20 September 2007

Some Reflections on Happiness

Happiness is rarely in the present and dissolves if we achieve it.

In most people's minds our purpose in life is to be happy. I am not thinking here of whether that involves being selfish or altruistic, but of happiness in a broad sense in which we do things to make ourselves, or others, happier. When we act we have the purpose in our head of making ourselves happier. What constitutes greater happiness varies from person to person, time to time and from one social group to another. Happiness may consist of possessing a new car, a walk in the countryside, giving a child an ice cream or having a leg amputated. Yet all of the above examples are the same in one fundamental way; we desire to move from our current situation (A) to a new situation (B); and that new situation (B) gives us more happiness than if we had done nothing. If the analysis were left like this, the world would, other things being equal, become progressively happier. Unfortunately, two factors work against this conclusion.

First, it is extremely difficult to reach a state of happiness because often the happiness we strive for lies in the future, and like tomorrow we are never there. In other words, most of us are walking along what we hope is the road to happiness, rather than actually being there; or to quote a popular adage, 'Tis better to travel hopefully than to arrive.' We execute acts not for their own sake but in order to attain a purpose that always lies in the future. We acquire money, not because we want the money for itself, but because we know that other people want our money and will give us things or do things for us in return for our money. We buy a ticket not, not for the sake of buying a ticket, but in order to travel, in order to reach our destination, etc. The holiday refreshes us so that we can get back to our normal lives in a better state, so that, etc. We often have as much difficulty attaining that future state of happiness as we do jumping over our own shadow.

Second, any given state of happiness that we might reach is subject to decay. For instance, the other day I decided to have a warm bath; I poured myself some wine, put on some jazz and relaxed in the warm water. I had attained a state of sensual happiness, but it was a happiness that started to decay. The jazz began to irritate me after a while; the water started to get cold and I got fed up with the wine. I had to destroy my previous source of happiness by getting out of the bath and switching off the music. The notion of the inevitable decay of happiness could equally be applied to sex, food, holidays and everything else that we strive for. The pleasure peaks and then decays, which of course can be devastating. Once a friend wrote to me and said he was completely happy in every aspect of his life. I wrote back to say how sorry I was, as from thereon his life could only deteriorate. Happiness then is merely a temporary prelude to its diminution. Total happiness is therefore to stand at the gate of depression, decline and failure.

In conclusion, we can see that, although we have the freedom to make choices in our lives, our ability to attain happiness is cruelly limited. Happiness too often lies in a future which never comes and when it does, it proves to be temporary and subject to instant and inevitable decay. How is it then that human life and action revolve around the pursuit of something which is so intangible and ephemeral? Quite simply, we pursue that evasive happiness simply because we have no other choice.

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