The Promise of Happiness


Stendhal wrote, “ Beauty is the promise of happiness.”  The promise of happiness…

Don’t we all want the promise of happiness?  Stendhal is talking about love and the beauty of women. There’s irony in his definition: love is but a promise.  A beautiful woman is but a promise.  Not happiness to be achieved, but promised.  It’s the carrot always just ahead of us.


I think everyone has a symbol of their promise of happiness.  It might be a beautiful woman, or handsome man.  It might be a place, a time, a job.  It’s in the future of our lives.  It’s what we want, what we hope for.  I wonder if it’s always out of reach, always a promise?

What’s mine?  I was asked that question once, not so long ago. It was the only time anyone ever asked me what did I want in my life, what would make me happy.  I had a ready answer, one that just entered my head at that very moment.  I hadn’t thought about this answer before.  I couldn’t have. It came from deep within my subconscious, the yearning for something I never had.  It was my promise of happiness.   I wanted the asker to be the answer.  On that day I thought what I asked for was possible.  It wasn’t. It never could be.



I wouldn’t answer the question in the same way today, regardless who asked it.   Experience since then has taught me lessons I hadn’t expected.  Life lessons. The epiphany I experienced on the ice in Lapland erased that earlier promise of happiness.  It just lifted away, leaving me so much lighter and freer.  My heart beats in a different way today. I’m clearer about where I am in the world and what I need—and want– in my life.  I don’t need anything more than I have.  I don’t want anything more. I’ve wondered, though, that if encased within this insight there’s not some resignation or regret.  Did I give up on ever achieving the promise of happiness I once sought?  I don’t know the answer. It’s very hard to understand one’s own heart.  All I know is that I’m no longer burdened with seeking that promise of happiness.  And that’s a relief.

This is part of a big shift I feel all around me. I don’t think I’m doing anything differently, but outside the world is shifting and I’m shifting with it. It’s all good—the creation of a future that doesn’t exist today; happiness that might not be a promise, but the thing itself.

I’m returning home to San Francisco on Saturday, having spent five weeks in New York.  It’s been a long time away.  Work has been the reason; family, many friends, culture, museums, food, restaurants, books, music, Shakespeare, grace and beauty on the Hudson, Science Night at the Bank Street School, The Alice Prize, Boston and Minneapolis, have been the benefits.  The weeks have been rich with life. Everything connects.


I’ve realized how small things can fill holes I used to see as unable to be ever filled.  Last Sunday I worked all day in our office, pulling together the final pieces of a business pitch to retain our agency’s largest client.  Despite having wonderful creative ideas and campaigns, incumbent agencies are rarely successful. [We were successful.]   I left the office, heading back to my hotel room feeling isolated and, for the first time on the trip, lonely. But then I stopped halfway to the subway and said to myself, no!  I can fix this.

I walked up Broadway to Astor Place and over to East 9th Street.  Sunday was the first evening of Daylight Savings Time.  At 8:00pm the sky was still silver and clear.  The cold March night air had the first hints of Spring.  I went into St. Marks Bookstore, browsed for nearly an hour, bought a magazine to read at dinner, and walked a little further down the street to Soba-ya, a favorite restaurant that never fails to delight me with its food, its traditional Japanese style and manner, and the happy memories I have of all the times I’ve been there before.  When Sam was a junior at New York University, I was taking two semesters of watercolor painting classes at Cooper Union, only two blocks from Sam’s dorm.  Both are close to Soba-ya.  Sam and I would meet there every week for dinner.  A few times Adam came to the city and joined us.  On one especially happy occasion, a work colleague, and friend, from Vienna came with the three of us.  We had the best time, despite the difference in all our ages.  Sam and Alex even went out to a club afterwards.  Remembering that evening makes me smile, and I remember it every time I step into Soba-ya.


Sunday evening was no exception.  Even though I was by myself, being in the crowded restaurant, having my favorite foods, watching the skillful Japanese woman behind the bar prepare the drinks and dishes, any thought of loneliness disappeared.  I walked back to Herald Square with a renewed outlook; happy to be alive, happy to have had the life I’ve lived.  Simple, renewable, pleasures that endure long after some bigger ones fade.

The promise of happiness.

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