On Happiness

I have once again been inspired by Dorothy; on this occasion, by her recent post on happiness. For various reasons I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what happiness might look like, what it might consist of, and I’m beginning to wonder whether it isn’t a highly personalized thing. That’s to say, I think we all can agree on what happiness feels like, but its recipe would be a matter of individual taste. I do think happiness is influenced by the society and the times that we live in. Just consider the French Romanticism that underlies George Sand’s declaration that ‘There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.’ Or the way that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s comment ‘I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t in order to enjoy ourselves’ betrays his adherence to the German work ethic. Or the Dalai Lama’s teaching that ‘When we feel love and kindness towards others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.’ Now I agree with these words and admire the sentiment behind them, but I’m not sure sustainable happiness is possible on these terms in the grasping, self-oriented contemporary societies of the West. In our cultural history, people who give endlessly with no expectation of recompense are called saints.

I do think, also, that our relationship to happiness is dependent upon age. The younger you are, it seems to me, the much better you are at being straightforwardly happy. When I was young, happiness was a very easy state of being; it’s epitomized in my mind by the start of the summer holidays, the ancient sun lounger on the patio, and a stack of books. There’s no real reason why it should be so different nowadays, but it is. I can still read books in the sunshine, but only against the background white noise of financial and parental responsibility, the necessity of providing meals, the nag of chores and tasks and projects to be completed. Once you become a parent, happiness becomes so very complex, as it merges imperceptibly with the happiness of one’s children, until there is no simple, central sense of self to please. Happiness can look like a rather frivolous, displaced thing, like someone wearing a party hat to the office. Or like a lovely, sparkly tiara, which is terribly attractive, but you’re not entirely sure how much actual use you’ll get out of it. And that’s a shame, because happiness ought to be more valuable, more worthwhile, that that.

It strikes me that if it is harder to be happy as we get older, it’s because we become increasingly aware of the obstacles to that happiness, the lack of fit between our wants and the options available to us in the world. Adam Phillips, always the man I turn to for brilliant insight into the business of living, writes the following:

‘All the new thinking, like all the old thinking, agrees that there is something catastrophic about being a person. The catastrophe is located in various places: in our being born at all, in our being condemned to death; in our vulnerability as organisms, or in our cruel injustices as political animals; in the scarcity of our natural resources, or in our greedy depredation of them; in our Fall, or in our hubris. But all these catastrophes, one way or another, are linked to our appetites, as creatures who want, and who are driven by, what is at once necessary and missing from our lives. Our wants may be ‘constructed’ – given form by the language available in our culture – but that we want is not in doubt. It is whether our wanting has catastrophe built into it – whether our wanting is such that ruinous frustration or ruinous aggression is inevitable… that is now the question.’

So Phillips locates the hardship of living in the mismatch between appetite and resource, between our wants and desires and what’s on offer to satisfy them, between inner world and external reality. Most of the formulas for happiness focus on one or other side of the equation, proposing that our exclusive attention will save the day: find someone to love and give them all your love (turn to the external world and attempt to appease it), find work you love and devote yourself to it (turn to the inner world and try to feed it some satisfaction and recognition). Celebrate the self, or deny the self, find oneself acknowledged in the world, or lose oneself in the world; those seem to be the most straightforward options. I suppose my suspicion of happiness arises from the fact that we tend to think of happiness as showing us the correct route to follow in life; but happiness is a flibbertigibbet feeling, as attendant on things that are bad for us, as on the things that are good. I think we would like to feel that happiness comes out of virtue, out of a textbook life well lived, free from conflict and pain and humiliation. But happiness doesn’t come out of good self-management, not necessarily. I always think the phrase ‘a happy drunk’ is a telling one, for it reveals the essence of happiness to me: we can be happy on self-abuse as much as on self-development, and we don’t know what that happiness might turn into, any more than we know how long it will last. I think happiness is a random gift we’re given occasionally in this crazy, arbitrary life, a little existential leeway designed to keep us going, but it doesn’t come with the moral high ground, or with any kind of meaningful significance, any more than a fall of crisp, white snow, or the taste of chocolate cake.

I don’t mean to denigrate happiness by saying this; it is as beautiful and enlivening in and of itself as a cut diamond or a smile from a handsome stranger. But I suppose I’m somewhere between Mark Twain who said ‘Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination’ and Le Rochefoucauld who said ‘He who lives without folly is not as wise as he thinks.’ If I had to choose (and we have to hope that this would be unlikely), between the things that make me happy and the things that keep me sane, I’d take sanity every time, but it’s possible Twain is a little harsh here. Happiness might visit sanity in the same way that it might alight onto any other state of mind (surely the mad and the bad are sometimes happy, too). As a goal to pursue, sanity – for me a kind of ironic, provisional peace of mind – is the one that I would rather value as a sustainable state of being and an indexical marker of a satsifying, meaningful life, but that little bit of madness, the little bit of folly, is part of the private joy of being human and perhaps a necessary awayday from the business of being wise and good.

