Monday, December 27, 2010

A Bit of Happiness

One of my Christmas gifts to myself was Sissela Bok's new book, Exploring Happiness, which wisely begins with the problem of suffering. Why? Because, as she says, "it is precisely in times of high danger and turmoil that concerns about happiness are voiced most strikingly."

She does not mean that today's plethora of studies in positive psychology necessarily are due to our troubled economic and terrorist-threatened times. Rather, that in human history the interest in and search for happiness--that is, the great moral and religious questions--come out of the context of disease, death, injustice and poverty.

I like the emphasis, in what I have read so far of Bok's study, on the moral need we have to seek out happiness even in the face of fortune: random events beyond our control should not deter us from moving ahead to alter the situation we find ourselves in, she writes.

Happiness, then, whether we define it subjectively or objectively or not at all, must be pursued. We must keep dancing.

Mrs. Dalloway in Virginia Woolf's novel of that name believes that in giving parties in post-World War I London she might make at least one day happy for a few people. On the day of her latest party, as she worries if it will be successful, a shell-shocked young veteran commits suicide, the most dramatic example of pain and unhappiness around her. Her own marriage, for safety more than love, has broken the heart of her former boyfriend, Peter, and most of her friends are distressed or depressed.

She is asked by Peter if she is happy, only to be interrupted before she can answer, and the question of happiness, or its absence, is the underlying theme in the screenplay based on the novel for the luminous film starring Vanessa Redgrave as Clarissa Dalloway. Her great desire is to stop time and have everyone savor fully the pleasure of living in the moment; but this is hardly possible.

Perhaps Woolf knew that William James had written in 1902 that gaining and keeping happiness is for most people the "secret motive of all they do and of all they are willing to endure."

Like the fictional Mrs. Dalloway, the novelist Nabokov (quoted by Bok) reflected on what most of us can identify with: the search for brief, timeless moments of happiness in a life filled with duty and pain. Such timeless moments provide ecstasy, "and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern...."

All this--suffering, gratitude, timelessness, happiness--expressed clearly in what is only the introduction of what promises to be a valuable book, one of the best in the growing field of happiness studies.

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