If You're Happy And You Know It

Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, I kept a collection of notebooks in which I wrote down inspirational quotes, song lyrics that seemed impossibly meaningful at the time, and the sort of pensive, doleful observations that prompt in me now a full-body cringe when I remember them. Basically, I had a Tumblr account way before my time. 

(I just pulled out one of these notebooks with the intention of scanning a few pages to show you, but I just...I just couldn't do it, you guys. Partly because this sort of thing would really need an entire post of its own and that's not what I was planning to write about, but also because I'm not sure you would ever look at me in the same way again if you knew that I spent a large part of 1998 penning such philosophical gems as "I'm spaced out in space that isn't even mine," "If John Lennon had been at my school, I think perhaps we could have been friends," and "Guilt is feeding on my raw and festering sins"—whoa, steady on there, Sylvia Plath!—in various colored pens, while listening, no doubt, to....well, probably to No Doubt.)

(My plan, by the way, is to keep these notebooks—which, I should clarify, are entirely separate from my diaries at this time, whoa nelly, that's another beast altogether—until I have a teenage daughter I can embarrass thoroughly by forcing her to read through them until she promises that she will never be as idiotic and melodramatic as her mother. Feel free to steal that parenting tip, my friends. Discipline by mortification! Keep 'em on the straight and narrow by threatening to read aloud your own squirm-worthy teenage ramblings if you ever find cigarettes in their underwear drawer!) 

Anyway, one of the many (many, many) quotes I remember finding and writing down during this particularly theatrical period of my life was one by John Stuart Mill, which went "ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so." When you are seventeen, of course, a quote like this is imbued with far more meaning than poor John Stuart Mill probably meant it to be—I am guessing, for example, that he was never bummed out that some guy he'd met at an indie rock night didn't call him back after he'd scrawled down his number in eyeliner on the back of a receipt for an Oasis CD (but then again, I didn't know John Stuart Mill personally, so who knows)—but that's the thing with quotes, I think: they're like horoscopes. We make them what we want them to be. 

I've thought about that quote a little over the years, and a lot recently, and the thing is, I'm not entirely sure it's true. The concept of happiness is a tricky one, for sure, and there's no one-size-fits-all answer to what makes a person happy—the packet of Cadbury Mini Eggs lurking in my kitchen cupboard right now makes me happy, for example, but so does the fact that my parents love me and I have not, as of yet, died in a fiery plane crash (knock on wood, etcetera)—but if there's one idea I've decided that I probably don't subscribe to, it's that it's impossible to find happiness if you're deliberately seeking it out. 

I am, I would say, a generally happy person. My baseline mood is one of happiness. I am easily irritated and quickly frustrated, yes, but I don't often fall into bleak periods of depression—at least not ones that last more than a couple of days or aren't easily cured by something whose fat content is matched only by its carbohydrates—and the only time I see the glass as anything other than half full is when the contents of that glass are gin-based, because gin makes me morose and weepy, and this is why you should not let me drink it when we are having a My So-Called Life marathon (or really ever at all.)

But happiness is complicated. It lurks in the background, humming along quietly, while your life ticks benignly by. Your various buckets are full and then empty, full and then empty and then full again, and if you were stopped on the street and asked "hey, are you happy?" you would probably reply "yeah, I guess I am," and John Stuart Mill could go to hell because look at that, you asked yourself if you were happy and you still are. And while a huge amount of your happiness is circumstantial—you were lucky enough to be born healthy and loved, you were lucky enough to meet and marry the right person—it is true that a lot of it is also of your own making: You worked hard to get that job. You took a risk to move to that city. You totally snagged those Cadbury Mini Eggs on sale. 

Most of the time, we don't question whether we're happy, I think. We just move through life, one foot in front of the other, maintaining a general contentedness as we go. But every so often—a few times a year for me—that steady trickle of happiness pools together and concentrates into a solid mass, and the force of that mass smacks us bluntly in the face like a fist, so that suddenly we find ourselves looking breathlessly around and thinking I am so happy right now. It happened to me on safari in South Africa last November, driving along bumpy bush roads at twilight. It happened to me in Knoxville last week, watching two men on stage lean forward into parallel microphones and harmonize. It's a startling realization, but a pure, matchless, unmistakable one. I am so happy right now. I am so happy right now. 

