Recently, several Facebook friends posted this link to what 40 different authors have said about happiness. I really liked some, laughed about some, and thought some were stupid and insipid. Unfortunately the link requires a separate click for each author. So here, as a public service, is the list in the same order in which it is presented at that site (along with my comments and observations, which are likely just as superficial or insipid or deep or scintillating as the quotes themselves):
- Mark Twain: “Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.” This is slightly amusing but clearly incorrect. I realize that sanity is a fuzzy concept, but I think I have been happier when I have been saner, roughly speaking, and I expect that is true for most of my friends.
- Leo Tolstoy: "Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story". Very pithy. I see this as a statement about his writing and his life. Interestingly, for me I think it's the opposite. Or maybe a mix.
- Ayn Rand: “Learn to value yourself, which means: fight for your happiness.” As much as I want to like what Rand writes, I think there is more to happiness than learning to fight for it; there is also the important aspect of learning to accept happiness when it thrusts itself upon us.... or just whenever it happens.
- Chuck Palahniuk: “The only way to find true happiness is to risk being completely cut open.” Maybe for Chuck, but this strikes me as utter nonsense. I like risks and adventures, but there is core of me that I will not risk having cut open, and I think that makes me more, not less, happy. I have met people who thought they were risking their inner selves and too often that was just self-indulgent blathering.
- Charlotte Bronte: "Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste". I like sharing my happiness. But it seems to me it is quite possible to have a self-contented happiness, too. No taste? I disagree; it is very tasty and pleasant.
- Hunter S Thompson: "I don't see how you can respect yourself if you must look in the hearts and minds of others for your happiness.” This is probably one of the best statements about happiness in the list. Of course it's easier said than done.
- Oscar Wilde: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” Funny.
- Haruki Murakami: "“But who can say what's best? That's why you need to grab whatever chance you have of happiness where you find it, and not worry about other people too much. My experience tells me that we get no more than two or three such chances in a life time, and if we let them go, we regret it for the rest of our lives.” Possibly. But I think there are more opportunities for contented-happiness. I wonder if he's talking about wildly ecstatic happiness. If so, in line with this statement, I continue to savour the Zappa line, "Well I was born to have adventure..."
- Ernest Hemmingway: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” I call BS. What he was saying is, "I'm unhappy, and you're happy; it must be because I'm smart and you're stupid." I like many of his novels, but I know lots of smart happy people.
- Kurt Vonnegut: “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.” By god, this is one of the best statements here. "Notice when you are happy..." Absolutely!
- Robert Louis Stevenson: “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world.” Huh? Be happy, even if you aren't? Or pretend to be happy because it benefits others? Or is this a different version of Vonnegut's, "Notice and exclaim..."?
- Ralph Waldo Emerson: “ If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier.” Yeah? Does it hold in the reverse, too, Ralph? If I can love you for what you are.... Or is this more self-indulgent nonsense?
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “Man only likes to count his troubles; he doesn't calculate his happiness.” Hnnh. Reminds me of the Eddie Fisher song of the mid-50s, "Count your blessings." But for many (most?) there is probably more truth to this statement than I want to admit.
- Sylvia Plath: “I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between.” Been there. Am still there much of the time. For me it does seem that some type of mental and/or physical activity is nearly a necessary condition for happiness, either in the moment or in reflection.
- Jane Austen: “I must learn to be content with being happier than I deserve.” Oh my, yes. That describes me. I never expected to have as much happiness as I have had in my life.... and I am delighted to imagine there will be even more. Geez, that must seem pollyanna-ish, but there it is.
- Douglas Adams: “I'd far rather be happy than right any day.” Not me, at least not necessarily. But then, being right makes me happy, so maybe this is more convoluted than I thought. ;-)
- Gillian Flynn: “The face you give the world tells the world how to treat you.” I suppose. But if I'm down, too many people want to play "I'm OK, you're not OK; or even worse "I'm not OK, you're not OK." So maybe this is good advice about happiness, and pretending to be happy in many situations. I've found myself in situations where I throw myself into whatever is happening, enthusiastically, and I act happy about it at the time, wanting to give it a good chance of making me happy. If it doesn't, I'm outta there.
- Charles Dickens: “Happiness is a gift and the trick is not to expect it, but to delight in it when it comes.” I guess I have what economists call adaptive expectations... I base my expectations on what I have experienced, and I adapt my expectations accordingly as I experience more. So, since I've had a lot of happiness, I continue to expect it. AND I delight in it when it comes anyway, shaking my head in wonder and gratitude.
- Victor Hugo: "The supreme happiness of life consists in the conviction that one is loved; loved for one's own sake -- let us say rather, loved in spite of one's self." I don't know if this is the supreme happiness, but it's nice.
- Stephen King: "Happiness should remain unexamined for as long as possible". Maybe this isn't a bad idea. I don't really examine my own happiness deeply; I know I have it, and I know I cherish it and am grateful for it. But I think in my younger days, examining what had made me happy in the past probably helped me understand and accept my happiness in later years.
- Margaret Atwood: "Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there's no way in or out". I don't ordinarily understand or like what she writes, but this is neat. I see it as saying, you can't make yourself be happy; it happens. But I'd go beyond that and say that it is also possible to set the scene for happiness to happen.
- Jack Kerouac: “Happiness consists in realising it is all a great strange dream”. Maybe some people can see this. Maybe great happiness makes one feel as if we are living in a dream. But this is not the way I'd put it.
