Happy?

The other day I caught myself acting completely out of character.

The setting of this story might qualify as an overshare, and I apologize in advance for that. I was in for my annual visit to the OB/GYN, which is always a party (not!). I should mention here that for reasons I only partially understand, I’m a lifelong and pretty terrible hypochondriac. As such, I’m a nervous wreck about doctor appointments. I avoid them when I can, I put the necessary ones off as long as possible, I fret over them when I do schedule them, and I absolutely loathe every second of every office visit. Just thinking about the crinkle of exam table paper triggers in me a prickly rush of panic.

This visit was different. When the doctors came into the room, I’d been typing away at my phone, making an Instagram post about a baby foxglove I’d discovered poking through the snow and leaves of my garden that morning. The doctors greeted me and I was suddenly aware I’d been smiling like a giddy schoolgirl (over a baby foxglove!). Silently, I corrected myself. This is a doctor’s appointment! You’re supposed to be terrified! Get with the program!

During the routine small-talk characteristic of any gynecological exam, I realized I was straying from the usual, “Oh, yes, the kids are well! Growing up so fast!” “It has been very cold this winter!” “I agree, absolutely, Chicago is a terrible name for a baby!” kind of chitchat. My unwitting physicians, both diligent women who do their best to put their patients at ease, couldn’t have been prepared for my overly exuberant response to the standard: What’s new in your life these days?

Now, when this question comes from your OB/GYN, it means what’s new in your life regarding your reproductive health? I didn’t take it that way.

“Well, I’ve started a business actually,” I heard myself say. I’d not said that out loud before. It was invigorating. I kept talking. I told the doctors about the slow flowers movement and the benefits of local, organic blooms. I explained how farming at my ancestral home felt nourishing and how I can’t wait to share the experience with my young children. I went on and on about building a business and my long-term plans for growth and sustainability, and before I knew it, the appointment was over.

Isn’t that something? No panic sweats. No nervous hives. No impulse to dash-for-the-door-and-escape-right-now.

I usually try to put doctor visits out of my mind as soon as possible, but I’ve been thinking about this one for days, and it occurs to me that it might have gone as it did because in my life right now I might actually be…happy? Can that be? Is the utter inability to keep a lid on one’s ebullience a symptom of happiness? Perhaps it’s possible that our fears and anxieties have a harder time getting their claws in us when we’re actually satisfied with the current course of our lives.

Hm.

Occasionally paralyzing anxiety notwithstanding, I’ve never really been unhappy, exactly. Of course, I’ve known ups and downs, and I’ve shuffled along through the drudgeries of daily life like anybody. Lately though—since setting up Summer House—I’ve felt energized and gratified in ways I’ve not in years. I feel finally like I’m pouring everything I’ve got into something awesome, and the zeal and high hopes feel great. I feel like me as a child, when I was always starting lemonade stands, founding nature schools with my nieces and nephews as my pupils, and running neighborhood dog grooming services. In all those silly endeavors of my youth, I remember feeling like anything was possible. I feel like that now too. Is that happiness? Or part of happiness anyway?

What does it mean to be happy?

According to Aristotle, the whole purpose of human life is happiness. But it’s a certain sort of happiness that he describes. It’s unrelated to vast wealth or power or luxury. In the Ethics, he talks about it (the Greek Eudaimonia) as a kind of total fulfillment that comes from pursuing excellence. Happiness is living the good life, the virtuous life. This strikes me as true. Marcus Aurelius asserts in his Meditations that, “the happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” I like this too.

The feeling that comes from being and doing and thinking well—is that happiness?

In my recent experience, happiness really does come when you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, in the most important sense, and when all the parts of the soul are clicked into place, functioning healthily. That feeling of fitness, or rightness. Is that happiness?

What I’m doing now feels so right I’m not even upset it’s taken me thirty-six years to find it.

My husband and I are always worrying over how we might go about leading our children to their proper paths. How do parents do that? How do they do that without clinging to such a rigid idea of what exactly that right path is that the child ends up resentful (and, given the current trend, addicted to heroin)?

I guess because my mother thought it a respectable and lucrative line of work, she wanted me to be a lawyer. Because I disagreed on both counts (no offense; some of my best friends are lawyers!), I went to graduate school to study political philosophy instead. It was the right thing for me and I have no regrets. I think I’m actually pretty good at what I do professionally, and I enjoy it. Like I’ve said elsewhere, I didn’t turn to flowers out of desperation or misery. But I needed a supplement. I needed something active and creative and transformative.

Now that I’ve immersed myself in the business of flowers, I understand more fully and appreciate with greater intensity that flowers are, as the humorist P.G. Wodehouse once said, “happy things.” They are. And, it seems, so are those who tend them.

Mary Beth McConaheyComment