On Happiness

Note: this week is Summer Experience at UMF, at which incoming first year students spend a week in seminars focused on common interdisciplinary readings. This week’s blog entries will, each day, focus on one of those readings. The readings have a variety of subjects from politics to philosophy to experience…hopefully blog readers will find it an interesting change of pace. The piece I choose to respond to today is “What Every Girl Should Know” by Robertson Davies (1913-95), written in 1977.

The title of the piece “What Every Girl Should Know” is misleading. The writer, Robertson Davies, was writing this for (I believe) his granddaughter. What he talks about here, however, is important for everyone. Here is a short quote to give blog readers not in the class a taste of the piece:

“I hope you won’t bother your heads about happiness. It is a cat like emotion; if you try to coax it, happiness will avoid you, but if you pay no attention to it it will rub against your legs and spring unbidden into your lap. Forget happiness, and pin your hopes on understanding.”

Davies is speaking to that universal desire in humans to be happy. And he notes that most people who seek it do not find it. That is because most people live shallowly, not taking the time to know themselves or why they do what they do, but instead to simply go from one activity to the next, finding gratification for at least the short term, searching desperately for some sense of satisfaction for forces outside oneself. Living this way becomes something hard to break out of because, as he notes, “Live shallowly and you will find yourself surrounded by shallow people.” Shallow people are annoyed by people who live deeply, in part because the inner contentment of the latter starkly shows the former what they lack. Shallow people cling to shallow people.

‘Living deeply’ is something one gains not by success in the external world, or even by making wise choices. These things are not the same as living a deep, satisfying life. One can have immense worldly success, making good choices in life, and still not be happy. Indeed, happiness seems disconnected from ones’ success or accomplishments; those who are unhappy seem unhappy no matter what happens, while those who are happy can find joy in a very simple life.

Davies advises taking one hour a day – one hour away from every demands from children, work, ones’ spouse, family members, television, and the internet (well, he wrote before that little distraction was invented) provides, and set it aside for oneself. Take time to think about what one is doing, to understand ones’ own motivations, thoughts, and desires. Taking this time will yield understanding and once one has that understanding happiness will happen. It becomes a part of ones’ life, not as some rush of excitement or exuberance, but simply finding life to be something worth living, with a sense of mystery and joy.

I choose Davies’ piece for today because I think he is right. I agree with him. I don’t know if that’s because he is right, or if it’s because I simply am biased towards his perspective because I share it. I’ve always been introspective, trying to dissect why I think the way I do, why I want what I want, what motivates me. I try to be self-critical as well, noting times when I do stupid things, taking responsibility for them and not trying to blame the situation or other people. I love and enjoy life, I find learning the most interesting aspect of this existence. Instead of worrying about how underpaid we are at UMF, or that teaching here isn’t as prestigious as teaching at a place like Colby, I think about how lucky I am to have this kind of lifestyle, able to reflect, keep a blog, research what I want, teach and learn with students, and how wonderful Maine is for raising family.

However, this bias might simply mean that this kind of path to happiness works for my personality type. Other people, more extroverted and experimental, may find it less important to be introspective, and more pleasurable to have numerous interests and endeavors. Still others might focus on nature as a kind of natural meditation, rather than the kind of introspection Davies describes. An hour immersed in nature may yield the same benefits as an hour of introspection for many people. Finally, many people emphasize family and friends, seeing those bonds as the key to happiness. These would be bonds built by deep relationships – talking about life, problems, and sharing meaningful moments, not just shallow pursuits.

So ultimately, I think there are many paths up the mountain. Two things doe seem clear: 1) guilt will undercut any effort to be truly honest with oneself – so learn from mistakes but don’t feel guilty about them, humans are imperfect creatures who make mistakes all the time; I define guilt as the condition which prevents us from learning from our mistakes because it leads us to hide them from ourselves.  If guilt can’t be avoided, it is best used as an impetus to change; 2) unhappiness is not a state that can be cured by just changing external conditions. The change has to come from inside, one has to take responsibility for ones’ life and not feel sorry for oneself or feel a victim. In cases like that I think Davies’ notion of ‘living shallowly’ becomes likely; people will seek a life of shallow distractions to avoid coming face to face with themselves and confronting the hard work necessary to alter that state. Perhaps in this is the biggest life lesson: take responsibility for your life, your choices, and trust that if you do, happiness will simply happen. Because, ultimately, if happiness depends upon what others do or what the world provides, one is giving immense power to people and forces acting for their own purposes. That’s almost sure to lead to failure.

  1. #1 by areeya on June 24, 2008 - 08:17

    interesting!

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