By David Boyle
How many times have we looked within ourselves for an answer to the question What is happiness? More than any of us can imagine, I suppose. I first asked myself that question a number of years ago, well before I reached my thirties, when I began, without realizing it, to take an inventory of my life. And now that I’m fortunate to have reached my late forties, and being of relatively sound mind and body, my answer hasn’t changed. I am happy, dear readers, happier than most people who have exceedingly more than I. No matter. I’m a reader, a writer, a film enthusiast, an advocate of the arts. I’ve numerous interests, hearty thoughts and ideas. I draw immense pleasure from spending the majority of my time experiencing, creating, sharing, and promoting creative ventures. I would find it an extraordinary privilege if one day, sooner rather than later, I could earn a living as a creative individual, never having to waste my precious time, passion, energy, and enthusiasm on trifling occupations. Other than that minor detail, I couldn’t be more pleased by what I’ve done for myself, and with so little.
Life has shown me that each and every one of us has a different idea of happiness, of comfort, of success, of entitlement. I, for one, think that some of us expect too much out of life, or are taught—indoctrinated to believe, in fact—that we should never stop reaching for more and more and more, mindless of the abundance so many have already garnered. I think that rationality bogus. Like the millionaire who’s never happy making millions upon millions a year, even middle-upper-class individuals find themselves working exhaustively to secure the so-called American Dream, whatever that may be. For the majority, I’m sure, that dream translates to staggering wealth and high-living. However, somewhere along the way, while entertaining that fantasy, they glance back and realize they’ve forgotten where they started, where they were headed, where to pivot next. Then, unable to come to terms with their misconception of the dream, they start living beyond their means, to the point where the dream itself becomes irretrievably misplaced, bringing about further hardship and agitation. Depression, among other afflictions, sets in, dismantling one’s life. Perhaps since I’ve never made a whopping salary (much less than the median income for my demographic), I’ve taught myself to be fiscally responsible, careful and resourceful with every dollar that comes in. I’ve got enough food to eat, a roof over my head, and ample outlets to keep my mind and imagination fully engaged and productive. That’s quite a lot, in my view. Of course I’d like to sustain myself by focusing exclusively on my craft, but, all particulars considered, I have no legitimate reason to feel cheated, deprived, wronged, or to claim that my personal dream has somehow been ignored or blown to smithereens. After all, when I contemplate the grueling lives of the mentally and physically ill, as well as the degree of suffering around the world and the countless hard-working poor who struggle to avoid impoverishment, I can’t help reminding myself that my life has turned out all right, that my petty desires are of little consequence in the grand design of the universe. Nevertheless, I try every day to be a decent person, to improve my standard of life and to maximize my potential, to find simple ways to savor what I hope will be a long, prosperous life, one with minimal physical, financial, and creative difficulty. Ultimately, I want to wake up in the morning for as many days as I may have, to do what inspires me, and maybe earn enough to do that full-time for as long as I am capable. I yearn not for millions, nor for fancy cars or boats or motorcycles, nor for fine foods or wines or clothes, nor for a mansion, nor for various other extravagances. No pampering necessary, folks, I’m not a hedonist. Hedonism, taken to extremes, tends to be a mindless, mirthless, fruitless existence, not to mention costly. Besides, I have my own goals, visions, aspirations, and I’m endeavoring to make them take form, while at the same time I constantly move forward, thinking practically and logically about how I can be the man I wish to be. I can envision him, hunger to be him, but I must keep working toward embodying him.
Insofar as I can tell, attitudes in recent years (in the last decade or so) have changed. When I look around—not far, mind you—I see, here and there, miserable, competitive, unsatisfied people. I know a number of them, and have talked with them; others I don’t know personally but I have heard them utter complaints of one sort or another. Everywhere you go these days people, though seemingly well off, have no qualms about voicing their chagrin, even if it comes off as unwarranted, misdirected, or ill-conceived. In the opinion of these impossible-to-please individuals, the best is never sufficient. Some have achieved impressive stature and have accumulated substantial wealth, life-changing wealth. However, when you probe just beneath the surface and uncover more of their story, you often learn of discontent and disharmony; jealousy, envy of another’s status. “I should be making more,” they say. “I deserve better. Why settle for less? Why be dissatisfied?” Several times I’ve heard: “I have a college degree. My income, my lifestyle, should be commensurate.” Well, ladies and gentlemen, what are these people telling me, telling the world? Are they the only ones worthy of being well circumstanced? I think not. How about the rest of us who haven’t been through the channels of academia, who haven’t been groomed for excellence and overachievement and stature, who haven’t procured that prized piece of paper which seems to guarantee opportunities aplenty for its possessors?
Full disclosure: I don’t have a college degree, and I’m not ashamed of that, not embarrassed at all. Though I don’t have such a document framed and hanging on my wall or above my desk, to stare at and to be proud of, I’ve worked hard all my life, as hard as any man or woman, trying to maintain a comfortable existence. Not a man of excess, as I’ve already conveyed, but someone that can get by without feeling undue strain, undue loss of self-worth, without having to sell himself out and become cut-throat, arrogant, smug. In almost every aspect, I’m doing okay. I live a quiet, respectable life—a life difficult to classify by today’s standards. Lest you wonder, I’m not being self-deprecating, I’m being completely honest, and judging by what the data suggests. Overall, though, my life is adequate, and it fills me with gratification to say that I’ve accomplished everything on my own, through consistency, determination, and honest work, even when the reward has been paltry, as it often has been. I have never taken handouts. No free rides. I’ve never asked for money without having something to offer in return. No blaming others for troubles that crop up, as is the norm with those who feel underpaid, overworked, as if their lives are stagnating, directionless. Sheer willingness to possibly fail and fail again has gotten me here, without derailing my original mindset, my original commitment to do something that incorporates the best of me. Through the years, having faced my share of triumph and adversity, I’ve stayed positive, thanks in no small part to a strong mind, an exemplary work ethic, supportive family and friends, and a blossoming interest in the arts. Yes, you heard correctly, the arts have helped me more than you might think. When I’m being creative or when I’m immersed in someone else’s creativity—whether it be a good book, a movie, a piece of music, etc.—I’m content beyond measure. At such times I not infrequently ponder the only missing link in the chain that is my life: I hope to soon complete the chain, and live the reasonable, unproblematic life that this ordinary soul has asked for: To live on my own simple terms, using creativity as a means to financial freedom, personal stability, fulfillment in all areas, and to embracing my truest self. I live day to day, just like those of you who are reading this essay, experimenting with the moments as they pass, working toward formulating the answer to an everyday question: What is happiness? I know what it is, though for me alone, and I must continue searching for the all-important link. Even without it, even if that link should fail to connect to and fill the gap in my chain, I fully comprehend the meaning of happiness. And it hasn’t cost me a great deal, and for that I’m grateful.
About the Author:
A versatile writer, David Boyle has written two short story collections, published by independent presses. Five of his stories have been adapted to film. In 2014 four stories from his second book, Abandoned in the Dark, were made into a full-length anthology film of the same name. Though he earned his readership by writing reality-based dark fiction, Boyle has gained a reputation for literary stories, essays, articles, aphorisms, reviews, interviews, analyses, travel writing, and poems, a good number of which have appeared in both print and online magazines as well as in anthologies. Discover David Boyle: www.facebook.com/authordavidboyle.