I spoke at my high school graduation, encouraging the South Stokes class of 1979 to pursue happiness along whatever path appealed to them.
I don’t know how many took my advice or how many found happiness along the way. A while back, I asked a classmate if she was happy. She said instead that she was content, which I have always taken to be something less than happy.
As far as I know, this classmate mostly followed her chosen path. She went to college, later married a lawyer in a prestigious firm, and together, they had two smart, handsome sons who are the centers of her universe.
So why is my high school classmate content instead of happy?
Maybe she took what proved, for her, to be the wrong path to happiness. Perhaps she would have found happiness as a career woman who never married.
But I wonder too if most of us would be happy – or at least happier – if we paused more often to reflect on all that we have and all that we accomplish.
By way of confession, I did not consciously follow the advice I gave my fellow graduates in 1979. In college, I majored in journalism not because I thought a career in newspapers would make me happy. Instead, I majored in journalism because a classmate in junior high convinced me that working for the school paper would be fun and because two Washington Post journalists had brought down a president. But journalism made me happy because I found that I enjoyed both reporting and working with words.
I sometimes get down on myself when I dwell on the fact that I have not written – and will likely never write – a great American novel. Deep down, I know I’m better suited to pen essays, but I haven’t published a book of those either.
In those moments of self-criticism, I am more content than happy. But then I remember that as a reporter and now editor of a twice-a-week newspaper in Johnston County, I have won awards for investigative reporting and editorials. I remember also the phone call from the lady who said she read one of my columns to her husband and then to the members of her church choir. I saved the many emails I received in response to the column about the passing of my father. Just as important to my happiness, I have edited stories that made a difference; those have been too many to begin recounting here.
Life of course is more than work, and again, I sometimes fault myself for not making the most of every waking moment outside of the office. Almost every week, I have these notions about how I will spend the hours after the workday and over the weekend. Invariably, I don’t cross that many items off of my to-do list. But then it occurs to me that the grass does get mowed, the clothes get washed and that stack of newspapers piling up in the bedroom does get moved to the recycling bin. Even better, away from the office, I have seen playoff baseball in Wrigley Field, an NCAA soccer championship in Cary, countless Minor League baseball games, Oscar-winning movies on the big screen, the Empire State Building, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Arlington Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial.
Beyond all of that, I have good friends, better friends than I deserve. After my younger brother died some years ago, my college roommate got to my mom and dad’s house before I did. After my father died last November, my best friend from childhood flew in from Arizona, rented a car and picked my daughter up from college in Cullowhee, several hours away.
Finally, when I’m tempted to be content rather than happy, I remind myself that I have a wife who loves me despite my many faults and a daughter who might be the most compassionate person I know.
I write none of this to discount the fact that happiness is neither easy nor guaranteed. But I do think happiness is not as elusive as we often think it to be. And it’s certainly easier to achieve when we pause regularly to count our many blessings and successes.