I am not partial to the notion of “happy.” It conjures up in my brain a clown with exaggerated thick red lips etched in a crooked smile across the bottom of an otherwise colourless face. Black jagged lines drawn above almost imperceptible eyes, below a cloud of rainbow-coloured hair. Not real. Not human. An act.

When I’m asked if I am happy with the paint colour that I have chosen, or a dress recently purchased, or a meal prepared for an occasion, I tend to answer with a qualifier. I thought it would look lighter against the pine trim. It’s comfortable as long as I wear flats. The meal was good–except I cooked the asparagus too long. Nothing in those experiences creates what I think happy should feel like. The query about my related happiness creates within me an intellectual excursion. An evaluation. An appraisal.

I carry a measure of cynicism around the designation of “happy.” I have witnessed too often the smiles of “happy” people. The mismatch between the white chicklet teeth framed by stretched lips. The exuberant proclamations. And what I sense beneath. What I see in the body. What I know to be true in their lives. Happy is an easy and socially acceptable deception.

As I emerge from pandemic hibernation I have a heightened self-awareness. Months of conscious and unconscious examinations, two milestone celebrations, and concerted efforts to live a simple and genuine life have granted me an inner sharp-edged clarity. And a softer interface with the world around me.

On a recent holiday, I spent many hours in the outdoors. Climbing up steep root-gnarled slopes, over huge sharp-edged boulders, along smooth-sided crevices, clutching anchored thick steel chains, through old-growth forests of fir trees competing with the mountain tops, and across meadows littered with glacial debris. I would stop: sometimes to catch my breath, more often in awe of the natural phenomena surrounding me. The blue-grey glacier spilling down between the granite rock faces surrounding a clear turquoise lake. Turning my head to look back and up at the snow in the couloirs above me. Gazing across at the cut-out ski slopes, familiar to me. Finding the perfect site for lunch when there were too many jaw-dropping views to choose from. Realizing that Mother Nature would not leave me just with views. She enticed my senses further with grey jays stealing nuts from my snack bag, chipmunks pleading for a taste of my apple, and a sleek grey marmot posing on the side of the trail, guarding the rocky opening to her den.

In those moments, I experienced joy. My 65-year-old body weary, yet energized. My knees unaware of the assault ahead as I would descend the 800 metres I had just climbed. Hours of seeing, feeling, smelling the generous offerings of the outdoors. The soft burble of the voices of my friends around me. I detected no boundary between my body and the spectacle I was a part of. My heart and soul were satiated. Peaceful. I understood, more deeply than ever before, that joy comes to me when I am in the middle of the offerings of Mother Earth.

I choose joy over happy. I choose contentment over happy. I choose peaceful over happy. My joy can’t be captured in a picture. It is a full-body experience. One that settles deep within me. It’s palpable and true.

At least, that is my experience.