Is happiness a warm puppy, in the immortal words of Charles M. Schulz in Peanuts? Or does a warm puppy bring a happy moment to brighten our day?
Any science of happiness must include a definition of happiness. There is a certain amount of consensus among researchers, as far as I can tell.
- Happiness is a composite of life satisfaction, coping resources, and positive emotions
- Happiness does not mean a sustained state of ecstasy, 24/7, unrelated to what’s happening in your life and the world. (That’s more likely to be mania or drug addiction or gross insensitivity.)
- Happiness includes a kind of general satisfaction with your life. Even in times of sadness or stress, do you still feel OK about your life, deep down? Then hey, get this, I think you might be happy!
- Happiness is sustained by lots of little episodes that give you positive emotions. Positive emotions include a big range — for example, joy, pleasure, amusement, pride, interest, satisfaction, affection, gratitude, admiration, awe.
Today’s catalogue of happy moments
I decided that today I would take note of these happy moments in my life, as an exercise. I would pick on three things that gave me those positive emotions.
- Gratitude. Woke a little late after a deep and satisfying sleep.
- Aesthetic appreciation. Enjoyed the reflection of pittosporum leaves on the windshield of a parked car.
- Excitement. Saw a shiny new orange garbage truck parked around the corner, instead of a yucky old green one.
- Gratitude. For our fully functional city with regular garbage collection.
- Physical enjoyment. Noticed pleasant feelings in my thighs as I gently jogged to the pool.
- Human connection. I liked the look of a skinny long-haired lad in a singlet running ahead of me, so casual and messy.
- Surprise. Back view of a beautifully posed man in a new navy pinstriped suit, talking on his cell phone, framed symmetrically by a lamppost, cafe, and sign.
Lordy, that’s seven already and they just kept coming, faster than I could register or analyse them.
The downside of over-analysis
Walking home from my swim, I analysed my analysis of happy moments and decided never to do such a ridiculous exercise again.
The usual trickle of small pleasures had become an onslaught, a flood, each pleasure obliterating a previous pleasure, each overtaken by new pleasures streaming past in a blur.
- Because I noticed the truck, I failed to savour the pittosporum.
- Because I noticed the pinstriped poser, I lost a delightful image of the skinny lad.
Na. That’s the opposite of mindfulness. That’s more like ADHD.
The self-conscious pursuit of happiness is counter-productive
The exercise confirmed what I suspected: life is crammed full to the brim of little happinesses. Life is an eBay of little happinesses. They are there by the thousand, the million, all the time, right under your nose. They knock on your consciousness when you need them. They take their time. They pace themselves. They take turns. They play nicely with each other.
If you aggregate them, if you notice them all, they swarm and attack you, one at a time. Then each little pleasure jets past, lasting a split second. No time to savour a single one!
So up to a point, I’m attempting to disagree with Socrates when he said:
The unexamined life is not worth living.
Instead, today I’ll side with John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography:
Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.
What do you think?
Image: Locusts swarming. No known copyright restrictions.