So here's where I'm going to give you a new quote instead, a Kurt Vonnegut quote that my sister introduced me to just the other day: "I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"

I might be wrong, but what he's telling us, I think, is to do whatever it takes to let that concentrated fist of happiness smack us in the face as often as we possibly can. To feel it. To remember it. To always make it count.

Mar 12, 2012

I just love the way you write. I kept one of those notebooks, too. Kinda thinking I should go dig it out now!

Mar 12, 2012

Reading this makes ME happy.

Mar 12, 2012

I think I get what Mr. John Stuart Mill is saying. We shouldn't ask ourselves if we are happy, coz once we do then we might over analyze things and be sad of the things we haven't accomplished. Those 2 quotes should be hand-in-hand, something like: "Don't question your happiness, just be happy and declare to the world that you are happy!"

Mar 12, 2012

YES to everything in this post.

Mar 12, 2012

Parenting by mortification is the best advice someone ever gave me! Love it! I'll try it when I have kids! :)

Mar 12, 2012

Monday, 5:45am, this was just the thing. However, as the mother of a 16 year old girl, I must say that it's while it's easy to embarrass her with stories of her mother's teenage years, it's well nigh impossible to keep away the melodrama. Alas.

Mar 12, 2012

I love that you wrote this. And wrote it so well.

I think it's important to not only realise how happy, healthy, fortunate, loved etc we are, but to also stop often, and be grateful for it. We are lucky.

I am happy that you are happy. Reading your words makes me happy too.

Mar 12, 2012

A little over a week ago, my husband and I were at a really lovely, very intimate wedding in the Florida Keys. He'd been working (which involved traveling) all week, and I'd had a crazy week with work as well. Anyway, I probably stopped and looked at him 25 times over the 36 hours or so we were there, and said some variation of, "I am SO HAPPY to be here with you." It only enhanced my feelings of happiness to say it aloud, you know?

Mar 12, 2012



Well played, madam.

I tend to worry that I'm not enjoying my happiness enough. And with that statement, I think I have proven that I am capable of over thinking anything.

Anna Louisa
Mar 12, 2012

The beginning had me rolling with laughter, and the end made me thoughtful and content. Thank you so much for this :)


Mar 12, 2012

Your posts never cease to delight! I love the title of this one, and the quotation at the end. I, like you, am a baseline happy person, but I love the idea of grabbing and savoring those especially brimful happy moments for what they are.

Mar 12, 2012

Lovely words, Holly.

I also kept a notebook of quotes, and thinking about the cringe factor, am so glad I have no idea where it might be!!

Mar 12, 2012

Oh, I had one of those books too. Came across it a couple years ago and was soooo embarrassed. Was I really so melodramatic when I was younger? I was going to have a burning party to get rid of it, but it never happened. I could keep it to show my daughter when I get older, but I'm pretty sure it would just confirm what she already knows - I'm a dork.

Mar 12, 2012

I, too, had one of those notebooks with quotes written down. Things like "Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you'll land among the stars."

I mean, REALLY?

Happiness has seemed stranger to me, lately. I'm a happy person and I can almost always think of reasons I can or should be happy. And those reasons don't disappear when I'm unhappy, when things aren't working out and that frustration between "am I happy? or am I not? am I allowed to not be happy when it's theoretically possible that I could be...?" can throw me for a loop.

This line struck me. "We just move through life, one foot in front of the other, maintaining a general contentedness as we go." Because what if we don't have that general contentedness? That slap in the face of happiness can be so confusing, then.

Great post!

Mar 12, 2012

Oh, YES to everything you've written. I don't comment often, but I should - you write so brilliantly. You have such a relateable voice; I often find myself nodding as I read.

