Monday, May 10, 2010

Happiness: Does Anyone Know What It Is?

Last year I gave a lecture on the meaning of happiness for 350 people at the Univ. of Central Florida. Whether they were happy during the experience, or after, was unclear. I doubt if any of us ended up with a clear definition of the idea.

I trust that my listeners, like me, had never thought much about the subject, and so I shared with them the highlights of a readable and enlightening book by Darrin McMahon, "Happiness: A History." I was interested in his discussion of Jefferson's phrase enshrined in our constitutional history of the right to the "pursuit of happiness." I was also interested in the earlier meaning of happiness as good fortune, in contrast to the more modern idea that it's something not only desirable in this life but attainable by our efforts. The history of happiness is essentially a series of people asking, Will we ever know what satisfies human beings?

Since discovering McMahon's book, I keep running into more and more happiness studies. The latest book, "Happy," by Ian Smith, M.D., is about how to get the most out of life. He mentions that happiness, among other things, is not about getting something we don't want but appreciating what we already have,presumably what is here in the present moment.

Many of the "positive psychologists" adding to the growing field of happiness studies in universities seem to sense that material pleasures alone don't provide real happiness, even if they are reluctant to state that happiness is, in the final analysis, a spiritual matter. Our hearts are restless, as Augustine wrote, indicating that we can never find any real happiness in this earthly life, or (to use a bit of the lyrical Catholicism I was raised in) "this vale of tears."

It so happened that today's e-mail message from the Merton Institute, a weekly reflection taken from the works of Thomas Merton, says this: Can't we be content with "an ordinary, secret, personal happiness" that doesn't have to be explained or justified? No mention of a vale of tears here; rather, a happiness that costs nothing and has never been advertised "in some publically approved way." This type of happiness, Merton implies, transcends the material and defies definition.

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