Posted by: David | November 14, 2007


“Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much much better.”
Laurie Anderson (from the song “Language Is A Virus”)

Been thinking about this a lot during my time off from work. What constitutes that elusive state we call “happiness”? How do we know when we’re happy? Should we be laughing or smiling when we’re happy? Or can we just be quietly happy, inside ourselves where nobody can see it? Or what about “tears of joy”?

Whatever way the state of contentment is expressed, let’s axiomatically agree that inwardly happiness is the opposite of pain. In other words, imagine happiness, or contentment, as a real, physical state of mind and body, rather than an unattainable life goal. Repeat Key Point: happiness is not just something which we are legally entitled to pursue (U.S. Constitution), but rather a state in which the body is free of pain and the mind is alert, engaged or meditative, whatever the individual’s preferred state. So having speedily and broadly defined happiness, it doesn’t sound so impossible, right?

On my vacation my wife took a trip and I had the responsibility of pet care. We have two giant pets, horses. My daughter’s horse is a 20 year old gelding Hanoverian Thoroughbred named “Practical Magic” (they call him Buddy), and my wife’s horse is a 29 year old Arabian pony mare named “Justice” (they call her Jussy). I “muck out” their stalls every morning after they’ve eaten their grain and been turned out to their hay piles in the pasture. Mucking out sounds nasty, but in fact the horse turds are not mucky at all. They vary in size from ping-pong to tennis ball size and are easily sifted from the pine shavings bedding with the appropriate tool: a manure fork. Here’s the thing. The younger gelding is hyper and paces around his stall a lot, kicking his manure piles all over the place. The older mare is mature and collected. She rests in her stall overnight. Come morning her manure piles lay undisturbed in the southeast corner of her stall. Easy cleanup. Ten forkloads into the wheelbarrow.

Cleaning up the horse manure is a metaphor for contentment, get it? Plucking the turds from the shavings equals identifying the memorable moments of our lives, which approach, occur, and then become the past. And the wheelbarrow is more easily filled in the stall of the calmer horse. Buddy’s stall is eventually fouled and in need of stripping (removing and replacing all the shavings) because his activity just grinds all the manure right into the shavings.

And we need to have something to look forward to. It doesn’t matter what or how far ahead it is. Tomorrow’s lunch, or a hiking trip to the Alps. When we pleasantly anticipate that thing, we are simultaneously secure in the present. Content. This is the hope of life, which seeks nothing more than to continue.

What makes you happy?


  1. I’m not sure I agree with your definitions of happiness but that’s probably the point = it’s all subjective. I think happiness is a lot more spiritual than your mere (?) physical interpretation. and that’s OK. Abe Lincoln says, you are as happy as you make up your mind to be. something like that…

  2. Thanks for your comment CuriousC. This was a fairly goofy post, wherein I tried to make contentment more accessible to myself and whoever else might read this stuff.

    Still think that happiness is the opposite of pain in that one we are drawn towards, while the other we only wish to escape. Simple. And for some reason, my mind kept coming to this stuff as I mucked out the horses’ stalls. Contentment though, is a “satisfactional equation” that we each develop as we make up our minds on how happy we want to be.

    Yeah, of course it’s subjective. Was trying to slightly objectify the subjectivity (reference to Woody Allen movie “Love and Death”– sorry) of contentment, as distinguished from happiness, which tends to be more of an abstract concept. Nice going on the Lincoln quote- right on Abraham. God I wish we could have another president like him! I think Abe would agree with me!

  3. I have a chronic pain syndrome, but manage to be happy much of the time. I just look at all the neatly arranged, ping pong ball sized turds in my life, and compare them to the messy, disorganized ones. There are almost always enough from column A to make me feel fairly joyful much of the time.

    For some reason, this post made me think of the story of the optimist who only got a pile of manure for Christmas. His mother saw him outside, happy as a clam, holding a shovel, and whistling and digging away. When she asked him what he was doing, he said, “Well, there must be a pony under here somewhere.”

    I’m always looking for the pony. It’s what keeps me happy.

  4. moonbeam, yes I’ve looked at your FibromyOWgia blog. You are lucky to have the self-confidence to find joy in spite of your affliction. And you totally GET my life/shit metaphor! Of course my Contentment post is simplistic and expansive. That’s me. Thanks for commenting and I hope that FibromyOWgia doesn’t keep you from riding your bikes.

