More or Less Happy

If not now, when?

Quick! Finish this sentence without thinking: I will be happy when….

For most of us, the next part goes something like this: when I win Powerball; when I meet Mr./Ms. Right; when I get my Dream Job; when everyone I love is joyful, healthy and wise. Well, wise may be asking a bit much.

Or perhaps it's one of these: when this worry is resolved; when this illness is cured; when I finally have enough. Whatever that is.

I read somewhere about "The More" that we seem hard-wired to seek, usually in all the wrong places. More money. More approval. More security. More enlightenment. The More that will fill this empty space. The More that will silence the 3 a.m. demons and the noonday devil and the persistent, whining voice that says my life would be perfect if only I had about 10 percent more.

I have been thinking lately about what constitutes enough. As the current economic crisis deepens, stories of simplifying and cutting back spring up in the media. I read today about a couple who sold their house and moved into a 100-square-foot structure that looks like a storage shed. They have no closets. They keep their clothes in the car. They say it's a new kind of freedom.

Theirs is a voluntary poverty, which is different from the destitution thrust upon others by circumstance. When you're facing job loss, foreclosure, and the Repo Man, freedom is not the word that comes to mind.

Still, detachment from material possessions is a key tenet of every major spiritual tradition. The road to bliss leads through the narrow gate. The joyful pilgrim travels light.

My own unscientific survey seems to confirm this principle. The happy people I have known share two characteristics: adaptability and gratitude. I once heard that Sevier County sage, Dolly Parton, remark that her sense of security in life comes not from her acquired wealth, but from the fact that she knows how to be poor. If it all went away tomorrow, she said, she could cope. In the meantime, she makes the most of what she has.

My grandmother, orphaned at eight and working full time at 13, embodied Abraham Lincoln's adage that most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. I once asked why her Dickensian childhood had not left her bitter and anxious. I didn't have time for that, she told me. I was busy living.

Like Dolly, she had known poverty and relative plenty and had come to regard them as way stations on the journey. Her gratitude for the gift of the moment was the stuff of family legend. What could be more wonderful than this, she would say, presented with a cup of tea or a piece of toast or a crayon drawing. It's just what I wanted right now. The idea that happiness might depend on some future stroke of good fortune, the provisional "when," was as foreign to her as whining. Her last words on earth were "thank you."

My grandmother understood that "when," like "more," is a trap guaranteed to sabotage the present. Because when comes, and then you find out that what you wanted was something like that, but not exactly. The Powerball winners are mostly broke and miserable inside of two years. The Dream Job isn't all it's cracked up to be. Mr./Ms. Right doesn't wear well. And the chances of everyone you love being happy and healthy at the same time are right up there with pigs sprouting wings.

Another sage, the writer Wendell Berry, tells a story of a young man working a parched corn field in the merciless heat of a Kentucky August. Just when he thought he couldn't make it down another row, his cousin showed him the way to a nearby creek. They lay down in it up to their necks. It was there all the time, he wrote. A little stream of flowing water. Redemption.

More than enough.