In my blue moments, I often wonder how to be happy and what it means to be happy.
As a child, I was happy with my mother. She’d call me to her room in the days before kindergarten and I’d brush her hair. I was happy to make her happy and to sit with her.
As I age, the universe expands and the distance between moments of happiness grows. Now in middle life, I see that happiness has a patina of its opposite. We know better than the child about the fleetingness of all things. Yet we go to great lengths to find happiness – or what we think is happiness.
More often than not, what we think will bring happiness is either a numbing agent or escapism. Substances and debasement tranquilize. Endless vacations or a Netflix binge put off the unavoidable.
One place we might look for happiness is the place of all places, the Internet. We put bits of our happiness in the window for everybody else to see. Friends look at our happiness and say they’re happy for us. But are they? Are we?
I’ve invested plenty of my life into distractions. Most of us have. The returns usually come up short. We end up again between happinesses.
And if we are terribly unhappy, we will work hard to force everybody else to be happy. The utopian dream is a dream of ruthless happiness. We can’t be happy until we’re all happy. And we will all be happy, even if we have to kill everybody to make them smile. Happiness will be ours.
Knowledge will set you free, they say. But knowledge doesn’t make a person happy, nor does freedom. Too much of either can drive a person mad. So we don’t go to school to learn happiness.
If anything, school teaches us the inverse. The teenager will discover a wealth of unhappiness at an unhappy stage in life. It’s a good and necessary lesson.
Outside of life and the love of friends and family, to learn the conditions of happiness we should study literature. Literature finds its motivation in struggle, in a battle against self and sin, the world and its inevitable despair. The story moves, and the wheel of fortune turns and pulverizes the good person.
How, in spite of this demolition, do the people in the stories find happiness? How do we?
If we’re fortunate, luck intervenes and turns the wheel again to lift us from the mud. If we’re blessed, another person appears and pulls us from the chaos.
And in another variant – the better ending – we help others find their feet. We redeem our neighbour and by acting redeem ourselves.
Sartre said hell is other people but he was wrong. Hell is life without others. The empty house is a prison and the ultimate indignity, the poet Alden Nowlan understood, was loneliness without privacy: to be with people yet to be without them.
If such a condition is indignity, the ultimate unhappiness must lie in losing those we care about through our own fault. To fail our responsibilities. To break the promises we made. To leave the person who needs us – or ourselves – under the wheel.
I know happiness. I only forgot. Happiness is found in a life of obligations satisfied and services rendered. Of gifts accepted and love reciprocated.
Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.
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