  5. You mentioned Woody Allen. I can’t remember the film, but at one stage his character says, in a spate of high anxiety, “I was happy this morning, I just didn’t realise it!”.

    Half the battle is just stopping to reflect on the good things (not sure if that means tennis-ball sized piles of manure…). Say to yourself, hey,
    “I’m happy”, and you’re more likely to actually be happy. Of course, that’s being glib about it, there’s obviously more to it than that. But it’s a good start. I have practised actively counting my blessings for several years, made it into a little personal habit. And it does make a difference.

  6. There you go shazgood. This post looks quite simplistic in hindsight. Fault tolerance is another aspect of contentment and a concept which I posted on last summer. I liked that post better.

    And yeah, the larger clumps are easier to scoop out of the bedding.

  7. I did not quite get it, will have to try again. I have never thought about happiness either, but I would also look for a definition including health, since even a very minor pain blurs and interrupts all thinking.

    Marcel Proust thought that real happiness exists on Earth, when some present thing or sound makes you remember something of the distant past so clearly that for a moment your soul lives outside of time, in a region that includes both the past and the present. —

  8. Cantueso, if you don’t “quite get” this post that’s OK. It is one of my more muddled posts. My state of mind at the time was a little jumbled. Well, a lot jumbled. Two of my closest coworkers had recently resigned and I was struggling to right myself. Like one of those inflatable clown toys that keeps coming back up after you punch or kick it.

    For some reason, I’m reluctant to edit or delete a post, even if I later think it was stupid or badly written.

    However, what you eloquently relay from Proust is quite what I was groping for. Thanks.

  9. Now I got as far as “axiomatically”, and I am afraid, really, that what you mean is “by definition”.

    As to Proust’s idea: I understand it very well, but I never have memories of that kind. My mother died early, and I had a bad time.

    Proust’s other idea was that happiness was in the moment of a discovery. That would be my definition, too, not just discoveries of an intellectual kind, but also inventions around the house: by now I have 131 uses for clothes pins and 93 uses for rubber bands. And indeed I remember how each time I just jumped with joy.

  10. I came back to this by accident. I think that pain is the opposite of pleasure. The opposite of happiness would be sadness.

    These symmetries are a l mirage, though. Somebody way back coined a term and 1000 or 2000 years later you have people asking: am I this or am I that? How can I be this? How avoid that?

    As I previously stated, this was a muddled post. The juxtaposition which I never fully formed was a result of meditation while cleaning out the horse’s stalls. I still think that there is something symbolically there but I haven’t quite conceived it yet. Maybe in May when I’m on barn duty again it will crystallize better. One can only hope.

    Are you saying that the term “happiness” has only been with us a millenium or two? I can agree, not that I really know CRAP about history. I was trying to bring it down to a more elemental mind/body state, and thus avoid the mirage. Perhaps there is only pain and the absence thereof?

    Whatever …

  11. I saw Kant the other day who said that happiness is an ideal of the imagination, not of reason.
    Isn’t that nice?

    But it is strange that the US should have included such a wishy washy concept in (the preamble to?) their constitution. Maybe it is from your Masons.

    NO that is NOT nice!

    Reason also starts with imagination, then binds itself with arbitrary rules … happiness has no need of reason.

  12. Not nice?
    But would you agree to the first part, that “happiness is an ideal of the imagination” ?

    I suppose (but don’t know for sure) that this implies that as an ideal it can’t be defined (which is what reason keeps doing or trying).

    That would be what the second part says.

    I may not be a professional philosopher, but I know what I like! And I don’t like all that hyper-complicated over-thought anxiety-inducing schematizing by folks like Kant and Schopenhauer that minimize our chances for simple contentment. Killjoys! If I thought long enough and hard enough and had ten billion times the discipline I now lack, I too could lay an intellectual egg by sheer force of thought applied to the observation of reality. It would be large, like a goose egg. And empty. Like a goose egg. And it would make nobody happy.

    To be honest, I am surprised how often you’ve returned to this post, and as I look back at it, it still seems quite muddled. Hmm. No surprise there … 🙂

    It’s probably not fair for me to pontificate on the topic of contentment anyway as I am heavily biased in favor of it and have had a life astonishingly full of it.

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