Happiness Isn't ...
It looks like the opening credits of a science fiction movie. Or a Saturday morning television show from Japan or Scandinavia. Or a more sophisticated version of the time-lapse photography reel-to-reel movies Mrs. Trapnell showed us in fifth grade. It is a large green sphere that could be covered in Astroturf, from which dangles a chenille thread the color of a ripe peach. The thread ends in two frayed knobs that, like little feet, move steadily along a rope the color of young asparagus. That is what it looks like.
But that is not what it is. What it is, says the caption on the video posted to my friend’s Facebook page, is “a myosin protein dragging an endorphin along a filament to the inner part of the brain's parietal cortex which creates happiness.” She goes on, to make sure apparently that the less-scientifically minded among us understand the import: “Happiness. You're looking at happiness."
I am – as I should be, as the person who posted the video intended me to be, as anyone with half a lick of sense would be – amazed. Slack-jawed, pop-eyed, caught-breath amazed. Someone has made an animated image out of information collected from inside a living brain. And before that there was someone who invented the machine that collected that information. And before that there was someone who figured out where the parietal cortex was and what a myosin protein is and what an endorphin does. Someone with equal amounts of abstract intelligence and gee-whiz curiosity was drinking coffee or reading the newspaper or just staring off into space one day and thought, “How would one go about finding happiness?”
So he or she or they set about answering that question with the tools of science and some time later he/she/they produced the moving picture I can’t stop watching, explaining in visual terms that happiness happens when chemicals get moved from one place to another in my brain. It is as though the sum total of all my emotions is nothing more than an elaborate logistical system located between my ears and behind my eyes and underneath all this curly hair, a fleet of neurological big rigs that pick up and drop off and keep on truckin’. And, despite my initial and ongoing amazement, I am unsure as to whether I am prepared to accept that.
I get the caption-writer’s point. I admire her use of the short declarative sentence – “You are looking at happiness.” – that startles in its directness and simplicity. But that admiration is accompanied by an instinctual resistance to the idea that anything so fragile and ephemeral, so welcome and longed-for as happiness could be reduced to a formula, an equation, or a recipe. I have looked at happiness before today. Many times over. I have looked at happiness on the faces of strangers and familiars and in the mirror. I have heard it in the breathless laughter of children playing tag with ocean waves and in the slow easy breathing of a sleeping loved one. I have known it in the oven warmth of summer sun and in the heavy darkness of winter midnight. It is always new, always different, ever frightening in the way that taxiing down a runway is frightening, the way starting a new job is frightening, the way choosing to trust another human being is frightening.
And this is what I know: Happiness is not formulaic. It is not simply a matter of gathering all the correct ingredients and combining them in the specified order. If I thought for one minute that contentment and satisfaction could be beckoned, forced, or conjured and that I had the power to do the beckoning, the forcing, the conjuring, I wouldn’t. I’ve been gifted with enough happiness and I’ve watched enough of it slip through my clenched fist, my cupped hand, my open palm to know that forced happiness is never real and real happiness can’t be held for ransom.
Myosin proteins and endorphins didn’t teach me that. Living did