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Happiness

What Else Do We Want Out of Life?

On why happiness often remains elusive.

Key points

  • Sometimes, a person may be unhappy for no apparent reason.
  • In some cases, people may feel as though now is not the right time to be happy.
  • The human condition is deserving of sympathy independent of the circumstances one finds oneself in.

Sometimes, we suffer on account of terrible circumstances such as living in a war zone or getting diagnosed with a grave illness at a young age. At other times, however, a person may be unhappy for no apparent reason. There is occasionally something diffuse and not well-defined about human frustration, an amorphous grey force that precludes the possibility of happiness. A person doesn’t flourish, and there is no obvious explanation. Everything looks good on the outside.

We are naturally and often deeply moved by the plight of people in terrible circumstances, but a person unhappy for no obvious reason is unlikely to get sympathy and may opt to conceal the (low-grade) misery for fear of appearing ungrateful for the blessings of life.

Just what makes flourishing elusive even in the best of circumstances?

Mediocre tragedies

A good deal of human frustration and unhappiness may be due to relatively insignificant past events such as esprit de l'escalier cases when we think of the right thing to say one hour too late or being passed up for a promotion, unfairly in one’s own estimation, but where the promotion would not have changed anything of significance.

What makes small frustrations corrosive is their lack of dignity, their banality. When we face a big obstacle, we pull ourselves together and try to resist. We anticipate, rightly, that if we succeed, we will show ourselves worthy of approval, both that of others and our own. By contrast, the small rubs of everyday life do not get us motivated in quite the same way. We ward off big blows but allow a thousand small scratches.

It may, perhaps, help to keep in mind that resolving not to allow minute psychic injuries to fester is as important as warding off big blows. Without that, life can, depending on one’s temperament, turn into a series of experiences of scratches, and the psyche may begin to ail without a single large wound.

The waiting game

Kei Scampa/Pexels
Man in a raincoat standing on a sandy shore.
Kei Scampa/Pexels

At other times, we look not toward the past but toward the future, and we put off happiness with the thought that now is not the right time. We may wait to graduate, get a job, get married, wait for the children to grow up, graduate, get married, and have children. For the person with this mindset—the one waiting for Godot—now is never the right time.

I once heard a story about a successful businessman who was always dreaming about how he was going to retire and go sailing on a boat. He’d bought a boat and parked it in his driveway. Then he had a heart attack and passed away before the boat ever left the driveway. What I would note here is that quite possibly, even if he had gone sailing, he may have continued to put off happiness. There is a difference between allowing oneself the opportunity for a pleasurable experience such as a boat ride and the kind of overall satisfaction that might be called “happiness,” whereby one may say, “I am happy now. This is happiness.” It is the latter that we are in danger of postponing indefinitely.

Recognizing happiness

Perhaps, we feel as though now is not the right time to be happy, because we don’t realize we are happy when we are. We think, falsely, that we need something else, something that would once again prove insufficient once acquired. Novelist George Eliot suggests in this regard that we have to learn to be happy. She writes the following in a letter to a friend, “You will soon be settled and enjoying the blessed spring and summer time. I hope you are looking forward to it with as much delight as I. One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy. I am just beginning to make some progress in the science, and I hope to disprove Young’s theory that 'as soon as we have found the key of life it opens the gates of death.'"

Elsewhere, Eliot says that while childhood seems happy in retrospect, at the time, it is full of sorrows, so she seems to be of the view that children cannot be happy. It is certainly true that a child’s sorrows may be as pure and encompassing as her joys are. And perhaps, the joys do not count as happiness in the relevant sense—overall satisfaction with life. Interestingly, Eliot’s example of happiness is enjoying the spring—a type of joy fully accessible to a child. Yet perhaps, it is possible to find in spring not simply immediate joy of the sort a child can experience but a deeper appreciation of being alive and of all the gifts that comes with—love, friendship, ideas. For that matter, the businessman I mention above might have found happiness on the boat if he’d come to a point in life at which sailing was at the same time appreciation of life.

The gift and curse of the imagination

There may be something about us, humans, and our human condition that makes flourishing elusive. Or this could be the fate of every finite creature with our psychological and rational capacities. In a very early work of science fiction, Micromégas, written around the 1750s, Voltaire suggests that the roots of the insufficiency and obstacles to happiness we experience may have to do with our finality and capacity for imagination. In that, we may resemble other possible beings. In Micromégas, an inhabitant from Saturn and one from a planet orbiting Sirius, meet and the following dialogue ensues:

“Tell me how many senses the men of your planet have.”

“We only have 72,” said the academic, “and we always complain about it. Our imagination surpasses our needs. We find that with our 72 senses, our ring, our five moons, we are too restricted; and in spite of all our curiosity and the fairly large number of passions that result from our 72 senses, we have plenty of time to get bored.”

“I believe it,” said Micromégas, “for on our planet we have almost 1,000 senses; and yet we still have a kind of vague feeling, a sort of worry, that warns us that there are even more perfect beings. I have traveled a bit; and I have seen mortals that surpass us, some far superior. But I have not seen any that desire only what they truly need, and who need only what they indulge in. Maybe someday I will happen upon a country that lacks nothing; but so far no one has given me any word of a place like that.”

The two then go on to talk about how short life is. They do live much longer than humans, so it may seem they have nothing to complain about, but of course, we live much longer than bees and other species, and it’s not enough for us.

Voltaire’s novella is satire, but perhaps, it should also inspire general sympathy for the human condition. Being human is bound to be in some ways difficult and we need not blame either ourselves or others for failing to flourish in what look like, from the outside, favorable circumstances. One important point to note here is that though we may seem to be ungrateful airheads who only appreciate such wonderful things as health and sanity when they lose them, there may in fact be hidden dangers lurking behind any serious attempt to appreciate what we have. For consider what appreciation would take: nothing short of vividly reminding ourselves of the possibility of loss. That’s a troubling thought.

I wish to end with a fable that likely has its origins in Sufi poetry: A king once asked a few wise people for a ring that will help him through hard times. After some deliberation, they made a ring with the words “This too shall pass” etched on it. It has been suggested that the engraving is a double-edged sword: While it may help one through hard times, it may also spoil one’s joy in times of perfect contentment by reminding its possessor that everything is transient, not only pain but happiness.

I conclude, therefore, that the human condition is deserving of sympathy quite independently of the particular circumstances one finds oneself in. We may learn to deal with small frustrations as well as big blows and learn to recognize happiness also, but the possibility of loss and the ephemeral nature of the things we care about are ineradicable features of life. To fully experience happiness one knows to be transient is wise, but there is neither wisdom nor virtue in denying ourselves and each other the recognition that the human lot is difficult.

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