My definition of happiness changes as I age. I don’t expect to feel happiness all the time, but in fleeting, exhilarating moments. I welcome its arrival.
As writer May Sarton once said, as you age, it’s the transient that moves you. Seeing the first cherry blossoms of spring. Observing a great blue heron hunt on the lakeshore. Watching a mother robin teach her kids how to catch worms. These are seminal moments, and I do not forget them, even if they occurred months or years ago. They often mean more than huge, extravagant occasions. Being in the presence of nature fills me with wonder and hope.
Last week, my community college colleague Jason said to me, “Every time I look at my dog, he makes me smile.”
I know just what he means. My animals make me smile, too. They are so unself-conscious, so naturally beautiful. They make me feel less stressed; they make me exercise more often; they allow me to become more childlike and playful.
We know that stroking a pet raises levels of the “feel-good” hormone oxytocin for both the giver and the receiver. The animals make me more content to be alive in the 21st century, when often it feels like much of the world is spinning out of control.
Non-human animals remind me of the mysteries of the universe, of its diversity and grandeur; they are always fascinating if you take the time to observe and learn from them. Living with companion animals is like having exotic roommates.
In the emotional and spiritual realms, animal companions give us as much if not more than we give them. Particularly if you live alone, a dog, cat, or rabbit can provide physical contact as well as emotional comfort.
Four summers ago, I took what would be my last overnight trip with my mom, then 95. We journeyed to Maine to stay in a B&B right on the ocean. We ate lobster, drank a bit of wine, read books, and enjoyed the views. She was on a cane (but not a walker), she couldn’t hear well, and she was beginning to lose some short-term memory. As an only child, I had to be careful to take care of her—a role that I was learning to grow into.
For her, I believe, the weekend was wonderful, full of things that she loves. For me, it was fraught with worries about her health, about her falling. I became a bit impatient (and sad) hearing repeated stories. How much longer would she live? (She’s now 100!)
The owners of our B&B raised show dogs. The canines were friendly and lovely, when they weren’t getting wet and muddy in the ocean. We watched them and a mélange of their canine buddies on the beach for hours.
There they were. The dogs. Such exuberance: Cavorting. Digging. Making new friends, human and dog. Swimming. Running. Sniffing. Jumping. Rolling. Living completely in the moment. Smiling.
As I watched them, my worries slipping away momentarily, I felt truly happy.
Deborah Straw is a writer and college instructor. Now partially retired, she writes essays and poetry, produces book reviews, and is a cat sitter. Her two books are The Healthy Pet Manual (about cancer in our companion animals) and Natural Wonders of the Florida Keys.