Happiness is… what exactly? I’m not sure. But I do know it’s not helpful to compare our lives to the lives of others. Let me explain.

Last Sunday Hubby and I were driving home after having visited my sister’s husband in the hospital. And Hubby just happened to mention that friends of ours were leaving for a big trip in a few weeks. This couple, who have been good friends of ours for many years, are lovely people. And they are living what I view as the perfect retirement. They are healthy, and active, and they travel extensively. They’re living the life I expected Hubby and I to live when I retired. And so, as we were driving and Hubby shared with me their travel plans, I felt a wave of what I can now describe as pure jealousy. But at the time all I knew was that I was inexplicably cranky, teary even. What the heck was that, I thought?

Rainy day walk on the Osgoode Trail. November 2015.

It was only later when I read this post on the blog The Likes of Me … about naming negative emotions, sort of fessing up, by examining and giving a name to those feelings that can be destructive, or perhaps even just unworthy of us… that it dawned on me what had happened in the car on Sunday. I was jealous. Of our friends, people we like and admire. And I felt childish and selfish, and like Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice… “heartily ashamed of myself.”

Raindrops keep falling on my head?

The post I read goes on to discuss Alex Korb’s book Upward SpiralKorb uses neuroscience to explain how one can, with small life changes, “reverse the course of depression” from a “downward spiral to an upward spiral.” Korb offers evidence-based analysis of depression and its causes as well as helpful advice, at least according to the reviews I read. But it was the idea of naming negative emotions that struck a cord with me. That and the fact that besides getting enough sleep, exercising, and practicing mindfulness, Korb suggests “clarifying your values” as a positive step in triggering what he calls the “upward spiral.”

I don’t claim to suffer from depression. And I really have no cause to complain about my lot in life. None. I am perfectly aware that I have been fortunate in life. But that doesn’t stop those niggling feelings of discontent some days. Of yearning. Of feeling a teensy bit hard done by. So maybe the secret is to drag those unworthy thoughts, those negative feelings of wanting what I don’t have into the daylight, and take a good hard look at them. Call them out, so to speak. And then review what I really do want out of life. And remember what’s important to me… what Korb would call “clarifying my values.”

And if I do all this, I know I will realize that I’m pretty much where I want to be. And I should be grateful for that.

I am grateful for that.

Foggy fall afternoon on the river.

One reads so much about gratitude these days; it’s become kind of an Oprah word, now. But according to Alex Korb, neuroscience has proven that gratitude actually boosts our serotonin levels, making our social interactions better, and making us happier. And Korb also says that it’s not even finding things to be grateful for that creates the effect…. one can trigger the increased serotonin simply by searching.

Early fall morning on the Rideau

So instead of feeling envy for what others have or are doing. And then feeling ashamed for feeling envy when I have so much more than so many others. I should just practice feeling gratitude. Or at least practice searching for things to be grateful for. Things like a loving family. And good books. And a husband who cooks. And who knows me so well that he drags me out skiing when I don’t think I want to go because he knows that I will feel better. And I always do. Things like winter sunsets. And the perfect pair of jeans. And financial stability. And good friends. I could go on, but I won’t. I’m afraid I might launch into a chorus of “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.” But joking aside, I am grateful for all these things; they make me happy.

So happiness is…. what exactly? Is it the “perfect retirement,” the perfect life… whatever that may be? I guess not. I guess I don’t really know what it is… except that I know it when I feel it. And truth be told, despite the odd envious or discontented moment, I feel it a lot. And I’m grateful for that.

What about you dear readers? Even feel unaccountably overcome by the green-eyed monster? What makes you feel grateful? Or happy?


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From the archives


Wobbly Weekend

I had a wobbly weekend, my friends. Felt a bit of isolation anxiety. But like those toys from the seventies, I wobbled, but I didn't fall down.

Spring Jackets and Muddy Boots

Spring is in the air this week. The river is partially open. And I am digging my spring jackets and coats out of the closet.

Our Fantasy Backyard Book Party

We're having a fantasy book party in my backyard today. With lots of good food and great conversation. And then we'll be kicking back for an old fashioned, down-east lobster boil. Want to join us?

42 thoughts on “Happiness Is … What Exactly?”

  1. Jealousy is a strange emotion but I think we all feel it at times . I remember when I was very young envying famous film stars with their fabulous lifestyles . I realise now that most of them were a total mess so I wasted my envy there . Even many ' ordinary ' bloggers now show us fabulous lifestyles & eyewateringly expensive clothes , jewelry , homes & holidays . But I am a lot more sceptical these days & keep a healthy pinch of salt handy . Every life has its problems – how can you appreciate the good times if you've never known anything else ? Your life looks pretty good from here 🙂
    Wendy in York

    1. I agree. That's why the idea of clarifying values hit home with me… would I really swap lives with someone who has the "prefect retirement?" … nope. And all those fabulous lifestyles on the web are just snapshots …quite literally… who knows what happens when they are out of the viewfinder. Ha… Do we even call it a viewfinder these days??? You're right about being able to appreciate the good times, too. You Yorkshire girls, you're so sensible.

