It was the evening of my senior prom. Cameras flashed and adults fawned as the class assembled to attempt one last group shot. Above the shouted parental directions, one voice rose above the din—“Smile! Enjoy this evening. This is the happiest time of your life!” The statement was undoubtedly the product of a mother’s realization that her window to high school’s vicarious glory days was quickly shutting, but it sent my mind reeling. Was I expected to believe that this, a hormonal era of gawky vulnerability, was the best it ever gets? Had I reached my peak at 17?
Prom night came to a close, but this fear of deterioration dominated every sleepless night, every solitary moment until a comforting, late-night epiphany struck: a universal “best time” simply does not exist. Stretching my untapped philosophical muscle, I had come to the conclusion that this oft-heard phrase had no place in the extensive catalog of tired platitudes, and here was why.
The overarching desire of every existing society, the commonality held across cultures and across generations, is the attainment of happiness. Every action that we perform is carried out in the hope that, ultimately, it will bring us joy. We open a savings account in the anticipation that future financial security will bring us peace. We act to better the lives of others so that we might feel needed and important. Everything we do takes root in the desire for eventual satisfaction.
However, the one aspect of this desire that is not universally held is the method by which we try to secure contentment—this is what varies by society and by age. Here is where the depressing idea of a “happiest time” comes in. In our youth, from the day we take our first steps to the last time that we think it’s acceptable to wake up still-drunk in our neighbor’s shrubbery, we pursue happiness in the most obvious manner. We look toward joy by seeking fun, the most visible form of happiness. Because of its blindingly evident display of delight, youth can be mistaken as a longed-for time of unparalleled bliss past.
But as time passes and maturity takes the place of showmanship, we begin to seek happiness in other places. We transform into adults, and it becomes important to find what we are passionate about and find fulfillment in participating in something we are good at. Perhaps we can find that contentment in a career or in another person. The happiness we find in discovering a talent for glassblowing is not worth less than the joy we found in sneaking out to be with a forbidden high school romance. It is simply different.
And as we reach our twilight years, we smile because we know that we have lived well. Because we have done impactful things. Because we have loved others. This, maybe above all other forms of happiness, is the most satisfying, but it is doubtlessly the most quiet. The silent joy of a life well lived is far from the outwardly-evident joy of youth, but the differences only exist superficially. The internal sensation of elation is just as powerful at 85 as it was at 16, as long as your life was (and is) full. So, if you live each year with the hope and optimism of the last, to say that one era of happiness is inferior to another is misguided.
If only I’d had this revelation on prom night.