Finding happiness in the little moments of life

PURSUIT of happiness always seemed a fool's game to me. I look back at a few vivid moments when I remember being truly happy and see happiness as a side effect, but of what? Achievement, beauty, or something else?

On my fourth birthday, I got to lead the class in the Pledge of Allegiance, which I finished without a mistake. When my mom picked my sister and me up from school in the station wagon, I watched closely at a particular intersection. If we went straight instead of turning left, it meant that my mom would take us to the ice cream parlor. I always had a cup of mint chocolate chip with a cherry on top and the illustrated clip-art poster on the wall (I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For Ice Cream) intrigued my budding language arts sensibilities. Later, I would crack up over the paradox of Fuzzy Wuzzy.

As a teen, I worked backstage at a local television show, learning the cameras and later the controls in the booth. I still remember triumphing with a certain split-screen wipe effect (They're talking on the phone? Wait, now they're in the same room!) that required precise timing. Usually two volunteers ran the control booth, one for the audio and one for the video. But one day I arrived and discovered I'd have to do both jobs myself. The camera operators probably heard louder and higher-pitched commands in their headsets that day ("Ready camera two! Graphics on!"), but the show came off fine.

Maybe it doesn't even count as happiness the night I looked into my bathroom mirror in my parents' house and marveled that a boy thought I was beautiful. It felt more like awe, like the paleontologists in "Jurassic Park" seeing live dinosaurs for the first time. That relationship also ended about as well as "Jurassic Park."

Somehow, my senior year of high school, I persuaded a few of my classmates from my economics and government class to visit my house the nights before major tests to study together. We knew the concepts pretty well, but our teacher had a love of lists, so Jon, Christie, Priscilla and I made up and practiced unwieldy mnemonics like MOCNUFSC or DPPWPRG. My mother brought trays of snacks to our hideout in my sister's old room, and we laughed and gossiped.

On a journalism class trip to Seattle that year, I spent days in a crowded hotel room with four shopping-obsessed girls and craved solitude. I broke the rules and left the hotel by myself to walk the streets for miles on a drizzly Seattle morning.

The moments seem to bubble up more frequently after graduation; was I happier, or does the foreshortening of perspective make it seem so?

My senior year at UC Berkeley I sat in on a few astronomy lectures by Professor Alexei Filippenko. The final class, in which he mused on the magnificence of the universe and consciousness, left me stunned and drunk as I'd never felt before and can only hope to feel again.

One day a few years ago I tried to attend a one-man show by comedian Johnny Steele, but it was sold out. Hungry for comedy, I wandered by a showcase night at The Marsh, in the Mission District of San Francisco, and headliner Will Franken blew me away. He made me laugh so hard that my torso felt inadequate to contain my joy. His smarts, his metacomedy, his wordplay and his acting chops fulfilled hopes I hadn't dared to articulate.

On my first trip to New York I visited the New York Transit Museum and marveled for hours at the grandeur of civilization. Each engineer's touch in the evolving turnstiles felt sacred. My best friend and I walked out of the museum and over the Brooklyn Bridge as the sun set and I felt buoyant, radiant.

So I'll never make it as a self-help book author because I can't reduce creating happiness to a formula. Sometimes it comes from accomplishment, discovery, comfort and emotional validation. And there is another happiness, as I feel with my husband, that I can't pin down to vivid moments; it comes from years of growing together, and I thank God that I'll have a lifetime to name it.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at