Am I happier since I gave up the fantasy of religion? Probably.
It's a big relief to not have a cosmic weight on my back -- the expectation that I need to do this and that, plus that and this, in order to be worthy of being admitted to God's heavenly realm.
That's a lot of pressure, believing that the fate of my supposedly immortal soul rests on whether I've been fortunate enough to find a path that leads to God-realization, and, having hopefully found the right path, on whether my efforts to follow it will meet with success.
In my current atheist days I'm much more satisfied with finding happiness in small things, ordinary things.
Before, I had my sights set on a Very Big Thing: ultimate reality. Now, scratching our dog's stomach when she rolls on her back in newly-mown grass makes me feel like life is good. As does a cup of coffee, which I'm enjoying right now.
A TIME special edition, "The Science of Emotions," contained a short essay by Meg Wolitzer that resonated with me. Here's an excerpt from her The Psychology of Happiness that I like a lot.
Everyone talks incessantly about stress now, and how it has changed our lives and made us so unhappy. Less obviously, I think stress has also changed the quest for happiness itself, making it more aggressive and occupying more of our time.
Ever since antidepressants and sexual-enhancement drugs hit the airwaves and ever since we were told that we had a right to our happiness, damn it, and that we could ask for it -- no, demand it -- from our doctors, spouses, friends, or employers, it seems that the desire for happiness has increasingly become a source of anxiety.
Which is why I have taken a few steps back. At this point, being happy is about having the space to appreciate the ordinary things that do in fact make me "happy," though at first glance they might not be seen that way.
An absence of chaos; an absence of phone calls with disturbing news; an absence of business emails that up-end your day and demand attention right then and there; no acutely ill parents; no fragile children calling shakily from college.
Being able to sit down with a glass of wine and some really good, tiny little olives with your husband; having a nice meal with your kids that's not rushed or fraught.
These seem like small things, perhaps pedestrian things, but I protect them fiercely, knowing that on the other side of an imaginary wall waits the possibility that all of them will soon be gone and that something terrible will replace them.
But I no longer quake in fear.
I used to think that happiness was something a person was so lucky to find that, like Lord Voldemort (a.k.a. He Who Must Not Be Named), it should never actually be mentioned. Now, with happiness taking on a new, modest cast, the fear of losing it is smaller too.
You might think: Good god, woman! This isn't happiness. Happiness has wild colors and flavors; it involves bodies draped across a bed, or things that come in gift wrap. Or even, once in a while, Carvel. Don't you want any of that?
Of course I do.
But being allowed to enjoy some of the more modest pieces of my life happens right now to be my own personal Carvel; my own dachshund, gift-wrapped present, snow day and secret lover. Perhaps for most of us -- or anyway, for me -- happiness has gotten smaller over time, becoming endlessly and exquisitely refined, though somehow never diminished.