On Happiness

The other day at breakfast my younger son asked, “Dad, have you ever been 100% happy?” (My son has a way of asking impertinent philosophical questions at unexpected times.) I took a minute or so before I answered, because I wanted to give him a considered reply but also because I was a bit concerned about why he would be asking a question like that anyway. Finally I said that the times when I had been 100% happy were times when I was completely absorbed in some activity that I really liked. I had recently bought him a bag of 100 plastic soldiers, which he had been playing with obsessively for the past few days. “It’s like playing with your soldiers,” I said. “Aren’t you 100% happy when you’re doing that?” Then I discovered the reason he had asked the question in the first place. “Yes,” he said, “but then I remember I have to go to school and that spoils it.”

Schopenhauer believed that happiness and pleasure did not really exist. Suffering, he maintained, was our true baseline state:

The good things we possess, or are certain of getting, are not felt to be such; because all pleasure is in fact of a negative nature and effects the relief of pain, while pain or evil is what is really positive; it is the object of immediate sensation.

I’ve never had much sympathy for that point of view. Even if it’s true, which I strongly contest, it’s not a very practical philosophy by which to live your life. The pursuit of happiness can indeed be fruitless, misguided, even ultimately doomed. But that’s all the more reason to make sure that the process itself is pleasurable; that way you enjoy the pursuit just as much as, sometimes even more than, achieving the goal. And if you don’t achieve the goal, you still enjoyed the chase.

My son’s question got me thinking about what makes me 100% happy. The last time that I was 100% happy for a full 24 hours was on my wedding day. As an adult, I find that happiness tends to come in short bursts; as a child, it was easier to be more intensely happy for much longer periods. That’s not because life becomes less pleasurable as you get older, but because children are naturally more able to inhabit their bliss. There are fewer intrusions on a child’s imagination when it is at play. Adults are more easily distracted, by work, by money, by a host of other more nebulous worries, by other people’s feelings. This is something my son, at 8, is now beginning to discover.

Here are some of my happiest moments from the past week: when I found my daughter’s stuffed bunny rabbit on the sidewalk where we had unwittingly dropped it on the way to school; listening to Led Zeppelin in the car with my elder son; when I heard my daughter had got a place at the same primary school her brothers attend; when I discovered two new aphorists, the German J.G. Zimmerman and the American Washington Allston, for my next book; when I wrote two new pieces for another book I’m working on and felt that they were good. These were all moments of intense happiness, however fleeting. String them together with all the other happy moments and they make for a pretty good week. Which is why I much prefer Spinoza’s take on happiness over crusty old Schopenhauer’s:

Happiness or unhappiness is made wholly to depend on the quality of the object which we love.

Later on the same day I had that breakfast conversation with my son, I noticed that he had been in the toilet for a long time. So I called upstairs to see if he was alright. Yes, he was alright, he shouted back. “But what are you doing?” I asked. “Thinking and writing,” he replied. “About what?” I asked. “It’s a secret,” he said. What bliss. An oasis of solitude and silence in which to think and to write. Your loved ones elsewhere in the house busy with their own activities and minding their own business. Ahead of you the prospect of several hours of uninterrupted play, and the weekend on its way. And who knows, maybe even pasta for dinner. A recipe for 100% happiness.