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INCREASING HAPPINESS: Is it possible to noticeably increase happiness simply by believing in it? Based on personal experience over the last year or so, my answer is Yes.
First, I need to define my terms. By happiness I don’t mean the familiar, lesser forms of happiness such as enjoyment, satisfaction and contentment. I mean pure and unadulterated happiness, happiness that excludes all unhappiness, happiness such that nobody can at one and the same time be both happy and the tiniest bit unhappy. And by “believe” I don’t mean what has been called notional assent. Victor Hugo said, “We are all under sentence of death, but with a kind of indefinite reprieve.” If we murmur, “How true,” but continue to plan our life on the assumption that we’ll live for ever, that’s notional assent. By believe I mean to actively make present to the mind the thing believed.
Definitions aside, it’s not easy for people to believe in pure and unadulterated happiness. Charles de Gaulle, for example, said that happiness is for idiots, and the average Russian would probably agree with him. So would a few Americans, such as Woody Allen. A few years ago at the Cannes film festival he told his audience, “I do feel that life is a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience, and that the only way you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself—and I’m not the first person to say this or the most articulate person; it was said by Nietzsche, it was said by Freud, it was said by Eugene O’Neill—one must have one’s delusions to live, etc. etc.” When I searched the Internet, the phrase “I don’t believe in happiness” turned up almost 450,000 times; “happiness is an illusion,” over 400,000 times. And I’m sure those numbers are just the tip of the tip of the iceberg.
Well, we all know there are many emotional reasons for not believing in happiness, reasons which are perfectly understandable and which we can sympathize with. Nevertheless, not to believe in happiness is irrational, because it’s a mood or state of mind that unquestionably exists. I think we only need to be presented with examples to be convinced. And it’s really more a matter of being reminded than of being convinced.
My best example comes from Jean Jacques Rousseau. In his autobiography, published in 1782, he despaired of describing happiness. He wrote, ‘How shall I describe what was neither said nor done, nor even thought, but enjoyed, felt, without being able to particularize any other object of my happiness than the bare idea?’ He then proceeded to say almost as much about it to convey its reality as I think can be said:
I rose with the sun, and was happy [note the phrase “I rose with the sun”; to me that indicates that he was happy for days or week rather than minutes or hours]; I walked, and was happy; I saw Madam de Warrens, and was happy; I quitted her, and still was happy!— [Madam de Warrens was a 28-year-old divorcee who took Rousseau into her home when he was sixteen because of his family situation; he stayed there for twelve years with intervals of wandering, and for a time he and Madam de Warrens were lovers] Whether I rambled through the woods, over the hills, or strolled along the valley; read, was idle, worked in the garden, or gathered fruits, happiness continually accompanied me;
And then he identified its essential characteristic, ‘it was fixed on no particular object, it was within me, nor could I depart from it a single moment.’ In other words, although happiness can combine and blend with any form of enjoyment, it exists independently of enjoyment. Happiness, when present, would appear to be a mysterious self-sustaining state of the mind and emotions.
Now even if you’ve come with me this far you might still be thinking, OK, but what’s the point of all this long-winded analysis? The point is to keep in mind the knowledge that happiness is a solid reality, that it has the power to render irrelevant any thought that would ordinarily cause unhappiness, and that it may make its presence felt at any moment. As long as you can maintain that conviction I submit that you can noticeably increase your happiness. And I think the best way to maintain that conviction is to collect other people’s testimonials and to internalize them so they become part of one’s own mental framework. And, of course, record your own experiences shortly after they occur. I would strongly suggest that by keeping the memory of those experiences fresh, you can experience other people’s happiness vicariously or re-experience your own to some slight degree.
At this point you might like to voice a complaint, namely, unlike enjoyment and contentment we have no direct control over this kind of happiness, the most we can do is to hope and pray for an occasional visitation. That’s true. But in my experience it seems that the more you believe in happiness the more often you’ll receive these visitations. And even when happiness doesn’t take full possession, which admittedly it rarely does, you will at least sense its presence close to you. And that, in itself, is a kind of happiness. . . . Some of those sentences may sound strange to naturalist ears, and are probably at odds with a naturalist world view. Whether conscious experiences like happiness are part of nature or whether happiness is a force in itself, as some of my sentences imply, might be worth a separate discussion. But that’s for later, because the purpose of this presentation is to investigate the subjective nature of happiness and to find out how (or if) we can get more of it.
(As I understand it, for a naturalist happiness, like every other conscious experience, is a state of the organism. Or, to frame it in monist terms, happiness results from a particular arrangement of Nature in a small region of space time, a region that includes a person and his or her local physical environment. In theory, if that arrangement could be recreated down to the last detail, then exactly the same experience of happiness would result. And, of course, the same holds true for every other conscious experience. How plausible does such a view feel, as distinct from it being logically consistent with a naturalist philosophy?)
Now comes a complication. It’s easy to find reports of happiness, but it’s not that easy to find it in its pure and unadulterated state. Happiness is often entangled with peak experiences, and IMO peak experiences should be clearly distinguished from the kind of happiness that we’re talking about. Examples of peak experiences would be: winning the lottery, winning an Olympic gold medal, climbing Mount Everest, falling in love, being miraculously healed at Lourdes, receiving news that your general theory of relativity has been empirically confirmed by a British expedition to view an eclipse in 1919. In all these cases the happiness is intense, but it depends on external factors.
