There might not be a universal formula for happiness, but for many of us, getting outside helps

Years ago, an acquaintance I knew professionally and because we’d once run in overlapping social circles asked me to meet for coffee. He emailed me at work to set it up. I figured he wanted to talk shop.

I showed up at the Williwaw SteamDot in downtown Anchorage curious and open. You’re waiting for the predictable twist in the story (Guess what? You’re on a date!) but it’s more surprising than you think.

After getting our coffees and exchanging small talk, including a little aimless banter about work, he revealed the reason for the meeting.

“You seem like a happy person.”

He was, literally, in pursuit of happiness. He wanted to learn more about building a happier life. I came to mind as someone he could talk to about it. He referenced my outdoorsiness specifically as a symptom of my happiness.

I was so gobsmacked and disarmed at his sincerity and directness that I don’t think I was terribly helpful. I’ve never thought of myself as a wellspring of happiness. I didn’t have answers. I remember asking him lots of questions. Leaving the meeting, I was charmed at his openness and hopeful for him. But I was also left wondering about happiness and what the answer to finding it might be.

I went along with my day, and my weeks, and since then, my years.

In retrospect, he was right to ask me for coffee. I am a happy person. He was also wrong. I am moody, pensive, glowering, and at times — days, weeks — stuck in a foggy gloom of seasonal depression. I frequently overthink. I mull things to death.

But I’ve also often half-joked that my secret to overall happiness is that I’m a little bit stupid. I’ve observed that people who are smarter than me, those who are able to look around the world and really get it, are much more likely to be depressed. To take in the stark, naked facts and emotion of what it means to be human here and now in the grand scheme of things without the buffer of a little dimwittedness would be overwhelming at best. At worst, it would be deeply disquieting. What would it be like to grasp a bigger truth, that no one else around me could also see or connect to? I imagine it would feel isolating. Infuriating.

I’m more or less happy because although I’m aware of larger phenomena, my day to day focus is not mired in horrible things happening. This is mostly luck, because I was not born into terrible or even just passable circumstances, which means I don’t have to focus on them. This is also part choice, because I could pick any number of terrible things happening right now to throw myself into.

I might not be a genius, but I’m also not a jerk. I do cultivate my awareness by paying attention to the news and thoughtful people doing things I or they care about. I give time and money as a matter of course, and try to find work that aligns with my values. I make donations and volunteer. I figure, if everyone pitched in at my level, we would each be happier and the world would be a better place.

So, part of my winning formula for happiness is that I’m a little slow. I use my limited intelligence to strategically not let too much information into my brain, focusing instead on exactly what I can do. This is both calming in its simplicity and probably also alarmingly inadequate for large scale change. Still, I find meaning and purpose in feeling part of something bigger without trying to solve everything.

The other part of my happiness is the tougher piece. What do I do with all of my remaining focus? The stuff of my day to day life?

I don’t think the version of me back in that coffee shop quite knew the answer yet, but today I’m getting closer. When I think about what I look forward to and enjoy most in my days, it’s:

Talking with people. Whether in person, on the phone, or via Zoom; any real meaningful dialogue and connection helps me feel alive.

Seeing things. Smelling, feeling. All the fleeting sensory experiences of existing that I ignore 99% of the time are also what gives my life any sense of texture. I’m becoming better at recognizing when I’m having a “moment.” Instead of steamrolling right past it because the email needs typing or the phone call needs returning, I allow myself to take a minute to inhabit the good feeling — often, simply the afterglow because fleeting, pure joy hits me upside the head when I don’t expect it and lasts for less time than is perceptible.

These moments could be sparked by anything, but typically it is something from the outdoors. Maybe it’s seeing a bird in my garden as I’m on my laptop at work; or it’s driving and noticing the way the sun filters through trees.

What this tells me is I can reliably create opportunities to access happiness by pushing myself to be outdoors. Even though it’s less comfortable than my living room, it is far more likely than my couch to provide me with true moments of happiness and awe. It’s good for me to take in and be part of something bigger than me that I’ll never be able to fully grasp, and to experience sensory awareness of wind, sun on my face; the sound of snow under my skis.

Does this make me happy all the time? Of course not. But, I do get moments. They are fleeting, spontaneous flashes of joy that are over as soon as I notice them. They happen in between all of the other stuff that I do — the overthinking and mulling. I try to pay attention. Over time, I think this is helping me notice and re-wire my other patterning: not getting locked into cycles of ruminating. I have a little more perspective and another, positive point of reference when I need it.

Now, I think happiness is cyclical and more complex than I knew back when I was asked to share my secret. And, I think my definition will continue to evolve over time. My sincere wish for my former colleague and anyone reading this is that we each continue to create conditions for, recognize, and enjoy those brief, dazzling moments as they occur. I think that’s a reasonable wish that can help add up to a happy life.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.