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Where Does Happiness Dwell?

It’s probably not where you think it is.

Track winding through trees
Life can sometimes seem an endless search for happiness

The most common butterfly in the world is the painted lady (Vanessa kershawi in Australia, and Vanessa cardui everywhere else). Their distinct orange and black wings patterned with white spots make them easy to identify.

Painted lady butterfly
Photo of painted lady butterfly by yuichi-kageyama-760529-unsplash.jpg

Although they’re found in all continents, including Antarctica, one of their favourite spots to hang out is on a short stretch of gravel track near our house. An everyday walk can turn into a sudden delight when newly hatched ladies flitter in the sunlight drifting through the undergrowth.

Seeing them reminds me of the quote from Henry David Thoreau about happiness:

Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will evade you, but if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder.

His message is clear: happiness and butterflies elude those who actively seek them.

Despite Thoreau's warning, I often stand perfectly still in the midst of multiple Vanessa kershawi as they catch the warm wind, willing one of them to alight on my shoulder. Over the past 22 years, not one has. So I've come to believe Thoreau. Butterflies and happiness elude those who actively seek them.

What is happiness?

I know a butterfly when I see one, but what is happiness? Countless books, poems, scientific studies and surveys by psychologists have mined this question. After living more than six decades I’ve come to two conclusions about happiness.

Happiness is being so immersed in an activity that the “I” that I think I am disappears. I become the activity.

In other words, happiness is a result. It’s a gift I give myself when I’m totally absorbed by what I’m doing. I sit at the computer, tapping out sentences on the keyboard, searching for words, scanning the structure of the piece, checking facts, finding full phrases that fall from a place called grace into the space of no thought and onto the screen. When I’m writing in this state I’m like a skier, a car racer, a figure skater. Focused. Lost to time. Happy.

Happiness is noticing - really noticing – a piece of life that is before me, to the point where I become immersed in it. It’s as if I become the thing I see.

An unprompted smile from a baby. Our eyes link. Cherub cheeks. Curved lips. A hint of hair. I tumble through time and space, and for a moment the baby, the smile, and I, are one thing. The baby knows this already. I’m being reminded.

A view of a sunset caught between trees. I stop walking. Breathe in the colours. Find myself falling into the distance betwixt the spangled horizon and me. I am the tinted clouds. I am the sinking sun.

The first autumn leaf that falls on the grass outside the kitchen window. I watch it skitter through the air like a whimsical boat to land on earth. I go outside. Pick it up. Smell the damp intimation of winter. Feel the organic fabric of veins and spine and curling edge. This leaf is change. And so am I.

Ah! What happy moments are these!

In his book Man’s Search For Meaning Viktor Frankl wrote:

. . . happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.

Mindful immersion in the moment

Yes, happiness is a result. It ensues – arises – out of something else. And that ‘something else’ is the state of mindful immersion in the moment.

Happiness can’t be bought, demanded, planned for, caught, called to, or looked for.

Happiness isn’t a state of mind. It’s a state of being. It dwells in the land of the unbidden.

Mountain with snow and purple wildflowers
Happiness is like a wild flower - an unbidden gift.

Happiness is an unbidden gift.

With love, Marlane

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