In pursuit of happiness

WHEN I was young, I used to worry a lot about happiness. What was it? Why didn't I have it? How could I get it? How could I keep it? As I grew older, happiness gradually receded as a conscious goal, not because I despaired of ever finding it but because I had lived long enough to recognize its elusive and unpredictable nature. Also, I had grasped at least intuitively its fundamental paradox -- that too-heated a pursuit of the quarry assured its escape.

So happiness became incidental, a byproduct of the fulfilling work and relationships that Freud defined as its prerequisites.

These became my goals instead, and I told myself that I sought them for their own sake, ashamed to admit to a desire for happiness as if it were too shallow and hedonistic. But I continued to pursue it, with stealth and cunning, like a prey one has to sneak up on.

I recently found myself thinking about happiness again because of the boys, the dog, and the woods.

My son, Luke, is 7. He has a best friend in the neighborhood named Matt and a one-year-old Labrador retriever named Daisy, whom he claims he loves as much as his thick-skinned parents. Together Matt and Daisy constitute the twin pillars of his outdoor pleasure.

We live in Bucks County, Pa., in a house that overlooks from the rear the Delaware Canal, dug adjacent to the Delaware River in the 19th century to transport coal and other goods via mule barge. The portion of our property near the canal, like that of our neighbors, is heavily wooded, and the woods extend along the canal farther than two seven-year-old boys can run out of earshot of the cowbell that I ring to summon them home.

The boys are as busy as beavers in the woods. They build dams and boats and houses -- of sorts. They swing from trees and catch fish and turtles. They throw stones and dig trenches. They drag tools, lumber, rope, ``weapons,'' and even a broken stereo to the woods to accomplish their obscure purposes.

They come home hungry and tired, wet and muddy, full of tall tales. It is impossible not to think of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn -- sans raft.

Daisy, of course, goes with them. When Matt comes over to play, there is an exponential increase in Daisy's level of excitement, and when I say to her in my most jubilant tones, ``Daisy to the woods!'' she literally jumps for joy.

As a Labrador retriever, Daisy views the woods and the canal as paradise regained, and on those occasions when the boys have said they don't want her because she interferes with their construction projects, I cannot bear her plaintive whimpers of longing and let her out to race full tilt after them. An ardent swimmer, Daisy returns even wetter and muddier than the boys and so exhausted she can barely stagger up the back stairs into the house.

I occasionally venture down into the woods with this intrepid trio to keep track of what the boys are up to. What got me thinking about happiness again was that I became aware of how much I was smiling when I was down in the woods, a vicarious response to the spectacle of happiness that surrounded me.

In watching the boys and the dog play in the woods, I felt I had never witnessed happiness before with such certainty. I had also never seen it so firmly grounded in a specific place and in the present.

I had certainly seen my son happy -- at Disney World, Christmas, his birthday party, the ice cream parlor, the toy store, etc. -- and considered him in general to be a ``happy'' child with a cheerful outlook on life.

But down in the woods happiness for Luke and his friend Matt had nothing to do with being somewhere special but with being somewhere simple. It had nothing to do with getting something or achieving a goal, to put it in adult terms. What impressed me was how little it took to make them happy, how simply being in a state of nature became for them a state of mind. Happiness was not something they strove to capture but something they simply let happen to them, that required more of the passive than the active mood.

I recognized the danger of romanticizing this Thoreauvian scene and reminded myself that their happiness was produced not only by the setting but also by their attitude toward time. In their abandon they suspended all sense of time. They were so caught up in the pleasure of the present, so receptive to experiencing it, that past and future ceased to exist.

Ironically, my chief complaint about my son has long been that he has no sense of time. Our attitudes toward time suggest, in fact, that we come from different cultures. In contrast with my Teutonic concern with punctuality and efficiency (I'm the kind of person who feels guilty if she takes a bath instead of a shower because it wastes time), my son lives on a Mediterranean timetable. He understands manana and largo far better than ``now'' and ``hurry up.'' His obliviousness to time rivals that of a Zen master and reduces his mother to a harridan who might just as well never have read a child-rearing book.

Apparently this problem is not uncommon because my friends nod and smile knowingly when I describe it. But I'm beginning to wonder if children know something about time adults don't know or have forgotten. I can see there is a connection between my son's indifference to time and his ability to surrender to the moment. I rarely am able to do that because I'm thinking about what I should be doing instead or am going to do next.

I know that the lessons I am teaching him about respect for time are necessary, but I wonder if they will have the long-range effect of corrupting his capacity for happiness in the present.

As for myself, I find I'm spending more time in the woods lately with the boys and the dog. It makes me happy.

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