I kept similar notebooks, although I not ONLY collected deep, thoughtful quotes, but WROTE MY OWN POETRY AS WELL. It is horrifically embarrassing to re-read now, but you had a fantastic idea - I do have a daughter, who is 4, and I am SO going to torture her with it when she is a tween. She is already highly dramatic so perhaps it will scare her off some of the teenage drama?

Anyway, fantastic post.

Mar 12, 2012

1. I have so many of those notebooks myself, I couldn't possibly judge you. What on earth did I possibly think a notebook full of Counting Crows lyrics would ever be useful for?!
2. One of the main reasons I've had children is because I want to embarrass terribly some day. I can't wait. Does that make me a bad mom? Too bad, haha
3. And also I just love the rest of this post, and it's kind of great timing for me to read such a thing, so thanks.

Mar 12, 2012

I think I love you, Holly. You are such a great writer. Your entire post resonates with me. This year, my 36th, I find myself occasionally overcome with bouts of JOY!! My life feels full; I have a 7 month old baby girl, a loving husband, and I love my job. I have moments when my eyes fill up with happy tears. I love Mr. Vonnegut’s quote. He is onto something; it feels good to look at my happy times from the outside and feel them deeply. For in my case, it won't be long before I have an angst-y teenage daughter rolling her eyes at me and sneaking cigarettes!

Mar 12, 2012

I adore this whole lovely deal! So very writery of you to ponder such :) I love that quote by KV, too, but sometimes, when one of these moments hits me, I start to look around in this panicked fashion and think, "Oh no! It's going to disappear! Stay, stay, stay!" And then, of course, there are moments when you only realize later, "Why, yes. That was quite the brilliant spot of perfection, wasn't it?" Either way, my cup overflows!

Mar 12, 2012

Well, now I have to share this silly facebook post I recently made. Nowhere near as eloquent as your post, but that same song popped into my head a week or so ago:

The song "If you're happy and you know it," implies that there are people who are happy and don't know it. Those are the people who really need to clap their hands.

Yep, yours is one of very few blogs I'm still reading, and it's (in part) because of posts like this one. Keep on truckin. :)

Mar 12, 2012

My bosses boss, in one of those non-work related/hanging out at the water cooler moments said, "like attracts like," which is why our group tends to get along so well. I've been thinking of that with all the groups I find myself around recently. And now to my reading materials, as well. I like your me, me, me posts, they are awesomely stated. Vonnegut's (Jr., right? Or I'll have to rethink my next line) writings, especially Timequake, had some great lines for pondering.

And, oh, /those/ notebooks...they are in a storage box at my mom's house. Aren't blank books the required gift for teenaged girls so they can fill them with "really deep important stuff." :)

Mar 12, 2012

Dennis Prager is a talk show host. Conservative and Jewish but don't turn your nose up at that. He believes you have a "moral obligation" to be happy. http://stores.dennisprager.com/CTGY/Happiness.html

Listen to the "happiness hour" of his show at least every now and then.

Home Sweet Sarah
Mar 12, 2012

"To making it count!"

Yes, I just quoted Titanic. I'm sorry. (No I'm not.)

Patrick Burns
Mar 12, 2012

A fine piece of writing. Always, always remember the happy times and you'll have few regrets.

Mar 12, 2012

Is there some "Best of..." place where we can nominate this post? I mean really..."Yes, to all of the above!" (as so many other commenters have said before me) For a generally happy person to recognize those moments of extra-special happiness? Pure gold! And, in the absence of general happiness, well...(Margosita, I hug you!)...good to have a touch-stone against which to measure sometimes. Truly, a profound post here, Holly!

Mar 12, 2012

PS: Only when I went back and re-read the title did the pressing urge to clap my hands while reading this make sense ;-)

Mar 12, 2012

Currently writing in my notebook:
If Holly and I were neighbors we would totally hit it off...

Love this!

Clare Bradshaw
Mar 12, 2012

My bestfriend once told me about "100% happy moments" which is the same thing you are talking about - that moment when you are just so so so so happy you could burst.

Mar 12, 2012

That was very profound. Thank-you.

