What Makes You Happy?

I had a moment of transcendent happiness a few weeks ago. Now, I’m not an unhappy person, as a rule. Though my family may disagree, I believe I tend to stay pretty evenly keeled. My bouts with crushing, wrenching despair are probably as rare as my bouts with supreme joy. But this moment struck me, and because I’m fairly scientific by nature, I spent some time trying to analyze just what the formula for that sort of happiness was.

I was in the French Quarter of New Orleans, sitting at a restaurant with my husband and my in-laws, and we were two long days into a road trip from Utah to Florida. (Which on the outset sounds more like a recipe for tearing one’s hair out than bliss, doesn’t it?) New Orleans wasn’t a stop on the quickest route, but my mother-in-law had never been there, and my husband and I hadn’t been back since our honeymoon, so we decided it was worth the extra couple hours of travel time. So we fought our way through narrow, crowded streets, found parking, walked for a bit, and did a quick online search for good lunch spots. And now here we were, seated next to French doors opened wide onto the street. It was mid-November and seventy degrees. Rock music and jazz battled it out in the distance, with additional percussion provided by road work a couple of blocks over. Traffic bustled past—foot, vehicular, and horse-drawn carriage. The scent of fresh manure floated in on the breeze, courtesy of the latter. From within, there was a noise of clattering dishes and people talking. Over everything was a tantalizing odor of Cajun food.

And I realized I was happy. Purely, blissfully, incredibly happy.

(No, it wasn’t the drinks, thanks for asking. They hadn’t even arrived yet.)

There are words for supreme happiness, but none of them seem to fit. Terms like rapture, beatitude, and ecstasy imply a religious angle (or a sexual one, which is an odd but not incomprehensible intersection of meaning). But it’s not about religion. Or about sex. It might be akin to the feeling one gets when falling in love—that magnificent sense of everything being fated. The conviction that no one has ever, ever felt this way before—that you’ve discovered a grand new emotion.

But really, I suppose, it’s just—being in the moment, being completely content. Knowing that this instant, this right now, is where you are supposed to be.

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If I ask you what makes you happy, chances are, you’ll talk about the things you love most in the world. Spouse, family, children, to start. And I agree. Don’t get me wrong—I agree. But that sort of happiness, at least for me, has always been fraught with so much else. With my children, for example, I’ve always tempered happiness with worry for their futures, responsibility for their wellbeing, guilt over not doing the many, many things the world tells us a good parent should be doing. There’s always something left undone when I’m dealing with the people I love, something niggling at the back of my mind that tells me I might be inadequate.

What about a good job well done? What about writing? I understood two things, that moment in New Orleans. First, that this is the same feeling I get sometimes after a good day’s writing. And second, that for me, there are some profound similarities between writing and that afternoon in a crowded restaurant.

Writing is also fraught with worries, of course. Once you share your words with the world, you open yourself up to criticism. What will the reader/agent/editor/publisher think? If writing is a career, the worries compound exponentially. But there was that nugget of joy, wasn’t there? That pure moment when you said, “Yes, this is where I’m supposed to be.”

That day in New Orleans, I discovered three reasons for my happiness. First, I was exploring a strange and exciting new place. What was around the next corner? My feet itched to wander, even if only for a few minutes. Second, I was sharing my admittedly limited knowledge of the area with others. I’d been there once before, but my mother-in-law hadn’t. I wanted to show her around, and I had just enough confidence in my abilities to feel good about that. Thirdly, there was the immediate prospect of good food—always serious business for me (ask anyone).

When we write—and maybe what I’m saying is particularly specific to fiction, but I think it applies to nonfiction as well—we’re leading our readers on a journey through a wonderful new world. We’re their guides, knowledgeably showing them the highlights, the things that could touch their souls. And there’s just enough of the unknown in it for us as well that it’s still exciting to see what’s around the next bend. (But what about the good food, you ask? Believe me, if I could add it to my manuscripts, I would.)

Is there stress, worry, guilt? Of course. But sometimes we get lucky and all that fades into the background, and we set off into the wild—intrepid leaders following the trail of story.

And now it turns out I have a word for that type of happiness after all. Because out of all the ways I’ve phrased it above, one of them keeps resonating with me. Maybe it’s the season, but that word is joy.

May we all have joyful writing in the coming year.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.

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