By HEATHER TEMPESTA — "How do you know if someone is happy?" my 10-year-old blurted out on a recent quiet drive to school.
I took the parental lazy way out -- ahem -- the opportunity to turn it around on him.
"How do YOU know when someone is happy?"
He looked at me with the most adorable face and said forcefully, "It's hard to tell if someone is really happy or not. You smiled when you were married to Dad. And you guys decided to divorce."
"Honey," I responded, "happiness is not a specific look. It's really not even a feeling as much as it is a choice. You have to choose as often as you can to be happy with what you have, where you are and where you're going."
I wanted to go on to inform him that happiness isn't the destination, it's the way of travel. I want him to travel wisely because you can't turn around -- you can only change your path.
But, he's 10. And it's only an eight-minute drive.
I asked him, "What makes you happy?" He is an outgoing, charming kid but certain emotions make him feel ooey-gooey. I believe boys struggle with this more so than girls. So, I try to be patient and allow for the awkward silence while he musters up his courage to say what he is feeling.
He pauses for several seconds. He grins and turns away. He can't always look me in the face while he is saying something sensitive.
While staring out the window, he says almost in a whisper: "I'm happy when I help people and when people are good to me. I just feel good. I don't like feeling angry. It just makes me more angry."
About 30 seconds pass and he opens up again. "What makes one person happy might not work for someone else, right? And just because someone isn't smiling doesn't mean they aren't happy? Just like a smile doesn't mean someone is happy."
"Sweetness, those words are more true than you know," I said to him.
I adore the fact that he gets this at such a young age, but life doesn't always bless you with knowledge and the ability to implement that knowledge at the same time.
Most people spend half of their life believing their anger actually exists because of outside influences. You can't teach someone differently, it has to be experienced.
I believe there's a cycle to life. You can't reach the level of happiness at 20 that you do when you are approaching 40. I think you have to experience all the emotions and painful events that come with living before you can truly appreciate the simplicity of living. You have to be taught that you don't have nearly the control of things as you once believed and that you do heal and life goes on.
You realize at some point you've wasted too much time. That's when you choose to stop choosing to be unhappy.
A good quote by comic-strip author Allen Saunders ("Mary Worth") concisely ties it all together: "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."
Just when I think this brief drive to school can't shed any additional words of wisdom from a fourth-grader, he looked at me and offered one more pearl.
"People should just smile more. It's really hard to be mad when you're smiling all the time."
I'm not sure I can contribute much more than that.
(Heather Tempesta is a Brandon, Fla., mother of two sons, 17 and 10, and a daughter, 15.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service http://www.scrippsnews.com)