Are You Happy Enough?

Yesterday I read an article in the New York Times about a course offered at Yale this year called “How to Be Happy.”  It is the most popular course in Yale’s history; so much so, that the usual auditoriums in which lectures are given were too small to contain the students who enrolled.

The article made me impatient.  Who said that “being happy” should be a life goal?  This implies that if we are not happy, there must be something we need to adjust – something we’re doing wrong.  This seems to be a typically American way of looking at things.Think about this. We are the only nation that lists as a national goal ,in its Declaration of Independence, “The Pursuit of Happiness”!  These same people who are seeking happiness must be the people who feel that cancer is a weakness of spirit, and that if we succumb to it, it’s because we haven’t fought hard enough.  Another thing that makes me impatient.

Because life is, by its very nature, a roller coaster ride. And the goal of life is survival, not ‘happiness’.  By its very nature life is a struggle – to achieve goals, to avert disasters, to master skills, and to master our own destructive impulses and feelings.Sometimes life is joyous.  And other times it is scary.  Sometimes it is sad. Sometimes, frightening. Always, it is an exhilarating adventure.  Perhaps courses named Mastery, Fulfillment, Life Satisfaction, Generativity, or Balancing Love and Work would have been more useful courses for Yale to have offered.

Depressing as this may sound, extended periods of happiness are, by their nature, unsustainable, evanescent – and therefore to be treasured.  The exhilaration of first love, the pride of a new accomplishment, that joy of  giving birth, the calm of looking at the ocean, the excitement of travel to new locales – all these are short-lived and unsustainable.  Sooner or later, they devolve into a daily routine.  And so our task is not just to treasure these feelings when they occur, but to let them go just as willingly.  And to move on.

I remember watching a performance of whirling dervishes under a star-spangled desert sky in Turkey.  Dressed in white, circular skirts, the dervishes would twirl themselves with ever increasing speed into a kind of perilous rapture.  Throughout, they would raise one arm high, palm open to the skies; their other arm would be cast low, with palm parallel to the ground.  The dance captured their ecstasy in embracing the fact that nothing lasts forever, and that our existence as humans necessitates a skill at embracing what life bestowed on us, cherishing it – and then letting it go, and being prepared for a new experience.

So I think,if we want to know what’s critical to mental well-being, it is not happiness  that we should be seeking.  Here, instead, are the questions we should be asking ourselves:

Do I, in general, like the person you have become? Are my relationships meaningful and satisfying on the whole? Do I need a creative outlet? Do I enjoy I work or do I find it hard to endure? Am I able to treasure life’s pleasures as they occur? Am I able to let them go when I must? And, above all, HOW RESILIENT AM !, and what stands in the way of that resilience.

Note the use of the phrases “on the whole”, “in general”, and “more or less”. Because everything in life is more or less. Everything changes, and nothing is forever. There is no perfection.

How to be ‘HAPPY’? Perhaps a fool’s quest. That’s like trying to bottle a rainbow.

Permanent happiness? A meaningless quest. That’s like trying to bottle a rainbow.

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