Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What is happiness?

Is happiness possible? This is one of the most obvious of the many questions about happiness that writers raised long before Thomas Jefferson's declaration of a God-given right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This famous phrase, whatever it means, signifies earthly happiness, not the joy promised in the afterlife.

What happiness meant in the 18th century world of Jefferson, what it meant for the Greeks and for earlier thinkers, and what it has meant in more recent centuries is the subject of Darrin McMahon's valuable book, HAPPINESS: A HISTORY, which has given me much to think about.

A basic question is whether happiness is a matter of luck, as the English word's origins suggest, or if it is something we have the power to create. It is certainly more than a feeling or a passing pleasure--or winning the lottery. As an enduring condition, it is rare; but it has something to do with a sense of being content with who and where we are.

Happiness to me seems inseparable from love. Thomas Merton, as usual, put it well: "A happiness that is sought for ourselves can never be found: for a happiness that is diminished by being shared is not big enough to make us happy." True happiness is found in unselfish love, he says, a love that increases in proportion as it is shared.

That is probably the most we can hope for in finding earthly happiness.