This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

The Nature of Happiness

All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

~ Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (edited to correct)

Over at Slate, I allowed myself to become embroiled in a pointless argument over the relative levels of happiness of those who have children and those who do not — and whether the former is maliciously trying to make the latter miserable. The discussion predictably degenerated into a glorious mudfest –not the least because the original article, while touching on some valid points, was relentlessly nasty, condescending and rife with ludicrous insinuations. The gravest flaw, however — especially unforgivable on the part of the author — was failing to adhere to that time-honored Platonian principle, that for any discussion to be productive, we first have to define the terms. In the context of that particular topic, the term was, of course, “happiness”.

What is happiness? Those who advocated a child-free lifestyle equated it with freedom from onerous obligations, everyday comfort, and a greater availability of physical pleasure. Those who tried to explain their decision to have children defined it more vaguely, as a kind of emotional fulfillment. But the point that all these ruminations missed is that the definition of happiness, particularly over a long term, is exceedingly difficult to pin down.

On a personal note, I think pleasure is great, and most popular trashing of “instant gratification” is both stupid and unfair. That said, however, happiness and pleasure are not the same thing.

The nature of happiness — and indeed, the relationship between happiness and pleasure — are notoriously elusive. No one captured that elusiveness better than Milan Kundera, in his celebrated novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, to take leave of the earth and its earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

In other words, choose: the most intoxicating freedom or the most intense fulfillment — one or the other, but not both, at least not completely. Each of those things, I suppose, entails its own happiness, but no happiness in the world is complete or absolute, even if you manage to hover somewhere between heaven and earth.

Happiness is inextricably woven with nostalgia — a longing for a moment in the past. I look back on my college years as, perhaps, the happiest of my life, and yet I recall that while I lived them, I was mostly sleep-deprived, stressed out and anxious about grades. In other words, it is a happiness that I am only able to appreciate now that it’s over. It is a kind of happiness that often characterizes tumultuous stages in people’s lives, full of strife, adversity and uncertainty. I read once that a surprisingly large number of people who lived in London during the Blitz characterize that, frankly, hellish period as the best time of their lives. Why? I am sure they did not actually experience pleasure dodging bombs or dealing with rations, and sleeping in the Underground packed like sardines must have been nothing if not uncomfortable. But, this is a happiness that, as Kundera tells us, stems from “intense fulfillment”, a sense of accomplishment, of having survived an experience from which one has emerged as a better person. Alas, it is a happiness that can only be felt in retrospect, as a story about the past — not as something that gives us ecstasy in the present.

Slavoj Žižek, in his Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, makes a comment related to this phenomenon: that the most profound and longest-lasting enjoyment of sexual intimacy stems from constructing a narrative about the encounter after it’s over. He made that characterization specific to women, but I believe it’s true of both genders, and not just in the realm of sex. We construct stories about past experiences in our minds, and memories of happiness flow from our retelling of those experiences, not necessarily from how we felt during them, certainly not from how we felt every single minute.

(It is a mistake, by the way, to view memory as a more or less accurate recording of the past. There is “processing” involved, and by the time one’s memory of an event coagulates into a narrative, it is a reconstruction of reality, in part fictional. Memory compresses long-term experiences into highlights, so even if we are sharp enough to independently recall every moment of a given period of in time, we do not experience it the same way on recollection as we do when it’s actually occurring.)

It’s true, happiness is not always a memory. It can also take the form of anticipation. It is not a surprising finding, for example, that the greatest “happiness boost” occurs during the vacation planning phase, rather than during the vacation itself. Anticipation has a crucial role in the enjoyment of sex, too. And romantic love — what is it but a prolonged and intoxicating anticipation?

All this tells us that whereas pleasure is a sensation, happiness is a story — a story either about the future, or about the past. But, unlike pleasure or comfort, it is not experienced in the present — which is to say, at all. It is either something we look forward to, or something we remember.

This is the closest I can come to “defining” happiness. Beyond this exceedingly vague definition, happiness is whatever it subjectively feels like to any given individual. This means that, between two different people who both claim to be happy for different reasons, it is impossible to determine which one is happier.

And it would be both asinine and presumptuous to try.


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5 thoughts on “The Nature of Happiness

  1. Julie Sokolow on said:

    What an insightful post. I wonder – in relation to the idea that happiness is inextricably woven with nostalgia and is a story about the future or the past – how that jives with common ideas of achieving inner peace through being present, that whole “Be Here Now” thing. And what do you think of meditation?

  2. Thank you for your comment, Julie. I think the present is underappreciated in our culture, where all endeavors seem to be goal-oriented, rather than experience oriented. Take travel, for instance. I am convinced that no work of art, no natural wonder is worth spending several hours staring at the back of other people’s heads, so you could finally see it for 5 minutes and then walk away with the sense that you’ve “accomplished” something; the only “accomplishment” here is that you’ve just wasted a beautiful day, and it’s astounding how rarely people realize this. I don’t know whether focusing on the present can necessarily bring one lasting inner peace, but I believe it could make many experiences much more enjoyable.

    As for meditation — I think it’s great as an exercise in focusing the mind. But, I’m not an expert on it, and given how hectic many people’s lives are, it’s difficult to undertake it seriously.

    • Julie Sokolow on said:

      I do think there are trips that warrant staring at the back of heads for several hours, as you put it, just to get there. And hey, if it’s all about state of mind, you could make staring at the back of a bunch of heads into an inspired moment.

      Regardless, I agree that driving at some end goal, just for the accomplishment and not the process, is an empty way to go about things. Unfortunately, we are conditioned to go about things in such a way, rendering it impossible to participate in contemporary Western society and be a 100% mentally healthy individual. With your example of travel, I think of the amount of pictures we take nowadays, the compulsion of documentation. I make documentary films, so I have some inner conflicts about this, as you can imagine.

      I do wonder what happens when we switch out of “pure experience” mode into “preservation mode” if you will. Going from experiencing the Grand Canyon to preserving the experience of experiencing the Grand Canyon through taking a photo …does the preservation mode heighten the experience mode or detract from it?

  3. The Tolstoy quote is from “Anna Karenina” – but of course you knew that and were just testing us!

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