Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Notes on Happiness

Happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914), writer, quote from “The Devil’s Dictionary”

A couple of weeks ago I found a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace from a few years back and it seemed to carry universal truths (also, I added the slashes next to freedom and inserted happiness). The New York Times has on its list of most e-mailed articles, “The Joy of Less” by Pico Iyer that I have included a couple of paragraphs from, but I encourage you to read it all. I also pulled out my book on “Happiness, A History” by Darrin M. McMahon and added a couple of additional thoughts. finally I have taken their paragraphs broke them up and included bullet points for easier blog reading.

From Wallace:
  • If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth.
  • Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.
  • Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear.
  • Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
  • The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
  • The really important kind of freedom/happiness involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom/happiness. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
From Iyer:
  • Perhaps happiness, like peace or passion, comes most when it isn’t pursued.
  • The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of).
  • I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.
  • My two-room apartment in nowhere Japan seems more abundant than the big house that burned down. I have time to read the new John le Carre, while nibbling at sweet tangerines in the sun. When a Sigur Ros album comes out, it fills my days and nights, resplendent. And then it seems that happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued.
  • If you’re the kind of person who prefers freedom to security, who feels more comfortable in a small room than a large one and who finds that happiness comes from matching your wants to your needs, then running to stand still isn’t where your joy lies.
  • In New York, a part of me was always somewhere else, thinking of what a simple life in Japan might be like. Now I’m there, I find that I almost never think of Rockefeller Center or Park Avenue at all.
From McMahon:
  • Might not the search for happiness entail its own undoing? Does not our modern commandment to be happy produce its own forms of discontent?
  • Happiness, … is a characterization of an entire life that can be reckoned only at death. To believe oneself happy in the meantime is premature, and probably an illusion, for the world is cruel and unpredictable, governed by forces beyond our control. A whim of the gods, the gift of good fortune, the determination of fate…

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