Happiness is a moment, not a life

Last Saturday morning, walking to the last sessions of the IWAC Conference in Savannah, I saw this graffiti on a building behind my hotel at the corner of Turner Boulevard and Fahm Street.

The graffiti says, “Happiness is a drug I can’t afford.” (Click and see.) Who spray painted this, I wondered? Is this a shout? And if frustration gave birth to this remark, did the spray painter not feel any thrill in the act of expressing it?

I’ll bet he did have at least a few minutes of absorption that are equated with happiness.

I don’t like that question, “Are you happy?” because happiness is a quality that is on the move constantly. It’s like hunger or the satisfaction of hunger: depending on the moment, I could answer in different ways. If I say NO the person asking may assume a generalized unhappiness on my part when, really, happiness is specific and ephemeral. This is okay.

This month in The Sun, the painter Ran Ortner describes the feeling of being engaged in his work:

In my reading I’ve come across this again and again: that a person is most powerful when in a state of inner peace. The outside world recedes when I’m engaged in my work. I fall under the illusion that what I’m doing is all-important… I’ll take a break, and when I come back and look at the work, I’ll think, Damn, there’s magic there… That’s what makes art great — it’s a souvenir from these frontiers.

To me, a sort of cool-temperatured soul, that inner peace is happiness.

It doesn’t only come with art-making. If it did, I would experience it as infrequently as I make art. So much of my time seems spent in getting work done or giving comfort or making/maintaining a home.

Some of that inner peace comes actually from those activities, even mowing the lawn or sweeping the sidewalk. And I feel satisfied with the souvenir from the frontier of the backyard. Just this morning, Friday at 6:50am, I sat on the steps in the back, watched the birds peck at the damp dirt under the green grass, looked around at my neighbors’ yards, heard the garbage truck on a distant street, and felt happy with the place I’ve made over many moments of absorption. This includes my recent wrestling with two overgrown rhododendron. Happy is a lightness of being — that may be the best way to describe it. (Thanks to Kundera for the phrase.) It comes and it goes and it comes again.

It is possible to seek it, and seek it in those long moments of being immersed in something, like Ortner in his painting as he describes above. In the same issue of The Sun, there is an excerpt from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which I have never read in full but seem to have read lots of excerpts from. Here’s another:

The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times — although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. […]

Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. The swimmer’s muscles might have ached during his most memorable race, his lungs might have felt like exploding, and he might have been dizzy with fatigue — yet these could have been the best moments of his life. Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery — or, perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life — that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.

I do not think anyone is happy sitting on the couch, watching her favorite television show, and eating ice cream, although she may indeed be experiencing pleasure or comfort. That experience is not a made one, and it is not the result of hard work, although it may come after hard work. I for one look forward to Wednesday and Thursday nights, when Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, and The Office come on, and I really like watching them, but they don’t make me happy.

There is a difference among enjoyment and pleasure and happiness, although of course in casual conversation we use the word “happy” to mean many things, just as we do the word “hate.” It’s a useful exaggeration.

I might say, for example, that coffee makes me happy, but it really doesn’t. I enjoy it, and sometimes it accompanies moments of real happiness, or at least this sustained, concentrated inner peace that Ortner describes, which I feel in long moments of difficult writing.

When I was in Savannah last week, I took a long run/walk on the morning after the day on which my colleagues and I had given our presentations. I was relieved and happy to be done with the preparation work, which had been challenging and messy along the way until finally it was smooth and clear in the delivery. I had planned to do just a 45 minute route, as is Lydia and my habit, but the more I ran and walked, the more I wanted to see. I felt good, so I kept going: through a cemetery, past many of the squares that Savannah is famous for, and through gentrified parts of the old town and through ramshackle parts. I noticed street names, how people gardened, that most window shades were down in most houses — a protection against the sun and heat, I guessed — and where the renovated houses gave way to the lived-in and even crumbling ones. Savannah is on a grid so it was easy to keep track of my position in relation to the hotel, and I found my way back eventually.

I took a shower, got dressed, and walked over to the convention center in time for the second session. But there were empty chairs in the lobby and no real urgency on my part to go to the session, so I sat, opened my notebook, and wrote down some long passages for three essays I’m working on. The passages came to me as shadow ideas as I was running, walking, and looking through Savannah, and they became clearer as I sat there and wrote.

There were a few other people in the lobby, but they seemed to move like fish around me as I wrote, absorbed. I sensed they were there, and that we were all somehow swimming together, or maybe they were swimming and I was like a rock to them in an aquarium, something to swim around, but if they talked I didn’t listen or if they looked at me I didn’t notice. I didn’t care about time passing; I would stand up and join a session when I was done, whenever that was.

Words accumulated and pages turned. Time must have passed because suddenly it was lunch time; the lobby surged with people heading to the buffet.

In one of her essays, I don’t recall which, Vivian Gornick describes a restlessness and lack of focus she felt when sitting down to write. Eventually she discovers that if she first takes a long walk through New York, where she lives, it loosens her and makes her ready to write, the restlessness gone.

I go back to Csikszentmihalyi’s assertion that “optimal experience is something that we make happen.” We must find these conditions for ourselves — mine are different from yours — and make them happen, again and again.

No one will give me happiness, and I cannot give it to anyone else. Certainly, people or institutions or structures or even nature can impose conditions that make happiness hard to experience (think of abusive relationships or poverty or chronic pain). Barring these, however, happiness is unexpectedly possible through effort, repetition, and our tolerance for both discomfort and the ephemeral.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s