Dear Donagh…. I want to ask you if it’s possible to be happy. I feel I come near it sometimes, but just when I'm beginning to relax something always happens to ruin it…. It can be something my sister says or does, or something in college - anything at all in fact. I look around to see if there are any happy people. If there are they are very scarce. Should we even try to be happy, with so much suffering in the world? Is it selfish to want to be happy? Thanx. Jen.

Dear Jen, Thanks for a very fundamental question. I have often wondered about it too. I feel there must be some hidden dividend in unhappiness; otherwise there wouldn’t be so many who are unhappy without any apparent reason.
            “The pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable human right, according to the American Declaration of Independence. I've always been puzzled by that phrase. I don’t know what the drafters of the Declaration were including or excluding by it, but certainly when it is lifted out of its context it is a puzzling phrase. In general, I feel that happiness is more likely to be a by-product in the pursuit of something else: such as truth, or justice, or helping others, or even just one’s own work. It comes as a gift, not as a prize.
            What is happiness? Is it a feeling of excitement? Or on the contrary is it a feeling of deep and quiet contentment? We use it of both, which shows how confused a notion it is. In your question I think the meaning is probably the second. One could even ask whether it is a feeling at all. In modern usage, certainly, it is a feeling. But when mediaevals wrote about ‘beatitudo’ (as they called it) the emphasis was not on the feeling but on the objective state. If you were in a rightly ordered state of life you were happy, no matter how your feelings were. It’s possible that in 1776 when the Declaration was written, there was still an element of this meaning; they had not made happiness an entirely subjective matter, as we have.
            As regards the feeling of happiness (as contentment), I think the pursuit of it is some kind of contradiction. How could I be content if I am pursuing contentment? The very pursuit implies that I don’t have it, and for as long as I continue to pursue it I won't have it. But if I were to stop pursuing it I may have it then. It’s rather like a cat chasing its own tail.
            But I seriously believe that we pursue unhappiness! For some people, as I said, there is some secret dividend, some strange satisfaction in unhappiness. Just as there are people who love tension, there are some who love unhappiness. It gives them an heightened feeling of existing. Graham Greene once said that it is much easier to draw an unhappy character in a novel than a happy one, because unhappiness is so personal, while happy characters are usually lost in something bigger than themselves. In unhappiness you feel every twitch of your nerves, you really know that you exist. But when you are happy you forget about yourself. If you ask children who have been playing in the garden, “What were you doing?” they will probably say, “Nothing!” But if they have been having a fight, they will tell you without being asked! Happiness has no story to tell; unhappiness has all the stories. A liking for unhappiness is a manifestation of ego - nothing is more certain. The ego is a constructed identity, my idea of who I am. It is a set of thoughts and strategies that I began to evolve in early childhood, in collusion with others. It is not my true self, which lies deeper and which doesn’t need to prove or defend anything. Lasting happiness is possible only to the true self, because that is the self that is able to relax and forget about itself.
            In a society that sets such store by speed and achievement and acquisition, it’s almost inevitable that many people become incapable of living in the present moment or relaxing or enjoying anything. But it is just by living in the present that I am in touch with my real self.
            You ask if it’s selfish to want to be happy. No, because real happiness is entirely unselfish. And besides, it’s contagious.
            Take care, Jen.
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