The Jinn, or Genie, and the magic lantern story leads children to think, “if I had three wishes, what would I wish for?” Some logical and clever young minds answer with the definitive statement, “I wish for unlimited wishes”, thus immediately lifting the pressure of coming us with “the answer”. Not as logic-minded as some children, I remember coming to my own imperfect 6 year old version of the answer, “I wish to always be happy”. Seemed to solve the problem for me at the time.
Little did I know what a vexing answer this is was to be to me, even today. Many people in service to vulnerable people say that the gauge for the success of a particular effort on behalf of their clientele is the happiness of such people. Nowhere is this more evident than in efforts towards the well-being of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I have no doubt that this perspective must be closely tied to our stereotypes that “They are always happy” or “They don’t really experience anything deeper than “happy” and “sad” – and so are shallow and un-nuanced, simple beings”
SRV leader Joe Osburn meticulously described the problem with the happiness issue in his 2009 article, “The happiness issue: a brief elaboration on a common obstacle to Social Role Valorization”, so I direct those interested to that excellent piece of thinking and writing. In the meantime, I am reflecting on happiness in my own life and those I know. Seems to me that happiness is only taken in fully with a certain measure of suffering. Happiness does not reach the depth of ‘full and rich’, those times that define our lives, help us discover our own capacities, and reveal our purpose and best selves.
As some wise person said, happiness could be said to be having a full box of chocolates, and sadness is when that box is empty. In my own experience, some of the most important moments that define my best self and my hoped for self are those that are deeply uncomfortable, or even contain a measure of pain and suffering. The period of my mother’s illness and passing was, for me, a period of richness and great sadness, and was undeniably transformative. Happy, no, but I would not have missed it for the world. Watching my children ‘become’ has been a source of abiding joy, intense stress, and great fear, alternately and at the same time. Traveling alone for long periods of time is terribly lonely, and also greatly fulfilling. Happiness and sadness come and go in all those life experiences, and in the grand scheme of things seem unimportant and transient.
So, when we talk about how ‘happy’ people are with the services they receive, or how ‘happy’ they appear to be while in our services and program, I try to keep this in perspective. Happiness in others makes us feel good, particularly when we feel we are responsible for their happiness. This should give us all pause. Rich, full life, made up of freely given relationships, a sense of belonging, a good reputation, growth and learning, and opportunities – now these things count in full measure towards what I want in my own life. I’d like to think they matter more than happiness.
People with disability are fully people, with the complexities, nuances, full range of emotions, drives, and contradictions that reside within all humans. Happiness seems to me to be a transient state and not always worth wishing for, in our own lives, the lives of those we love, and the lives of those we want to stand by, with and for.
Osburn, J. (2009). The ‘happiness issue: A brief elaboration on a common obstacle to Social Role Valorization. The SRV Journal, 4(2), 33-41.