Happiness is a complex topic, with often divergent meanings for different people. This paper explores how two people of vastly different backgrounds view and define happiness. One of the interviewees is a female colleague who works as a nurse for a medical surgical unit; the other is my mother, a 72-year-old mother of three who has been married for 45 years. Although the interviews were slightly different for the two, each contained several basic questions relating to happiness, including what happiness means to them now, when they were most and least happy, what happiness meant to them as a child, and the possibility of whether their definition of happiness might change in the future.
Both interviews began with the difficult question of what happiness means to each of the individuals now. It was difficult to interview my mother since while I am fairly certain that she is happy, I wondered whether she might disclose certain anxieties of which I had been unaware. Additionally, because she knew me so well, she did not have to disclose as much information to transmit her answers and opinions. Ultimately, however, she offered unsurprising answers, stating (in response to the first question) that she had led a hard life but that happiness derived from seeing her family happy. This was not surprising to me and she has never deviated from her viewpoint that happiness comes from witnessing the contentment of those who matter most to oneself. I have always understood this answer to represent something of an overriding philosophy for my mother; for example, she would always offer her dessert or beverage to another family member if they expressed even the slightest bit of desire for it. Although she was not explicit in revealing exactly how her life had been difficult, I understood her to be referring to the death of her oldest child, who had passed away at the age of 28 from complications associated with kidney failure. This was an occurrence that had not taken anybody by surprise since she had struggled with kidney failure. I was impressed by my mother's perspective in discussing her delight in the simple pleasures of life; she is not usually one to wax philosophic and this suggested to me that she had devoted some time to preparing the answer prior to the interview being conducted.
My colleague expressed a vastly different perspective from my mother; where my mother has always stressed the importance of a tight family, my coworker was quick in stating that in order to be happy, she had to feel independent. She was also effusive in expressing her love for helping others, which did not surprise me in light of her chosen profession. Despite their obvious differences relating to age, background, etc., one similarity between the two interviewees is that both derive happiness from helping others.
After the broad initial question, the focus turned toward more specific inquiries as I asked them when they had been most happy and least happy in their life. My mother stated that she had been most happy when meeting her husband; she had loved her family but at the same time, she had grown up during a period in which women felt a great deal of societal pressure in order to marry at a young age and start a family. At a later point in the interview, she expounded the importance of marrying someone who was patient and while this did not come up in the interview (since I already possess this knowledge) I know that she fell in love with him after just a couple of dates. Certainly, the fact that they have been married for over 45 years testifies to their mutual love.
I already knew which answer she would give, but in the spirit of sticking to the list of interview questions that I had predetermined, I went ahead and asked my mother when she had been least happy. Unsurprisingly, she stated that it was when her eldest daughter had died. My mother stated that she liked to think that she's come to terms with her daughter's passing away, and I can say with certainty that she had given this answer in an effort to appear strong-willed. Although I did not probe her on the issue, my mother has never been able to put her daughter's death behind her, and it has negatively affected her happiness since the day of the passing-away. It was also notable that my mother exhibited great difficulty in looking me in the eye during this question, exhibiting palpable anxiety. Despite anticipating the answer ahead of time, I am glad that I asked this question as it afforded the opportunity to see how she whether she would present herself in a less than truthful way with the intention of appearing strong-willed, and indeed this was the case.
My colleague was very receptive to my questions, making consistent eye contact and disclosing a great deal regarding her past. She stated that she had come from a wealthy family, and that she was raised by parents who never gave her the personal space that she had needed as an adolescent. In response to my question regarding when she had been least happy, she wasted little time in declaring that her most unhappy time was when she had developed anorexia nervosa while in high school. Although she attributed her eating disorder to being overly concerned with how others perceived her, it also seems likely that it may have represented an attempt to assert some independence over her life, in response to her overbearing parents.
Similar to my mother, my colleague's episodes in adversity had supplied with introspection and self-awareness. She spoke openly about how anorexia was something that she still had to work to suppress, but that she had also developed a love for going to restaurants, in large part as a response to her previously restrictive food habits. Given that I do not know her especially well, I was surprised by the fact that my colleague's answers were at times in excess of what was expected; for example, she not discussed her love of restaurants but also mentioned that she had recently enjoyed a 15-course tasting menu in which she had tasted a particularly memorable preparation of foie gras. Although she repeatedly extolled the virtues of being independent, she was nevertheless very gregarious and open in providing examples of experiences and activities that provided happiness.
In response to my inquiry concerning what happiness meant to her as a child, my coworker mentioned that she had been a spoiled child, and that happiness had revolved around receiving new clothes. She discussed how her parents were quite wealthy and that she had enjoyed flaunting her wealth through constantly shopping for new clothes. In a particularly surprising anecdote, she mentioned that she had always enjoyed watching the envy of her less-affluent classmates who did not have the money for expensive wardrobes. Although she did not expand on the issue, one has to wonder how she had developed such a petty sensibility as a child, particularly in contrast with the strong level of humanism exhibited through her current employment. It seems possible that her less compassionate childhood personality had been instilled in her by her parents, although she did not confirm this suspicion.
The final question for both interviewees involved whether they felt their definition of happiness might change in the future. My mother asserted that it was less possible, and reiterated how as she had grown older, she had become less ambitious. She did not mean this in a pessimistic or melancholic way; rather, her response demonstrated the ability to adapt to trying circumstances and the tribulations associated with old age. She mentioned that while she currently derives happiness from activities such as exercise and travel, this might became more difficult for her, in which case she would likely derive happiness from less physically demanding endeavors such as watching a television program or talking on the telephone.
My coworker was also open-minded about the possibility of her definition for happiness changing as she grew older. Specifically, she broached the possibility of getting married and starting a family, stating that if she pursued this lifestyle change, happiness would revolve around the satisfaction of others rather than on her personal enjoyment. It was surprising to witness her discuss the possibility of starting a family considering that she had been unwavering in discussing the virtues of her independence, although (similar to my mother) her response suggests an adaptability to the changes that occur in one's life.
I do believe that both individuals were honest in providing their answers, even if some of the responses (such as the possibility of my colleague getting married) were difficult to believe. At first glance, the answers provided by the two appear antithetical; my mother maintains a conservative sensibility rooted in her love for a traditional family structure, while my colleague has only been happy while feeling exerting her independence.…