When I was a boy and found some nice presents under the tree on Christmas morning, I was happy. There they were, beautifully wrapped, and waiting for me. Santa Claus came as I hoped he would, so I had a rush of happiness. But suppose nothing turned up under the tree? The way I experienced happiness was actually a trap. The absence, or eventual loss, of the thing that made me happy could make me unhappy.
When the doctor pronounces me in good health, I feel happy; should he inform me of some problem, I feel unhappy at once. I’m happy if somebody treats me with respect and generosity; regard me with scorn or indifference, unhappiness is likely to follow. Affirm my being, I am happy; negate it, watch how disgruntled I get. And so it goes. Happiness is a see-saw. Something I discovered early on--happiness depended on something external to myself.
The wheel of fortune turned and I was taken for a pleasant ride. Happiness always takes us for a ride—we are like children piled in a wagon, pulled along on a bumpy road, happy for the moment with all the sights and sounds.
Then there’s the happiness of the imagination. I was happy imagining a date with a certain pretty girl. But when I had the experience itself – the real date in the real world – it was not quite what I expected. I was happier yearning for something imaginary than experiencing something real.
I wondered about the nature of happiness. Maybe there was a different kind of happiness, less prone to getting hung up on something you have no control over.
Some experiences I had contained hints of this higher felicity.
I was on my first trip to Europe when I had a memorable experience hitchhiking across the Italian Alps. Knapsack on my back, I felt with sudden keenness an unknown pure joy, traveling as I was, light and free under the open sky. This was the happiness of spring, youth, adventure. Traveling under the open sky was sufficient for complete happiness. Then I got hungry and tired and the bliss faded.
Was there such a thing as a higher happiness? If there was, it continued to elude me. Happiness, as it comes and goes, seems very much a mercurial creature of imagination; I could never pin it down.
Happiness for most of us is circumstantial, and to a large extent, accidental. One day fate strokes us; the next she bashes us. I wondered if the sages, the inspired poets, the mystics had actually glimpsed a happiness that was absolute. It sounded like they did sometimes, but I wondered if they were exaggerating, leaving out details that were less happy.
If there is a higher happiness, you probably have to change your whole lifestyle. All the things we normally crave and think we need—we’d relax our hold on them, dump them overboard if need be. We would cease to expect handouts of happiness from life. Enjoy them when they come but minus addiction.
This train of thought leads to the mystical conception of happiness, often described with counter-intuitive terms like Nichts, sunyata, fana, annihilation, emptiness, nothing, and so on. Chuang Tzu, that amiable Chinese philosopher, had this to say about happiness:
“My opinion is that you never find happiness until you stop looking for it.”
In other words, don’t look, because it isn’t outside you. If it’s anywhere, it has to be inside. Or, as the Stoics were fond of saying, it’s not things but the way we interpret things that makes us unhappy.
Any attempt to look for happiness is self-defeating. So Chuang Tzu adds, “My greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatsoever calculated to obtain happiness; and this in the minds of most people is the worst possible course.”
Some say you have to go through the dark night of the soul before you can see the sunrise of eternity. It sounds like crazy wisdom to identify happiness with nothingness. And yet the Sufi mystics discourse on fana, the nothingness of the ego. The Kabbala maps the way to mystical nothingness. Buddhism’s main metaphor is the snuffing out of all-consuming desire, the extinction of the flame of greed and obsession. Aquinas called the road to divine happiness a via negativa. “It’s not this! It’s not this!”
Epicurus put it like this: the enlightened soul is happy on the rack. (No doubt a wild exaggeration.) It doesn’t matter what kind of external goods you have. External goods should be valued, but taken with a grain of salt. The reason is clear. They set us up for the happiness trap.
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