The last place we look for happiness is in our own backyards, where the grass is generally greener than we know.
I was reminded of this last week when I went to a neighborhood pool by myself and met the mother of two toddlers. When she heard I had a husband and son at home, she wanted to know how I scored some solitude. I told her it was easy, my 9-year-old preferred playing GameCube to swimming with me. So, while she was coveting my time alone I was coveting her time with family.
Before I realized that she didn't even trust her husband to watch their kids at the pool, I told her my husband was usually the one home with our child anyway, cooking, supervising homework, driving to and from guitar lessons. I could see my husband's reflection in her eyes, and he looked good.
Well, of course he did. I didn't mention the snoring, the piles of dishes and laundry in our house, the daily frustrations of life as a family. Why would I? A girl can dream, can't she?
And we do. We imagine that other people's husbands have more hair and less stomach. Other people's children are so well-behaved. Other people's friends seem tirelessly selfless and funny.
But the next time you're coveting your neighbor's life, just remember that from the other side of the fence, your life looks pretty good, too.
Yes, there are some dead spots -- some spots, as my husband says, where the grass just won't grow. And there are those with green thumbs, who can grow anything, anytime, anywhere. But for most of us, our grass is as green as any.
I've known people who were rich, thin and miserable. I've known others who were poor, fat and happy. Happiness knows no weight or income. Happiness knows no before or after -- after the bills are paid, after the children are at school, after... After all, happiness waits for nothing and no one.
So while it's true that the Declaration of Independence gives us the right to pursue happiness, it doesn't guarantee we'll catch it. In fact, it appears that it might be in our long-term best interest for happiness to remain just out of reach.
In his book, "Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile," British psychologist Daniel Nettle writes, "Evolution hasn't set us up for the attainment of happiness, merely its pursuit."
In a review of his book, Elizabeth Svoboda explains:
...in happiness, as in just about every other area, the Lake Wobegon effect -- that epitome of irrationality -- is much in evidence. When middle-aged study subjects were asked to assess their satisfaction with life on a scale of 1 to 10, more than 90 percent chose 5 or above, with the average response hovering around 8. These results, Nettle believes, reflect both people's need to feel that they're above the norm and their evolution-driven sense that things can always improve just a little. "Whatever the circumstances, there should be a small, nagging gap between our present contentment and a conceivably possible super-contentment," he writes. "Into this vital chink swarm peddlers of nostalgia, spiritual systems, drugs, and all kinds of consumer goods."
Evolution says we're always looking forward to what's next, but happiness isn't in the future. It's here and now.
Happiness lives at the house next door, and the one next to that. And seen from the proper angle, in the best light, it's right in your own backyard.
A version of this LifeFiles column originally appeared on about 70 TV station websites managed by Internet Broadcasting Systems.