Pristine Wondrous Happiness
Article and Photos by Opal A. Martinez
My husband stands next to me in the kitchen of our humble south Florida home. Nearby, our 27-month-old son Taber plays with yellow construction trucks. I breathe in the beauty of daily things and begin to clean up after dinner.
“Dada look! Crane truck!” Taber shouts.
“Yes, look at that crane truck,” my husband responds kindly. Then he sighs. I can tell he’s not fully present. Tired from a day of dealing with administrative complexities, my husband is restless. He wants to do more than go out for our regular before-bedtime bike rides or walks.
“We have about 30 minutes before the sun sets,” he states looking at the kitchen clock. “Let’s do something different tonight. Let’s drive to the Everglades.”
“We’ll be pushing bedtime back,” I say with hesitation.
“I know. I know. But we are so good about honoring Taber’s need for daily rhythms and I need this Amy.” He leans onto the counter. “I need to get into the wild with you all. We won’t stay long. The sunset there will be gorgeous.”
I look at my outdoor-loving, world-traveling, adventure-seeking husband of 16 years. Yes, he needs this. “Alright. I’ll just let these soak.” I place the dishes in a sink of warm, soapy water. “Let’s do it,” I say with a smile.
A vast expanse of birds, water, greenery, and calm await us. To turn in all directions and see only nature’s splendor, free from the engineering encroachment of human hands, brings deep renewal. As a family, we walk down a trail leading into seemingly endless waterways and grasslands. There are a few small fishing boats out on the water. Egrets fly overhead. I take a deep breath. I also needed this.
I look at Taber. His happiness is pristine and wondrous. His whole being pulses with the perfect presence of life. While we spend a great deal of time outdoors as a family, he’s never seen this. The yellow and orange light of the setting sun drench the wetlands around us. Taber shouts and a white ibis takes flight from a nearby tree. The stressful shadow of the day slips off my husband’s shoulders. I feel a rush of aliveness lift my heart. Instinctively, I begin to run. I run up and down the trail skipping, shouting, and smiling from ear to ear.
Like a child, I run freely. Taber watches me and takes off too. “Mama! Mama! Mama!” He runs after me with joy. A game of chase commences. We run apart, together, embrace and do the dance again. Laughter echoes off the water. Taber’s eyes shine. I pick him up and lift him high above me. “More! More!” he laughs. The luminous sunset bears witness to this precious, holy moment.
“Lift him up again Amy,” Clark calls out to me from down the trail. He has his cell phone in his hand. I pick Taber up once more.
The resulting photo captures an extraordinary mix of light and shadow. It is a beautiful representation of the transformative joy I’ve known in my journey as a mother. Yes, there are struggles, but the overwhelming emotion is one of humbling gratitude. On the drive home, I reflect upon happiness.
H=S+C+V. Happiness equals set point, plus conditions, plus volition. This is the happiness equation taught by professor Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. According to Haidt, an individual’s genetic set point combine with life conditions and choices made. For over a decade, I drew upon Haidt’s scholarship in my role as a teacher of comparative religion and philosophy. Now as a mother, I take in his insights on an entirely new level.
On one hand it’s a simple concept. I inherited a certain genetic makeup from my parents predisposing me to various physical and emotional traits and temperaments. The conditions of my life are multifaceted and complex in their interactions. My education, nationality, economic status, place of residence etc. weave together to create a nexus of ever-changing conditions. Finally, I make choices. I navigate through daily rhythms and choose what I read, eat, and say. I choose what thoughts I want to infuse with attention. My choices impact both the conditions of my life and my expression of the range of behaviors present in my set point. I take up practices such as meditation and journal writing–documented activities proven to contribute positively to one’s well being. Yes, set point, conditions, and volition constitute the ingredients to happiness.
However, it’s one thing to teach a course focusing on meaning, ethics, and happiness. It’s quite another to structure a life so as to best apply this wisdom to the work of parenting. Currently, my husband and I determine nearly all of the conditions of Taber’s life. It won’t always be that way. But for now, the choices we make deeply impact the expression of his genetic inheritance and his emerging power of volition. Our daily choices now matter on an entirely different level. I also apply Haidt’s wisdom to myself in a new way. I work to keep the light of joy within myself burning brightly so as to best nurture the light within my son.
We arrive home late and peacefully dive into our routine bedtime rituals. Certainly, this spontaneous departure from our regular rhythm was worth it. While nursing Taber down to sleep, I soak in the echo of the nature’s power. May we make time for such moments as parents. May we nurture both the best in ourselves, and our children. May we mindfully make choices that create space for the emergence of pristine, wondrous happiness.
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Jonathan Haidt, Basic Books, 2006