17 thoughts on “On Happiness

  1. Thanks for making me think while cooking children’s dinner! I think what Phillips has to say about our possibly ruinous wanting is very apt, as is what you say about the gap between appetite and resource. Acquisition, whether of people, possessions or money doesn’t lead to happiness, just the desire for more, and a cycle that is hard to break. The happiest person I ever knew possessed almost nothing, lived in the present and had a huge capacity for love, but we can’t all live as Buddhists.

    My personal philosophy is that if I act with integrity, I feel happy with myself. I don’t aim for happiness, but I aim to be true.

  2. Last Christmas my whole family was home and I got sick — had to go to bed for a day. I lay in my bed of pain and listened to their chatting and laughing, knowing how happy they all were to be together. I knew where they all were, knew them to be in no danger. I knew too that they were capable of getting themselves a meal without me! I suddenly thought,At this moment, I am perfectly happy.

  3. I LOVE that idea of existance as catastrophic — well, I guess I should say, it’s a sad idea, but it strikes me a very, very true. Thinking of it that way makes happiness seem both more fleeting and more valuable. If life is catastrophic — how much happiness can we expect? I agree very much that happiness is a highly personalized thing, so much so, that I’m not sure I agree that we all know what happiness feels like — I mean, we have different definitions of what it should feel like to be happy. Is it a deep-down feeling of contentment that lasts even when events are difficult, or is it something lighter and more buoyant? At any rate, I like your definition of happiness, as a feeling that comes and goes that we have no control over, and that visits the sane and the insane alike.

  4. I love that Phillips quote. And, like Dorothy, I like your definition of happiness. Sometimes I think it’s more of a result of how we live than something we live for. If that makes sense.

  5. The “happy drunk” got me thinking about how subjective happiness is. And also about how the more we think about whether or not we’re happy, the less happy we seem to be. I am reminded of the movie, “13 Conversations About One Thing” (the one thing being happiness), in which one character is the happiest guy you’ve ever seen– always cheerful, taking the good and the bad with equal aplomb. It infuriated his coworkers that he was just so happy sitting at his low-level desk job all day. His character reminds me that happiness is not necessarily situation-dependent, but a state of being, whether constant or fleeting.

  6. To me happiness is a passing yet precious moment when I transcend all my worries and obsessions and unfulfilled desires and manage to be in the now. Then I notice things like a blue sky and birds singing and feel calm and centred and at peace. Sometimes it can be with other people too. I have a blurry photography of my husband reading, with my cat on his knee, and our (then)one month old baby cuddled up lying next to him. That was a happy moment. Everyone I most cared about safe and happy together.

    And then these moments pass and I get back to being battered by life and all my inner demons and somehow I have to keep it all together and cope anyway.

    The older I get the more I have learned and consciously decided to cherish the happy moments. They help me to keep my sanity.

  7. These have been such interesting comments to read. I do agree that happiness can be a state that’s surprising and unexpected and fleeting, and it involves inner freedom (from concerns and constraint) and the safety and proximity of loved ones. Can we ever find it? Are some people born closer to it? Does thinking help or hinder it?

  8. I read an extract from an essay by Stephen Pinker recently, entitled ‘The Happiness Treadmill’. What most interested me about his analysis was the fact that there are twice as many negative emotions as positive ones, making it hard for us to say definitively that we are happy. A little scary, really, although it empahsises the true value of happiness. In this case, thinking about happiness made me realise that although I have truly awful days when I couldn’t be further from happiness, I’m incredibly lucky not to suffer from depression or something that severely limits my capacity for happiness – I think happiness depends as much upon perspective (optimistic/pessimistic outlook) as anything, as Renee points out.

  9. Sorry, my computer keeps doing this – posting stuff twice and saying it never happened the first time. Apologies for wasting space – also, the first one is full of typos.

  10. Sometimes I think that some people are born with more access to those moments of happiness than others. Then I’ll learn something about one of those people that will completely blow my mind. I had this amazing classmate (actually, a year younger), who could always be funny even when we were talking about things like our terrible Physics grades and the grind of the workload. Later, I found out that he’d survived cancer. I’m even more in awe of him now. Was it a choice that he made to be that way, or is he just fundamentally a happy guy? I have no idea.

    That was my long-winded way of saying “I don’t know.”

  11. A few months ago, crossing the street, I felt incredibly light headed and thought I was going to be ill. I was crossing in front of a building I’ve always liked looking at (the San Francisco Asian Art Museum). I sat down for a second in front of the museum and realized that, in fact, I wasn’t ill, I was happy. I guess I was so unused to feeling that way, particularly, when it wasn’t attached to anything more the facade of a building, that I couldn’t see it for what it was. And so I completely agree that happiness is quite difficult to put your finger on because it often seems detached from the events we design to bring it forth. In the end, rather than pursuing happiness, I’m content to stick with making things orderly, using my brain, being kind to people and going to movies that make me laugh. Oh, and drinking tea.

