My grandmother likes to say that, if she ruled the world, she would outlaw ending fairy tales with “...and they got married and lived happily ever after.” Instead, they would end: “... and they got married, and some days were better and some days were worse, but they both worked jolly hard at it and forged a loving mutual partnership, and I guess you could call that happiness.”
Of course, if I were writing fairy tales, they wouldn't involve marriage at all. The happily-ever-after would be something along the lines of “...and that lonely little girl grew up to have multiple kickass friends on several continents, and they were most excellent people.”
Then again, maybe calling that a happily-ever-after is a little premature. As Herodotus put it, “call no one happy until ey dies.” So, natch, I've been thinking: what is happy?
Since I started grad school, I'm happier than I've ever been. I love California, I love my studies, and I love my new friends (I TOTALLY HAVE FRIENDS HERE, YOU GUYS). Never before have I so quickly and easily found a place where I slotted in, made friends, felt at home: in both high school and undergrad, it wasn't until my second year that I really got comfortable, whereas here I felt totally settled by my second month.
That doesn't mean some days aren't difficult (though so far I've only had one really awful day, and most of that was fury at a profoundly horrible decision on the part of the UK government), and it certainly doesn't mean I'm in a perpetual state of bliss. I'm still human and this is still a human situation.
The thing about happiness – or this thing that I'm calling happiness while I'm still alive, at any rate – is that it necessarily carries with it an undercurrent of sadness. I've noted this at other times when I would characterize my general state as happy (final year of high school, spring through fall of my second and third years of undergrad, my summer 2010 travels around Europe with the then-girlfriend): true happiness is, for me, always accompanied by an awareness that this too shall pass.
Maybe it's different if you're a real, settled grown-up with, like, a career and stuff, but as long as you're planning your life in increments of two or three years, every period of joy you find also brings you the pain of knowing that it will be over soon. I'm in a two-year master's degree program; even next year won't be the same, as some of my friends will have graduated, and the year after that – who knows?
And that's the looming shadow of mortality. Any day, any minute, I or one (or all; oh hai, San Andreas fault) of my friends could snuff it, and it'd be sayonara to this precarious happiness. Any account of the good life has to encompass the tragic transience of human existence; and that knowledge, I think, is what transforms mere surface happiness into the deep, sorrow-tinged contentment that is joy.
This too shall pass: it's a source of sadness, and it's a clarion call to carpe diem, to make the most of this fleeting delight for as long as you're graced with its presence.