  2. Oh yes that green eyed beast sneaks in regularly. I'm very good at spotting it quickly most of the time. And when I do I feel rather silly. Poor Jennifer and all that bunk is so counter productive. Gratitude does seem to be a new "Oprah" buzz word. But when I focus on what I'm grateful for, it really does help.

    1. I feel silly as well… and a bit guilty. When close family members are struggling with difficult life situations, it's hard to not feel guilty for my good fortune.

  3. Ah, jealousy. I find a check in my spirit quite frequently, "Don't judge." Don't judge her hair, nails, lipstick, house, children…even if the judgement is good or excellent. Don't judge. Just be present, happy for them or sad for them, or silly with them, but don't judge.

  4. I am a regular reader of your blog but rarely comment. This is such a good post! I think most of us have those moments of feeling "left out" or we should have more of something because we think our lives would be better. When we reflect we realize that we usually are good enough and often have lives better than others.

    1. Feeling "left out" is a good way to put it… not part of the undoubtedly huge crowd out there with perfect lives. When in fact most people do not have perfect lives. One of the articles I read said (as you have done) we should focus on things being "good enough" and not perfect. Thanks, Elizabeth, for your continued reading… and for commenting:)

  5. Retirement opens so many doors – and one of them is the door to comparison around having the better life, or simply doing it, whatever it is, better. Gratitude, as you point out, is the best medicine. Also, avoiding comparison, also, remembering that even those with all kinds of visible good stuff sometimes have some pretty difficult interior bad stuff they carry. Good post. And hugs to you.

    1. I think that's part of it for me, Lisa. Now that retirement has come, something we planned for for years…I expected it to be exactly as we had planned. And when that didn't happen I had to force myself to make a new plan. I found that quite difficult. Visible good stuff vs interior bad stuff is a good way to put it. Particularly when lots of the visible good stuff of others is stuff I don't value anyway:) Thanks for the hug:)

  6. Honestly, I have been jealous of family members many times. I'm not retired and in my early 60's. I should have stopped such pettiness years ago. I am grateful for your post and the insightful comments.

    1. Thanks for reading, and commenting, Stella. I struggled with writing it…. felt like I was whining… and I didn't want people to get the wrong idea.

  7. Very interesting post! Back when I did a bit of therapy to sort out some old stuff with my parents, I learned how much shame we sometimes attach to those negative feelings, and push them down rather than acknowledging and examining them. I remember being told as a child that I was "wrong" to feel this way or that, and it was hard to get past the self-censorship. Once I learned to acknowledge them, it was very freeing, and they lost their power.

  8. I'm glad that you changed the word you used for that emotion from feeling "jealous" to feeling "envious." More and more, people use the former when they mean the latter. I think that the difference between the two is important. In any case, I heartily agree with your Rx for dealing with it and appreciate the reminder. Right now, I'm particularly grateful for the gorgeous pink and blue of late winter afternoon clear northern skies…and for your gorgeous photograph of it. Thank you for sharing it, Leslie

    1. To me jealousy is the stronger word, and implies bitterness. But I agree… the two words are different even if sometimes it's hard to sort out how. I'll bet you get great winter afternoon sunsets in your neck of the woods:)

  9. Wonderful that you can name your feelings! Such human emotions and we all share
    them. Better to recognize the feelings, say hello to them, then move on
    to grateful 🙂 Thanks for sharing! I just love your posts!!!

  10. Thanks for your post. This strong feeling of envy from seemingly out of the blue is something I've also experienced. Thank you for naming it and owning it, Susan. Doing so take considerable courage and helps people like me to own such things too.

  11. You put me in mind of something my Mom used to say. " Happiness is not a state of being. It is a decision."
    Thoughtful post. Thank you.

  12. When my g'daughter was 5, she had a marvelous kindergarten teacher who had certified in a Mindfulness approach, such that one day, when N and I were baking together, and I made a mistake that resulted in me saying how Stupid I was to make such a Stupid mistake, N said. "We don't say Stupid, Nana." And when I said, Okay, but what should I do, 'cause I was upset and suggesting to her that sometimes we could be grumpy, she responded with wonderful clarity: "You should stop, take a deep breath, and name your feelings. Like, you could say you're Frus-ter-ated or you're Angry." And then you can think about that and figure out what to do."
    I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I wonder what the world would be like if we invested in more marvelous preschool and kindergarten teachers…
    Thanks for this honest, human, and instructive post. See? I'm grateful, and it's making me happy! 😉

    1. Your granddaughter… what a treasure she is. And what a good lesson. Wish I had been able to pass that on to young teachers in my department… it would be wise advice to help deal with difficult classes. Or difficult situations of any sort.