Now I suppose you could argue that the happiness that excludes all unhappiness is also a kind of peak experience, but it’s a peak experience that’s different from the ones mentioned. For one thing, happiness needn’t be emotionally intense; in fact, it often isn’t. But I think most people would admit that when you experience happiness pure and simple, you feel that you could never grow tired of it. Whereas, if you were such a good athlete that you won gold medal after gold medal, it’s pretty safe to say you would eventually get fed up with winning gold medals. On the subject of getting fed up, here’s a descriptive account that I was quite impressed by:
You probably haven’t heard of Amrita Sher-Gil. She is one of India’s most eminent painters—was one of India’s most eminent painters; she died in 1941 at the age of 28, under mysterious circumstances. She was quite a glamourous woman and was always falling in and out of love. One of her affairs was with Malcolm Muggeridge, at that time the editor of The Statesman in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). In a diary entry for 1935 he recorded one of their meetings, how he prepared for her arrival by taking a bath and changing into a light grey suit with a blue tie and bright shirt—because that was how Amrita liked him to be dressed. He continued:
She came at eight, in a green sari with a gold and red border. She talked about her lovers, her terrible obsession with herself very apparent. Then, she took off her jewels and let down her hair. It was like a third performance of a marvellous play, all the fascination, the sense of wonder at it, remains; all the same, you realize that though you might like to see it ten or twenty more times, there’ll come a time when you don’t want to see it any more, when it’ll be wearisome.
In my experience and IMO, there’s a kind of happiness where you never have the realization that sooner or later it’ll become wearisome.
Getting back to the main topic, although most reports of happiness are complicated by the context in which they occur, I think they’re still very useful in building confident belief. Let me offer a few examples. I can relate to all of them, but I can’t claim to have experienced any of them, at least not as vividly as they’re described. But, maybe somebody here can.
The first example comes from George Bernard Shaw. According to his biographer, play writing gave Shaw—Shaw’s words—‘moments of inexplicable happiness’ and when he tried to explain it to himself he was taken—Shaw again—‘out of the realm of logic into that of magic and miracle.’
The second example borders on the mystical: Northrop Frye was a University of Toronto professor who taught English at Victoria College and also a famous literary critic. Not long after the death of his father, in a fire that the 89-year-old smoker seems to have caused himself, Frye experienced a curious personal vision which seemed to eradicate any harsh view of death. It was a winter morning, and he woke up at the Guild Inn and opened the curtains to a dazzling scene of snow and ice. Icicles hung down on two branches outside. On one sat a cardinal and on the other, a blue jay. It didn’t have any particular meaning for him but it seemed like a perfect balance, and he confessed, “If I could have died then, I would have died a happy man.”
The next example is from Peter Mayle, a British writer who retired to the south of France where he and his wife bought and renovated a 200-year-old stone farmhouse. In recording the progress on the house and the process of acclimatizing to a different country, he inadvertently produced an international bestseller: A Year in Provence. However, his experiences with disappearing contractors were unsettling, to say the least. (It’s a well-known phenomenon: a contractor tells you he’s got to go to another job, but he’ll be back in a few days, and as the weeks pass you start to wonder if you’re ever going to see him again.) Mayle writes, ‘In another place, in less perfect weather, it would have been depressing, but not here. . . . the time passed in a haze of well-being; long, slow, almost torpid days when it was so enjoyable to be alive that nothing else mattered.’
In 1920, when Bertrand Russell was 48 years old, he visited China. While there he got sick and nearly died. Until then he had always imagined that he was fundamentally pessimistic and did not greatly value being alive. During his convalescence, however, he discovered that he had been completely mistaken, and that life was infinitely sweet to him. Apparently, rain in Beijing is rare, but at that time there were heavy rains, and they brought the delicious smell of damp earth through the windows of his hospital room. And he thought how dreadful it would have been to have never smelled that smell again. And he had the same feeling about the light of the sun, and the sound of the wind. There were some acacia trees just outside his window, and they came into blossom at the very moment he was well enough to enjoy them. ‘I have known ever since,’ he wrote in his autobiography, ‘that at bottom I am glad to be alive.’ He then added, ‘Most people, no doubt, always know this.’ Do most people always know this?
Last example: During the war author and journalist Malcolm Muggeridge served as a British intelligence officer, first in Mozambique and then in Paris. In 1944, a few months after the liberation of Paris, he received a message that his new boss wanted to meet with him. That man was Kim Philby, educated at Eton, England’s most prestigious public school for the elite, and partly for that reason a Soviet double agent and probably the most notorious traitor of the twentieth century—years later Philby justified himself by explaing, “To betray, you must first belong. I never belonged.” (Philby had recently been made head of MI6’s Section Nine, which kept an eye on Communist activities, but at that time Muggeridge couldn’t appreciate the irony of the promotion.) They went out to a restaurant on the champs Élysées and talked shop, which I think must be the sweetest of subjects for spies. Somehow they never got round to the purpose of the meeting, but between Philby’s upper class manners and considerable charm, not to mention the fact that His Majesty’s government was picking up the bill, it was probably a very pleasant occasion. When they went outside Muggeridge was certainly feeling mellow. He recalled that the evening seemed very mild and agreeable, the lights very bright, the people strolling about and sitting in the cafés, very delightful. It was one of those occasions, he wrote, ‘when you seem to hear, underlying the noise of life, music mysteriously playing in the far distance . . . and you wonder how it has come about that there are so many beautiful women in the world.’
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