  12. I have to say I’m not altogether disappointed with your new posting schedule as it allows me time to ruminate on what you’ve said and really think about the subject. However, I would of course welcome your posting 12 times a day, if you ever did so.
    That said, like other posters noted, I seek peace more happines anymore, and overall I think happiness is really an unstable emotion that comes completely unexepectedly. For instance, Wednesday I had a really happy few moments after working on a chapter of my novel and then driving to work -the temperature out side was ideal, the sky blue, the day mellow and everything felt wonderful. But it didn’t last. Now that I’m older I can simply appreciate that for what it was. Also, like other posters noted, I do believe that some people are just more fundamentally happier than others (and I would, actually, lump myself in with the happier crowd) and also, I think some people are made happier by a whole lot less than other people.

  13. nusku – thanks very much indeed for that interview which I really enjoyed. I’m a big Adam Phillips fan, and interested in just about anything he’s got to say. Courtney, I think you’re quite right that it takes less to make some people. I’d like to be one of those people, if only I could manage it.

  14. Happiness is the absence of knowledge.

    Thus why, as someone said above, they were much happier as a child than they are as an adult. You have learned more and gained more knowledge as an adult.

    Retarded people are always laughing and smiling, even if you call them retarded, because they don’t know much.

    Now think about some of the greatest minds, and how they rarely smiled or laughed.

    “The Fool” is a popular character that is always happy and laughing as he walks around not aware of his surroundings.

    Picture the unhappy “mad scientist” smarter than everyone else, and always calling them fools when they don’t understand all that he does.

    I am not a believer in religion by far, but one of the greatest analogies of life and happiness are in the Bible with the story of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

    So long as Adam and Eve remained without knowledge, life was paradise. But one bite of that apple, which gave them knowledge, and suddenly Paradise was gone and life became more miserable.

    Problem is, sure AFTER you eat the apple and gain knowledge, you know you were better off not eating it, but you can’t know that before you eat it and learn. Then it is too late.

    If you are a happy individual, then you probably don’t know very much and are not aware of your surroundings or what is happening around you. If you are miserable, then you are probably a very smart individual.

    That’s how it works. Of course the Tree of Knowledge has a flaw in that just telling people not to eat from it isn’t ever going to work, because without knowledge, you can’t KNOW it is wrong to eat from it. AFTER you eat it, you suddenly gain the knowledge that it was wrong.

    The Tree of Life was a much better idea, in that it was guarded with a flaming sword and no one could get near it! So none of us can live forever, because God made sure no one could get to THAT tree and eat from it.

    Why did he allow access to the Tree of Knowledge then?

    Who puts a tree of knowledge with juicy sweet apples in front of someone, then tells them not to eat any? Better to not put the tree there in the first place!

    If there is a god, and he is “all knowing” he would have to me the most unhappy miserable being in all of existence.

    The more you learn about life and the more knowledge you gain, the more unhappy you become. Otherwise adults would be happier than kids, and not the other way around.

    Everyone wants to go back in time and be a kid again. They try to do the same things, but find they are no longer fun. Because you can not erase all the knowledge in your head and go back to the time before you ate that apple.

    You can’t erase what you know. You can’t be as happy as you once were.

    Life is set up in where things DECAY and get worse, nothing falls up from the ground broken and becomes all fixed and new again.

    I have just about figured out the “secret of life” everyone searches for. But it has made me very unhappy learning it. Those of you that have no clue what the secret of life is, don’t feel bad, you are much happier because of it. You don’t WANT to know. Unfortunately, you can’t KNOW that until you KNOW it.

    But Adam and Eve didn’t trust God, so why would you trust me? You won’t. Because you don’t know any better.

    In a way, I shouldn’t be explaining this to anyone, as if anyone understands what I am saying here, they will become unhappier because of it. So why do I explain?

    Perhaps for the same reason a god would have put the Tree of Knowledge in front of people and then told them not to eat from it.

    In order for anything to live, it MUST KILL something else and eat it. Or as in most of our cases, we have OTHER people kill our food for us. Even vegitarians are killing living plants. In order for you to live, something else must DIE and be killed.

    That is life. KNOWING that truth isn’t something that makes you happy, is it? You can be stupid and DENY it and be happy, or you can realise it is the truth and feel guilty and unhappy about it.

    For how can anyone that REALISES that other things are being killed and dying so they can live, be happy about that?

    You can’t.

    If you are happy, it is because you do not really understand and comprehend that fact, even after reading it. Or you try to put it out of your mind and refuse the knowledge, so you can be happy.

    Many times I wish I was as stupid as the majority masses. That I could laugh all the time and smile for no reason at all.

    Geniuses are often envious of stupid people.


    The Mark Twain quote is one of my favorites.

    Here is another one…

    “Without man, what would God’s purpose be?”

    Think about that one for a while, but be warned, if you figure it out, it might make you unhappier!

    And of course, another favorite quote from a famous individual…

    “Nothing enters our minds or determines our actions which is not directly or indirectly a response to stimuli beating opon our sense organs from without. Owing to the similarity of our construction and the sameness of
    our environment, we respond in like manner to similar stimuli, and from the concordance of our reactions, understanding is born. In the course of ages, mechanisms of infinite complexity are developed, but what we
    call “soul” is nothing more than the sum of the functionings of the body. When this functioning ceases, the “soul” ceases likewise.”

    The universe is simply a great machine which never came into being and will never end.”

    —Nikola Tesla

  15. Pingback: mandarine » Blog Archive » The happiest person in the world

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