I recently asked some friends to tell me what happiness means to them. Is it something they do, or that is done to them? Is happiness possible to cultivate, or even possible at all in these difficult times?

The answers were interesting and thoughtful.

Neil, whom I’ve known and loved since high school, said, “Communicating well and being honest with yourself and doing your best to live the life that you want to live and that you’re comfortable with. Having love, affection, and meaningful communication with others.”

“In these crazy times,” replied Laurie, a friend and former colleague, “the simplest things make me happy and appreciative: a walk in the park especially when the snow is gently falling and I can take peace in the quiet, Tuesdays and Thursdays when I get to spend the day with my grandson, working in the garden this past summer, and those days when I can connect with family and friends to share smiles, laughter, and the hopes that we will soon be able to gather in person.”

Amy, with whom I go back to grade school, wrote, “Looking at the faces or hearing the voices of my kids, grandkids, and great grandkid. Hearing beautiful or intricate music well played. Playing music.”

Marsha, a former neighbor and the dear wife of a dear friend, posted, “Of course our family and friends that are family…the open road and travel! …Despite adversity my glass is half full, a lesson reinforced by age and experience.”

The wonderful and ageless Phyllis said: “Happiness is a choice! Have had hard times and good! Always be grateful for what God gave us and for what he could have but did not!”

And from Charlie, my esteemed colleague at the RoundTable: “Happiness…and laughter. They are so alike, though not synonymous, and so important to a meaningful life. They both come and go, and when genuine are gifts of the moment. Happiness sometimes blazing, sometimes subtle; laughter bursting and loud, quiet and knowing.  A life without either or both can be a junkyard of shoulds, oughts, and have tos, a labor camp of getting through. But happiness is an oasis of refreshing if momentary just being…and peace.”

There was more, but that was the gist: friends, family, gratitude, laughter – the simple, positive things in life.

All true. But I’d like to suggest another way of looking at it, something Marsha alluded to: overcoming adversity. Here are two stories that illustrate the point.

The latest issue of “The Strad,” a British magazine for string players, features an article by Clayton Haslop about his struggle with focal dystonia, a nerve disease. A much-in-demand Los Angeles violinist who led chamber and opera orchestras as well as hundreds of movie soundtrack sessions, Mr. Haslop found himself increasingly unable to use the third and fourth fingers of his left hand. He recalled the career of the renowned American pianist Leon Fleisher, who was forced to retire after he suffered nerve damage to his right hand.

Despite surgery, Mr. Haslop’s condition worsened. “I was submerged in depression,” he said, “faced with no options save finding a new way to keep life interesting.”

 

Then he read about Django Reinhardt. Mr. Reinhardt was a Belgian guitarist who played with Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and other giants of the jazz world. His Quintette du Hot Club de France with violinist Stéphane Grappelli was one of the most influential jazz ensembles of the mid-20th century. As a young man, Mr.Reinhardt lost the use of his third and fourth fingers in a fire and had to relearn how to play guitar.

That inspired Mr. Haslop to relearn the violin using only his “good” fingers, the left index and middle. “I decided to ‘do the Django.’”

You can find videos online of Mr. Haslop employing and discussing his two-fingered technique. On one of the videos he says he found ways “…to cope, to adapt, to go on.” And he has, once again in demand as a film score session violinist.

Bernard Shore was a British violist whose nascent career – and life – almost ended at the age of 18, during World War I, when a grenade exploded in his right hand. As he was going under the knife he told the surgeon: “I want you to save every eighth of an inch you can.” He awoke from surgery with intact thumb and pinky but only stubs for his index, middle, and third fingers.

Nevertheless, he went on to a renowned career as principal violist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and as a member of the Catterall and Dyke String Quartets. He was also a well-known soloist and premiered many works written for him.

There are countless other examples of overcoming adversity. They are heartening and inspiring, which is why we’re drawn to them. They’re also instructive.

For some, the keys to happiness are material: money, looks, health. For others it’s more spiritual: friends and family, simple pleasures.

But equally important is the necessity and desire to make the best use of whatever problems you have, to accept the limitations life hands you and strive to overcome them.

And if you are so fortunate as to have never faced such challenges, if you have lived a friction-free life, then it might be wise to introduce some friction, to create sparks that can generate light and heat. Because a life without limitations is a life not fully lived.

“All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me,” said Walt Disney. “You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”                                                                                                                           Or as Maya Angelou put it: “…it may be necessary to encounter the defeats so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Sometimes life obligingly puts those obstacles in our way. And sometimes we have to create them in order to live up to our fullest potential. Set a high goal and aim for it. Write a book! Make a movie! Run for office! Learn to paint! Study the cello! Mentor a child!

These are the things that make life fun, interesting, useful – in short, happier.