Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Art of Happiness

Josh Rothman:

And the truth about happiness, as Bruckner sees it, is that it's rarely very effectively pursued. Happiness is really about luck and grace; you can be thankful for happiness, but you can't manufacture it. In fact, thinking of being happy as the sole aim of life makes happiness less meaningful. "Now that it has become the only horizon of our democratic societies," Bruckner writes, happiness, "being connected with work, will, and effort... is necessarily a source of anguish." We work at being happy - and, in working at it, rob ourselves of everything spontaneous and really joyful about happiness.

...In fact, many unhappy people lead very valuable lives, and assiduously cultivated happiness is sometimes not particularly valuable. Bruckner's argument, like his prose, is necessarily over the top, because it has to swim upstream against the unceasing current of books and articles about how we can and must be happier. It boils down, though, to a simple and valuable idea. Suffering is a natural part of life; it counts as living, too.

Nietzsche fan that I am, I of course have an appreciation for the power and importance of the irrational, frightening and unpleasant aspects of existence. You don't have to romanticize sadness and suffering, though, in order to recognize that we do tend to have an unhealthy fixation on the idea that life should be a linear path of endless improvement. There must be some ebb for there to be any flow. (I think that was Lao Tzu. Or maybe The Sphinx.)

Anyway. There's a certain type of happiness that comes from comfort and predictability; maybe we can call that contentedness. But there's also a type that depends on novelty, a fresh feeling of surprise that invigorates us and makes everything old seem new again. Sometimes a novel experience can deepen into a contented one, but sometimes people can become addicted to the high of novelty, fixating on the object that initially provides it, only to cast it aside when the thrill wears off. The line between yearning and regretting is so ultra-thin, it seems; we're either slightly unhappy because we don't have something we think we want, or we're slightly disappointed because it didn't turn out to be as potent or lasting as we hoped it would. I don't know if it's even possible to perfectly balance on that line.

A perceptive friend once noted to me that so often, we become attached to objects, people, and experiences, forgetting that we don't necessarily want them, we want the way they make (or made) us feel. In our complacency, we expect happiness to come from them, but much of our happiness is in what we bring to them.

One of the functions of art is to take aspects of life that we ordinarily overlook or dismiss and delineate them in such a way as to draw out their beauty and significance. If we can train ourselves to become artists in our own lives, to approach our everyday existence with an eye for finding beauty and joy in the most routine settings, we might find that the effort itself uncovers a lot of happiness we never even knew was there.