my body aches and my mind can’t be at ease. That most of us let these things slide in long-term relationships is tragic and ridiculous: physical affection is as primal a need in our lives as food and water. My sex drive is instinctual and essential, and it has to be maintained and nurtured and shoved a little from time to time.

  1. Time to reflect/be mindful

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Even if it’s just running through this list, I need to take care of my own emotional and mental health by checking in. This is more on the spiritual side of things: I want to reflect on what I want, make sure I’m getting what I need, and connect with the deeper side of myself and others and the universe. I want to open my eyes each day to the beauty of my world, but also to see the dangers clearly. I want to think about my needs versus my desires.

When I ignore this last key, I get lost. I can’t see my way out of periods of stress and unhappiness, and those periods are inevitable. Learning to take a deep breath, reflect and ground myself again has been tough. Like everyone, I’m prone to getting swept away in my emotions. So I’m working on this one. It’s the key I tend to forget the most often, and it’s probably the one that leaves me most unhappy when it’s neglected.

So that’s it. If I have each of these things, every single day, I’m happy. It’s not really a challenging list, when I review it. I’m lucky in that I can set up a home where I feel comfortable, and I enjoy my job now that I’ve nailed down a good place to work. I have tons of hobbies and interests. I love eating, and I’m delighted to cook when I can do that with good company. I like spending time with my family. I’m excited to make love to my partner. And if nothing else, I can always reflect and bring my world back into perspective when days get tough. It’s not as though I can claim to have reached nirvana with this list, certainly. Happiness is never a state we achieve. I think we have to work on it, constantly, day by day. All I’m hoping for is to reach those moments of Woo-Hoo more often, and to hold onto them a bit longer. Eventually, I figure, all those daily moments will add up to a lifetime that feels, overall, pretty darn happy.

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