The way-back machine was in overdrive this morning. On my way into work, I ran into a really old friend (the friendship is really old, not the friend) named Karen, who I knew when I was in my early 20s. I have no recollection of how we met, but at the time she was about to publish what I *think* was her first of a million self-help books, How to Train Your Man Like a Dog (or some such), which a guy at the now-defunct Coliseum Books told me was a huge hit in the leather-and-leash set. Not for nothing, Karen is the czarina of the memorable title. My favorite is How to Succeed in Business Without a Penis, with How to Speak Lovey-Dovey in 11 Languages in 24 Hours running a close second.

In any event, Karen looked beautiful and placid and happy, having just gotten engaged. The actual fiance¬† was with her, and she held him up as evidence that the advice in her newest book, Prince Harming Syndrome, about how to break self-sabotaging relationship patterns, really works. We didn’t fully catch up, loitering on the street as we were, but judging from the title of Even God is Single So Stop Giving Me a Hard Time, her road to happily ever after was strewn with railroad spikes and pot holes.

As was mine, as Karen reminded me by saying she’d just seen John, a friend of hers with whom she set me up some 15 or 18 years ago. John was gorgeous–tall, thin, with high, planar cheekbones and long, dark, potential rock star hair. He was, in fact, a potential rock star (I want to say guitarist), hoping,¬† strategizing and even planning for a breakthrough. I’d never heard him play, but in terms of the look, he was good to go. John had an intense, wired vibe that made him seem as if he would spark if you touched him.

Sadly, I don’t think I got to touch him. We went on but one date. The reason, from my perspective, was a conversation we had about our goals and dreams for the future. We talked about his, and then he asked me what my dream was. I was charmed. I had been on a string of dates with guys who didn’t even think to ask me about me, an early 20s male tendency that gets negatively reinforced out of them by the time they’re approaching 30. At least if they want to get laid. John was genuinely interested.

“I don’t know…I’d definitely like to get a raise or a better-paying job so I can get a place of my own,” I replied. I was freelancing at the New York Post at the time, and doing little pieces here and there in magazines.

He wasn’t buying it, and pressed me for what he felt sure was my real dream, the one that would presumably provide insight into my true self. “Come on,” I remember him saying. “You must have something you really, really want to do.” I told him I didn’t have a gigantic, sparkly, long-term dream like his, that I was more of a follow-the-happiness, day-to-day kind of gal. I worked at magazines, but had no ambitions to run one. I didn’t think of myself as an artist. Such ideas and definitions would occasionally shoot through me, but they never seemed to take hold. They all felt grandiose to me.

He shook his head in a mixture of disbelief and resignation. “You have to have a dream, Stephanie. You need to dream bigger.”

I felt like a big old loser at that moment, just a squirrel trying to get a nut. Part of me thought he was right, that there was something wrong with me for having such low expectations of life. Didn’t everyone have some lofty aspiration? If I didn’t, how would I ever fulfill my potential, whatever that was?

It’s a question I still ask, but am too busy to spend much time pondering. I’m writing a book based on this blog which I hope will be a huge success. I have a remarkable husband and two scary-smart little girls who kick my ass every day with how their little lawyer minds work. I have a job at a magazine with people I like and respect, and make enough money to buy my girls the Hannah Montana microphones they crave, because their dream-du-jour is to be rock stars. (More like Pink than Hannah Montana, Sasha assures me). I have friends who are extensions of my family.

With the exception of an overwhelming baby jones in my early 30s, which felt more physical than anything, none of these things were particular goals of mine. Still, they make me happy, just as I’d imagine they would had I set them as benchmarks and then achieved them. Perhaps because I don’t have these pie-in-the-sky dreams, or any kind of a bucket list, I’m delighted when things go well, especially when I don’t expect them to.

So what of it? There is research that shows that setting goals and working toward them is, in fact, conducive to happiness. But there is also tons of evidence that shortly after a person achieves something that makes him happy–say, he gets married or opens for David Lee Roth’s geezer reunion tour–that he adjusts to that new element of his life and his happiness level returns to where it was before. (The same thing happens when something really shitty occurs.) Soon enough, we’re back to where we were, presumably thinking about where the next happiness hit will come from.

Karen says the music thing didn’t really work out for John, but I’m guessing that he adjusted to that reality and found something else to strive for. She says he’s happy (and still gorgeous). As for me, I’m still muddling through, considering at this moment whether a buffalo burger or a burrito bowl from Chipotle will make me happiest. It’s not a big dream, but maybe a million small dreams fulfilled add up to the same thing in the end.

Photo by Philip Rood www.philiprood.com CC