  13. I used to search and strive for happiness and joy only to come up empty on too many occasions. Now I realize that joy isn't necessarily a state you can be in constantly. Along with the regular highs and lows, I found that seeking contentment was much more realistic. Contentment lets me be grateful for all the normal everyday things. I agree that what we see in people's blogs and those things we may be envious of are just snapshots, their best moments. You don't really know someone's whole life situation unless you live it yourself. Very introspective post. Thanks for getting us all thinking! -Jenn

    1. Thanks, Jenn. I'm a big fan of contentment…which is in itself a kind of quiet joy, isn't it? BIG happy moments are rare. If they weren't, like Wendy said above, how would we appreciate them?

  14. Hi Sue ..I really enjoyed this post and appreciate your honesty. However Ive struggled as how I should comment …I've definitely felt like you describe over the years but lately I've started to reflect on the people and experiences in my life that bring me happiness. I think I've finally realised that the grass isn't always greener although it may look that way. When I feel down or wish that my life was different I just try to focus on the good things.
    I really hope I don't sound smug!
    Looking from the outside in, it seems you and Stu have a wonderful life together … and share so many common interests. However it does seem unfair that life has unexpectedly brought so many health issues lately. Hopefully these will resolve this year. Take care …keep smiling 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment, Rosie. You don't sound smug at all. I'm usually pretty adept at focusing on good things.. or finding good things to focus on. When I was working and had a particularly stressful week coming up, I'd say to myself…just remember there's that new Elizabeth George novel you can start on the weekend. Most times that's all it took to make me smile and carry on with my week. I think that's been harder for me this past year, because I feel like our retirement plans have been pretty severely derailed with Stu's health issues. And I feel strongly that for someone who has worked at hard as him at his health and fitness…it's so not fair. And at the same time realizing that we are lucky on so many other ways. I will say that I'm so lucky to have met so many lovely women through this blog. Wow…who knew that the internet could provide such a supportive community:)

  15. I know ..It's amazing, like chatting to a friend 🙂 I empathise. .its so frustrating for you both and as you said, so unfair when he's always done so much sport, eaten healthily etc. Even when you have a "glass half full" outlook on life it's hard to remain positive and cheery when faced with such unexpected and unwelcome episodes in life. I was so glad to hear you'd been able to ski together … at least I presumed Stu was with you. (hope he was!)
    Thank you for such a lovely reply..
    Take care … have a good weekend.

  16. Great post. I believe that we have to walk in another persons shoes before we can be a tad envious. This lesson I learned young. I was so envious of a certain friend. She had everything that I thought I wanted. I later found out exactly what her home life was like…..not so good….
    I remember this whenever that green eyed monster called jealousy strikes. I'm so grateful for all the good things in my life. I also retired early.


    1. Thanks, Ali. I guess we'd all be surprised if we could see the not so perfect underbelly of most so-called perfect lives. Maybe if the media stopped hyping the lives of celebrities…with so much hyperbole… it would be easier on the rest of us.

  17. An honest post containing an emotion that I think everyone has felt. I did and still sometimes do. I stop and think about what I do have. Grateful for the small, every day comforts of life. Yes, travel in my retirement would be wonderful and many people I meet seem to be going here, there and everywhere, while I remain just here…It is what it is. I try and be adventurous by exploring suburbs away from my own. Sounds ho-hum compared to walking around Paris or London, but it is still an adventure.
    I'm taking up Materfamilias grand-daughter's advice too. What a wonderful teacher she has!
    Linda C.

  18. When I feel this emotion start to rise in myself I quickly assess that there are so many people who have nothing and I should recognize that for whatever reason I'm feeling envious or hard done by, someone else always has it much worse than I. That usually puts things in perspective mighty quick.

    Last night we were coming home from an event and there were so many homeless people sleeping on vent grates. It was -7 C with a windchill of -15 C. Nothing like seeing that to truly point out just how many things I have to be thankful for.

    Great post!


    1. You're right about that, Suzanne. We just need to look at what's going on in the world today in so many places to feel grateful. Thanks for stopping by.

  19. Just one more point here…there are so many good ones and not much more to add..that it's the journey, not the ending that is important. I keep reminding myself of that in difficult moments. It's all about how we live the life we are given, right? And I do think it helps to sometimes try and see ourselves from the outside in. I always think of my Mother who was a very unhappy person most of her life and how she never really saw just who she was and all the many, many advantages she had. She only saw the negative. So it has made me just about the opposite! Glass half full and all that. Very thoughtful post Susan, thank you!

    1. That's good advice, Libby. Looking from outside at what we have and who we are, as well as how others might see us, is important isn't it? I tend to be a glass half full most of the time, too.

  20. This is a wonderful post. If we're honest, we are all jealous at times and think things aren't fair. I'm 65 and very happy, wouldn't trade my life but sometimes I feel that 16 year old emotion. I love your posts. Thank you for your honesty.

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