Last week I wrote a post considering the question of whether seeking happiness actually makes us miserable, as some maintain. (Spoiler alert: I don’t think so.) I was moved by the comments to that post, and all week I’ve been thinking about this one: In the 1960s, there were some very popular and influential books that accused American society of being so focused on happiness that there was no space left to be honest about sadness and grief. There have been lots of projects since then to encourage resistance to happiness.
I want to make clear that the kind of “happiness” that these books and projects had to counter is NOT the kind of happiness I want to explore on this blog, nor the kind of happiness I am trying to cultivate in my own life.
I think the kind of happiness that these books and projects had to counter is born from a very narrow definition of the word–one that I feel is much more closely suited to the word pleasure than to happiness. That notion assumes that it is only when we are doing pleasurable things or experiencing pleasurable sensations that we are happy. I think it ignores the eudaimonic definition of happiness, which comes from a life well lived or a life of virtue, and supplants it with a hedonistic definition. A life well lived, by necessity, encompasses the gamut of human experience and emotion, including loss, sadness, and grief. A pleasant or pleasurable life generally tries to avoid these things, or at least to avoid dwelling in them.
Am I Ready?
In her book Happier at Home, her second book about happiness projects, Gretchen Rubin writes:
I grasped that my happiness projects were a different sort of attempt to master fate, to ensure that I was disciplined, organized, and well-rested, with my cell phone fully charged and medicine cabinet fully stocked, in order to meet some dreadful, nameless catastrophe. Something is going to happen. Am I ready?
Whenever calamity might strike–as surely it would–I wanted to be prepared, and my new happiness project would help.
Implicit in Rubin’s understanding of happiness is that the very pursuit of it is meant to prepare us for the darkest times in life. To prepare us not to avoid them, but to enter straight into them. Fortifying ourselves with meaning, and in particular with discipline, self-knowledge, and courage (all things that we can develop through happiness projects or similar initiatives), allows us to walk into the fire of grief and one day emerge whole–not unscathed, but still intact.
“Happiness” Isn’t Big Enough
There’s an encompassing notion of happiness that I’d like to share with you. A few years ago I helped to produce a DVD of a talk that the poet David Whyte gave in San Francisco. In the intro to the DVD, Whyte makes a striking claim:
I’m interested in these milestones that make up human presence. And I don’t think happiness is actually a big enough word. Happiness is part of it, but you can have tremendous presence when you are the saddest person in the world, when you’ve lost someone close to you. But you can feel that sadness with an exquisite kind of beauty. I remember feeling that way when I lost my mother, and my father. It kind of had, as Yeats would have said, a “fierce terrible beauty.” And you felt, when you were feeling that kind of intensity, that happiness and unhappiness were in many ways irrelevant.
Here’s the whole intro:
Rubin talks about her happiness projects as a sort of getting ready for when something bad happens, and I think this getting ready is meant to cultivate the sense of self that David Whyte is talking about—the ability to be deeply present within oneself in difficult times. I, like Rubin, believe that this ability to be deeply present in difficult times comes from a regular cultivation of happiness, of awareness, of meaning. I think there is space in a happiness project, or in a life pursuing happiness, for grief and loss.
I agree with Whyte that happiness isn’t quite a big enough word for what I’m talking about on this blog, but I’m going to keep using it anyway. “Pursuing a Life of Meaning” doesn’t fit into my top menu bar, nor does it roll off the tongue (or fingers, while typing). A “Cultivating Virtue” or “Cultivating Virtue and Curiosity” project is cumbersome. So I’m sticking with happiness.
Top photo by Fred Viljoen; other photos by me.