The seeming cultural imperative of happiness. The draw to it or a creation of it as strong in westernized culture as the draw to extroversion. The discussion of happiness, one would assume a preoccupation as old as man, feels even more present in recent years. It has become a popular "project." It has become frequently linked to our corporeal existence and all our accoutrement - green living and feeding your body well will bring you happiness as will cleaning your closet. The removal of physical clutter will apparently reveal much of what is required for spiritual or psychic equilibrium.
I poke fun at the self-help sector of the happiness trade, and yet I find myself peeking in these books and magazines and whatnot at the library and bookstore. Hoping for something more than I think I will find there. Because we all want to be happy, don't we? And wouldn't it all be so much easier if happiness were somehow quantifiable and not something with which to wrestle indefinitely? So when a copy of David Malouf's collected essays on the subject came through my mail slot from the publisher a little while back, I was pleased. They may have put an emoticon on the smart man's book cover, but I expected more from this than the material available to me in the Target book section breeze-through during a Sunday afternoon quest for cleaning products. And I was justified in my expectations.
These five linked essays, easily read in an afternoon, ask "what exactly are we looking for when we chase happiness?" Widespread poverty, illness, and famine do not threaten us as they have in the past. Yet so few are fulfilled. A desire for immediate gratification prompts frenetic quests for what we term happiness. Is happiness the same thing as contentment? Why do we have such outrageous stress levels? Malouf outlines our relationship with happiness through history from creation myths through Jefferson's assertion that the "pursuit of happiness" as a right and finally landing at an examination of how the increasingly impersonal nature of contemporary life leaves many a bit unhinged.
The premise of these pieces is deceptively simple, and some could say lacking the depth that the framing ideas promise. But I found this collection extremely pleasing. The beginning of thoughts, of a conversation, and lovely in its erudite simplicity.
From The Happy Life:
“Fiction, with its preference for what is small and might elsewhere seem irrelevant; its facility for smuggling us into another skin and allowing us to live a new life there; its painstaking devotion to what without it might go unnoticed and unseen; its respect for contingency, and the unlikely and odd; its willingness to expose itself to moments of low, almost animal being and make them nobly illuminating, can deliver truths we might not otherwise stumble on.”
"Jeremy Bentham's proposition in An Introduction to the Principles of Moral Legislation (1789) - "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" - has become essential to any serious political platform."
"What the classical schools offered their adherents was the removal from their lives of the uncontrolled, their vulnerability to what was "external" - external, that is, to the Self: dependency on others, fear of Fate or the Gods, fear of death. Happiness lay in self-containment, self-sufficiency. The one thing that none of the schools doubted was the importance of the Self as the purest agency of being and its need to be protected from the distractions, the temptations and the dispersive busyness of things."
"So long as we are driven by the need to make up for our needs; by the restless sense that we are not yet fully assured of our place in the world and our hold on its swarming phenomenal so long as there is more to be discovered and made, more to grap for and make real, we musy go on inventing ourselves."
One of the most striking features of twenty-first century living, in what we think of as our part of the world, is the return of the body as our most immediate, and in some cases our only, assurance of presence, of the rich and crowded and actively happening world-we-are-in."
"Happiness is singular; each case speaks only for itself. It is also subjective. It belongs to the world of what is felt, what cannot be presented or numbered on a scale because it cannot be seen."