One thing can be said about all the studies of happiness, which have grown exponentially since 2000, is that the topic is highly subjective and complex. So as I send friends and family members cards and messages with wishes for Happy Holidays, my mind returns to this elusive subject, which for many has economic implications.
The feeling of well-being often relates to being well-off, or so the economic studies indicate: people who say they are happy tend to be financially secure, healthy, married, religious, and engaged in purposeful work.
Yet no matter how healthy, wealthy or wise we are, we are also, inevitably, aware of evil in the world: who is untouched by disease, pain, injustice and loss? It is this awareness of evil that leads the political philosopher Leszek Kolakowski (who died three years ago) to question whether happiness exists.
Like every thinker, he raises important (often unanswerable) questions: does a person in the state of Nirvana, which seems to involve the happiness of self-detachment, have an awareness of the world? If not, what kind of reality is he part of? If he or she is aware of the human life-world, he must also be aware of suffering and evil. "Is it possible to be aware of evil and suffering and still be perfectly happy?" (A singular question.)
The article from which I quote in the Dec. 20 issue of The New York Review of Books is entitled, 'Is God Happy?' After all, to consider a Nirvana-like state is to imagine, in the West, what the souls in heaven presumably experience. Are they aware of our lives on earth, as most Christians believe? And if they are, how can they be happy in their eternal state, knowing about our unhappiness?
If God is perfectly immutable, He cannot be upset by the misery of those on earth, so He is indifferent; but He is called a loving father (by Christians), so He cannot be indifferent. So, of course, we cannot understand the divine, and all Kolakowski can finally say is "God is not happy in any sense we can understand."
He concludes that happiness is not applicable to God nor to human beings--happiness defined as an ongoing condition of serenity and well-being. This, he says, can only be imagined, not experienced.
So the message here is not too cheery this holiday season. The only way to be happy is to be unaware of the misery in the world. I could live a contemplative life as a monk or hermit and tune out the world, but wouldn't I still be restless and unhappy much of the time? Mystics seem to experience prolonged states of bliss before they are returned to ordinary reality.
I suppose we must be grateful for what Wordsworth called "spots of time" in which we feel temporarily uplifted out of ourselves; but these experiences of timeless bliss occur mainly in early childhood. Adults can be happy by experiencing moments of wonder and pleasure, and as long as we love others, we can feel satisfied much of the time--if we don't think too deeply or read the daily news.
If our Polish philosopher is right, the idea of happiness as an immutable condition is beyond us. So what it is that we seek--and wish each other when we say Happy New Year or Merry Christmas? A brief respite of good fortune amid life's turmoil? Pleasure? Prosperity? No one knows what happiness really is.
Presumably Thomas Jefferson had prosperity in mind in his famous phrase "the pursuit of happiness." The history of happiness shows that in earlier times, happiness went along with luck. The Greeks said that no man can be judged happy until he is dead (only then it is clear he has been fortunate). Today we tend to define happiness as personal well-being. We never think of earthly happiness as enduring, do we?
Happiness may be indefinable and subjective; yet questioning the very thing we desire and pursue makes sense. In general, raising questions can be more important than providing answers. "Never forget," wrote Kolakowski in another piece of work, "that there are questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of science and are crucially important to the survival of humanity as we know it."
In this season devoted to wonder, I am happy to say that my life has generally been happy: I know and have known love. Love exists, if happiness eludes us. This--and the peace that comes from loving and being loved--is what I wish for others now and in the new year.