Mar 12, 2012

My best friend directed me to your post after I confided in her that I read several of my high school diaries last night, from the years of about 94-97. I seriously considered burning them. But now I will not, considering that if I have a daughter I will indeed use your mortification punishment options. Thank you!

Mar 12, 2012

Wow, that just made me tear up a little bit. In a good sort of way. Thank you, Holly.

Mar 12, 2012

I am definitely a proponent of Kurt's idea. I frequently think about, ask myself, and remind myself of happiness. It's actually pretty great and sort of solidifies the moments a bit more in my memory so I can remember the truly happy times.

Mar 13, 2012

Well, Holly, I came over here to tell you something, and then got caught up in this wonderful post, and then thought maybe my news wasn't appropriate to share, but then realized that yes, it is, because it makes me HAPPY. And HAPPY is what this post is all about.

So... (deep breath) I just had to share (in case you haven't been by my blog yet)...

In celebration of the 70th anniversary of the movie Casablanca, it is being shown ON THE BIG SCREEN once more! All over the USA!!! One night only: March 21, 2012.

Visit my blog for a link to a list of participating theaters.

I'm so excited, I'm telling everybody!!!

Mar 13, 2012

I love the idea to absolutely acknowledge moments of happiness. I'm going to memorize that little line.

Re: parenting tip...I think my daughter would learn way 'too much information' from my old notebooks...and I am the one worried that _she_ will find cigarettes in _my_ underwear drawer!

Mar 13, 2012

Another lovely post from Holly!

Oh, old journals from when I was a teenager, hahahahaha - even I am afraid to read them now.

I love LOVE that Vonnegut quote - it is a good reminder!

Mar 13, 2012

i found a lovely letter you wrote to me on your long flight to Hong Kong after those dreaded 2 weeks we spent in the San. on Cathay Pacific paper no less. am definitely scanning it and emailing to you. there are even drawings Holly, drawings! Early writings/sketches!

Mar 14, 2012

I love the way you write! And what you wrote.
I second whoever said it before me: I understand Mill in the sense of: Don't overanalyze it. I think that's what a lot of us do and it can (but not must) ruin the happiness you feel in that moment.

Dana @ Bungalow'56
Mar 14, 2012

I meant to come and read this post when I first saw it, but I didn't get to it until today. Truly brilliant. Will share it with my readers during a favourites post sometime in the future. A book in the near future perhaps? If the ramblings were anything like this. I would buy it.

Mar 14, 2012

I agree- sometimes (a lot of times?) people get caught up in the negative moments. I try to stay in the present and do a self-check every once and a while. Am I happy? And if not- why don´t I change it? I tend to do this with all major life decisions-- jobs, relationships, even where I currently live.

Great post Holly. It´s always good to realize, hey, it´s totally OK to be happy and you should actually enjoy it!

P.M.A.- Positive Mental Attitude! :)

Mar 14, 2012

And I just read another reader´s comment: ¨100% happy moments¨---totally using that!

Julie K
Mar 15, 2012

I haven't had a chance to read all the comments - but I totally agree that we need to make sure that we truly recognize the happiness in our lives. Sometimes we are so crazy busy that we just let the moments pass without a thought. Just taking a second to recognize how happy we are, what makes us feel that way, and how grateful we are for the happiness can make a difference in our outlook.

Mar 19, 2012

This is so well written and relate-able! I loved it. :)

Alicia C.
Mar 23, 2012


sensibly sassy
Mar 24, 2012

I just wrote a post about this. Jon's dad recently passed away, and as you can imagine it has brought up a plethora of emotions. A thought that keeps coming up for me is how good it feels to be surrounded by the love of friends and family in such hard times. But the truth is we are always surrounded by the love but it seems like we notice it most when we are sad, but in reality that love is always there. So i guess what I am trying to say is I totally support your thought of feeling the happiness when times are good. so. yeah.

Apr 08, 2012

Oh my stars, I have the same such set of notebooks AND diaries that I nearly wrote about on my blog but then decided I just couldn't. No one needs to know how much I loved Ross McDonald. No one. Ever.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.

More information about formatting options

Just to make sure you have a pulse
Enter the characters (without spaces) shown in the image.