Seven Hooded mergansers fishing for crabs
Exhibiting classic hedonic adaptation, Hooded mergansers cavorting in nearly frozen water
Are you happy? I know I am because, I'm a married birder. I have all the components of basic happiness - purposeful activities, meaningful relationships with other humans and safety of home and hearth. I have the good fortune to live where there are more birds most of the time than most people see in a lifetime. Without getting out of my bathrobe, I see rarities, oddities, the diminutive and majestic, and enormous numbers. So, I should count my blessings. However, this constant stimulation does make me want more and more. One such pleasure begets the need for another. Spoken like a spoiled brat, I'm going to say that birding has been agonizingly slow here of late. It has left me Jonesing hard for a birding fix.
This time of year is especially hard on obsessed birders as most of the birds have gone for the winter. The stretch after Christmas until March is Deadsville until they start returning from the south. Let's face it: this is a hard time of year whether a person birds or not. About now, most people are in a slump and subject to the dreaded "cabin fever." I just got a call from a neighbor who, before she even said hello announced "I"m depressed." She was disassembling her Christmas tree and packing up decorations. Though all she does before the big day is complain about too much to do and the ingrates in the family she feels obligated to do things for, she is nonetheless, despondent when it's all over. Christmas puts a lot of pressure on everyone to shop, spend, cook, clean, be creative and give until it feels like the seams in the skull will split. The burden of expectations in our quest for holiday pleasure can be too much. And, no matter how we work at it, it often doesn't feel like enough.
While at the supermarket, an acquaintance just asked me "Was Santa good to you?" It's a common post holiday greeting meaning "was it enough for you?" Socially programmed, we have an immediate response to the question one way or the other. I said yes, Santa had been very good to me. It was the most uncomplicated answer and I meant it though, under our Christmas tree, there had been nothing.
In years past when it's been a lean gift scene, under the tree, I've placed fake gifts to create a feeling of opulence. I used to keep a stash of tastefully gift wrapped, empty boxes - faux gifts for under the tree, so that no matter what our economic circumstances, we didn't feel poor. Ersatzpräsent filled the empty belly better than no presents. This year, I did not bother. The pretty boxes were like expecting a duck decoy to suffice for the real thing.
Although I have enjoyed them, Christmas presents have never made me happy. Admittedly, they've given me moments of bliss, some of them intense moments, like when my husband gave me a diamond. But, even that's not happiness. The sight of a rare bird, or life first bird isn't it, either (yes, you did hear that from me!).
Differentiated from serial pleasures, happiness is a state of mind typified by love, contentment and satisfaction. It can be what gets us through when there's no presents or no birds. It's another type of gift easily confused with and often by pleasure. Proof of that is in the multitude of rich people out there that are utterly miserable, though they can buy all the pleasure they want. They can experience at will tremendous thrills, but in the end, they are human. Human beings tend to settle quickly back to a plateau of basic happiness, no matter what emotional peaks or valleys we experience. Our ability to survive depends on this knack for hedonic adaptation . People in tragically poor countries are not less happy than those of us in wealthy countries. Happiness is relative to what we know, not where we are trying to go. Even prison inmates incarcerated for life are not unhappy most of the time . Perhaps soon, all of the birds will fall from the sky like rain never to be seen again. I'll be deeply saddened, but I won't be fundamentally unhappy in life. Let's hope that my assumption will never be tested; keep the presents and birds coming.
Attempting to define and quantify happiness and determine its sources, psychology researchers have devised a questionnaire called The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire (click on that link if you want to see how happy you are). However, direct measurements have remained elusive. I'm not sure why this is so complicated, because my friends and I would mostly agree that one another's company, eating chocolate, new camera equipment, and birds are all the experiential quantifiers anyone needs.
On the last day of the year, while driving to see a friend with my husband and eating chocolate, I spied these Hooded mergansers. Cha-ching! A pleasure trifecta! I was well on my way to happiness. They were fishing for crabs in a tiny slip of open water at the end of a culvert that passes under a major highway. Crustaceans and small fish are their favorite foods. Hooded mergansers breed and summer in Canada and the northern most parts of the U.S. They are not uncommon in Maine, but we only get them this far south in the winter. They are short distance migrants, this being their idea of warmer than Canada. The puddle they were occupying, though ugly and small, often hosts them. To "Hoodies," as birders call them, it was a four star, vacation resort! Even they know that happiness, if we just look around us, is where we are.
1. Brickman & Campbell, "Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society" (1971), M.H. Apley, ed., Adaptation Level Theory: A Symposium, New York: Academic Press, 1971, pp 287–302.
2. Barlow, S.R. & Katz, B., "Reality Therapy And Wishful Thinking" (2012), Warren: Nonesuch Press, 2013, pp 00-000