- Aldous Huxley: “Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn't nearly so spectacular as instability." I wonder if he is talking more about contentment than ecstasy; I think that's the kind of happiness (contentment) that I feel so much, too.
- Virginia Woolf: “Nothing thicker than a knife's blade separates happiness from melancholy.” Well, given her life and suicidal bouts, I can understand that she felt this way. I would hate to think that happiness is so fragile. For me it is a much deeper form of contentment I guess, so that even if there are ups and downs, including moments of ecstasy and melancholy, there is this underlying enormously intense sense of gratitude and contentment.
- Paulo Coelho: "If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man." This is existential clap-trap. Yeah, it's a good idea not to get too hung up on the past or the future, and it's a good idea to get over things from the past. At the same time, I'm certain that much of the happiness and contentment I feel now is the result of thinking about and planning for my/our future, at least in some risk-averse, probabilistic sense. Concentrating on the present may make you happy now, but may seriously detract from your future happiness.
- Edith Wharton: "If you make up your mind not to be happy there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a fairly good time.” Man, this type of satisficing attitude toward happiness and life seems defeatist to me. Is she really saying, "Set your expectations low so you won't be disappointed"? Nope, that's not for me.
- Maya Angelou: "If you have only one smile in you give it to the people you love." Ok. Whatever that means.
- Alexandre Dumas: “I am not proud, but I am happy; and happiness blinds, I think, more than pride.” Maybe. Actually, I suppose so.
- Roald Dahl: “If you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” Again, I suppose. People who are contented and/or happy and/or ecstatic do tend to convey nice feelings and thoughts to others. And maybe if you're a good actor (or someone who is out of touch with his/her inner self?), the reverse can hold sometimes.
- George Orwell: “The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” This is a sad statement of reality, dammit. Most of us prefer contentment and happiness and ecstasy to the ups, downs, and challenges of freedom.
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez: "No medicine cures what happiness cannot". Huh? I had no idea that happiness could cure cancer or heart disease, etc. At the same time, I wonder whether this is more about depression. Even so, there are lots of drugs out there that can help. This sounds like self-pitying tripe to me.
- Vladimir Nabokov: “And yet I am happy. Yes, happy. I swear. I swear that I am happy...What does it matter that I am a bit cheap, a bit foul, and that no one appreciates all the remarkable things about me—my fantasy, my erudition, my literary gift…I am happy that I can gaze at myself, for any man is absorbing—yes, really absorbing! ... I am happy—yes, happy!” Yes! This is exactly the kind of self-contentment and happiness I wish for everyone.
- Dennis LeHane: “Happiness doesn't lie in conspicuous consumption and the relentless amassing of useless crap. Happiness lies in the person sitting beside you and your ability to talk to them. Happiness is clear-headed human interaction and empathy. Happiness is home." I completely agree with this... but more stuff is nice, too.
- Alice Walker: "Don't wait around for other people to be happy for you. Any happiness you get you've got to make yourself." While this is technically correct, it is not at all easy to make yourself happy.
- Thomas Hardy: “Happiness is but a mere episode in the general drama of pain.” What a sad, self-pitying statement. Phhht.
- Evelyn Waugh: “I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I'm old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.” A fun, amusing look at happiness and aging, but it is difficult to use memories to recapture ecstatic moments in one's life.
- J. M. Barrie: “The secret of happiness is not in doing what one likes, but in liking what one does.” Whatever. In the long run, if these don't mean the same thing, maybe you (or I?) should get help. It all sounds cute, but means nothing to me other than advice to lower one's aspirations, with which I certainly do not agree.
- Nick Hornby: “Maybe we all live life at too high a pitch, those of us who absorb emotional things all day, and as mere consequence we can never feel merely content: we have to be unhappy, or ecstatically, head-over-heels happy, and those states are difficult to achieve within a stable, solid relationship.” Sounds about right to me, but it is an attempt to define happiness as a stable contentment, which likely not everyone would agree with.
- Edgar Allen Poe: “It is a happiness to wonder; -- it is a happiness to dream.” That, too.
- Cormac McCarthy: "I think by the time you're grown you're as happy as you're goin to be. You'll have good times and bad times, but in the end you'll be about as happy as you was before. Or as unhappy. I've knowed people that just never did get the hang of it." This is utter nonsense. My sense of happiness has grown and grown and grown. I'm fully convinced that despite the ailments of my body's aging, I'll be even happier in the future than I am now. Yes, there are ups and downs, and even serious swings. But knowing that there is a lot of happiness ahead is a very comforting thought for me.
After having gone through this list and having offered my brief comments, I see that there must be many different concepts of happiness. For me, I think there are two broad types of happiness: contentment-happiness and ecstasy-happiness.
The contentment-happiness I feel is something I've had for maybe ten years or more, and it has grown beyond my imagination, which is why I feel so much gratitude about life and living.
My most recent examples of ecstasy-happiness would include the feeling after having given a good performance on stage, the feeling I had playing with various musical groups at times, and probably most importantly the feeling every time (roughly once every six months) we get a message that our granddaughter is still cancer-free after a horrendous bout with neuroblastoma three years ago.
With this rough categorization, it becomes clear (to me anyway) that ecstasy-happiness is something people often actively seek and is generally short-lived, whereas contentment-happiness slowly happens and grows. Contentment-happiness requires long, hard work, after which it becomes a state of mind, a state of being.