July 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s been a bit longer than usual between posts. One reason is that happiness turned out to be a tough nut to crack. You’ll remember that I’m doing a series of posts on synonyms for contentment. It seemed to me that happiness went with contentment the way a hand and a glove go together. It’s easy to see why these words are considered synonyms.

But when I started doing some investigation and thinking carefully about happiness, I found that the word seems to mean so many different things to so many different people that one simply cannot assume that happiness is even close to being understood in the same way by by most people.

A man named Donny laughing

He looks like a happy man, doesn't he?

I got a good idea of how understandings of happiness varied so greatly when I started searching for quotes about happiness. I found hundreds and didn’t even begin to exhaust the search. After having read so many different interpretations and definitions, I decided to use several of the quotes as points of departure for talking about happiness in relation to contentment.

First, however, I want to share the one I enjoyed most. Here it is:

“To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then, one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be happy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness.”

You think I’m nuts? Well, about halfway through reading this for the first time I thought “What is this? Can this guy possibly be serious?” And then I finished the quote and on the next line saw the author’s name. Woody Allen! Who else? I loved it.

But some of the serious quotes I read by people I generally hold in high regard for their keenness of mind struck me as being almost as senseless as Woody’s. Well, perhaps not really senseless but it was difficult to get at what they were really about. For example:

“You can easily find people who are ten times as rich at sixty as they were at twenty; but not one of them will tell you that they are ten times as happy” George Bernard Shaw

In a certain sense he’s right. I, for one, couldn’t say I’m ten times as happy as I was at 20. I’d have to say that today I’m a hundred times as happy as I was at 20. There seems to be a perception that as we age it’s more difficult to find happiness than it was when we were young. That idea is something I hope to disprove as I continue to post to the blog.

This quote makes me think that the nature of happiness as people understand it depends a lot on the context. I mean that I certainly was happy at 20  – all that partying, dating, boozing, not worrying about much other than how was I going to find time to write that paper when I had this hot date, and so on.

But was I aware of being contented, of being at peace with myself? Did I feel that I had ever accomplished anything worthwhile? Did I find satisfaction in helping others in difficulty and bringing some happiness into their lives? I’d have to answer no to all these questions.

I very much like George Bernard Shaw and have experienced a great deal of pleasure from reading his work. But I found many quotes from people I like and respect that struck me as just plain wrong. By the same token, I found quotes from people I not only don’t like and respect, but whose ideas I actually despise. For example:

“Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.” Ayn Rand

This isn’t the place for me to go into why I have such negative feelings about Ayn Rand (and even stronger negative feelings about her followers), but I strongly feel that her definition of happiness is right on the money. What makes it stand out is found in the words “achievement of one’s values.” She doesn’t stop at “achievement” or even “achievement of one’s goals” the way many others do when talking about the things that make us happy. She sees a relationship between values and happiness that seems much more significant to me in the context of contentment.

The frustration we experience when our values are compromised or thwarted, either by our own behavior or by other circumstances, leads to anything other than contentment and happiness.

It’s obvious that this topic is too complicated to be dealt with in one session, so I’ll continue discussing it in my next post.


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