There are a lot of unhappy people in the world. Why? Could it be different? Is happiness a matter of personal responsibility? Do we have a duty to be happy? If so, should we feel guilty when we are not happy, a guiltiness that will, presumably, make us even more miserable?
By David Brazier
The word happy is related to words like perhaps and happen. The word ‘hap’ has disappeared from the English language, but you can find it in Shakespeare. This suggests a close relationship between happiness and chance. Happiness happens, perhaps.
Philosophy may not be able to guarantee happiness, but it may give it greater possibilities. Like growing flowers: you can’t make them bloom, but you can cultivate your garden in such a way that they have a better chance.
Actually, I am inclined to think that the word happiness covers a number of different things. For simplicity, let me divide them into three levels.
There are magic moments. These are events where something takes me out of myself. It could be something quite small. A friend described her delight on seeing that the hen had laid an egg. It could be something that provokes a pleasant memory. It could be the smell of a rose. The key element here is that one is taken out of oneself, transported, as it were. Such transports of delight are one kind of happiness. We cannot make them happen, but we can stop screening them out.
There is contentment. This comes in various kinds, contentment with what one has, contentment with the life one has lived, contentment with the future that probably awaits. We might think that this form of happiness is more under our own control, that one can decide to be content with what one has. There is some truth in this, but it is by no means an absolute truth. Things happen and sometimes we face terrible setbacks. I was interested to read recently in the Buddhist text called Majjhima Nikaya that even the Buddha was not always satisfied. He says that when he gives teachings and nobody takes any notice, he is not satisfied, yet, even though not satisfied, he is not dismayed. This is a subtle distinction, dissatisfied but not dismayed. It suggested that he had natural feelings of disappointment when things go awry, but yet had a deeper stability. This leads me to my third level.
There is faith. Faith comes from spiritual experience. Genuine spiritual experience leaves behind a trace of certainty, a sense that “All shall be well” no matter what. Even though we grow old, become sick and die, all shall be well. Even though cruel and terrible things are done, all shall be well. Even if the universe is completely consumed in flames, all shall be well. This is the most profound kind of happiness, but, like both the other kinds, it is ultimately a grace. There is no technique by which one can make sure that such a spiritual experience occurs or that such certain faith be planted in one’s heart.
The Buddha’s problem, I sense, from my reading of the text, was that he could give teachings, sharing his understanding with those who were interested, but the difficult part was that such teaching did not necessarily penetrate. It stayed on the surface. The disciple might give assent to the teaching, but it was not in her blood and bones. Only experience does that. Great sages like Buddha are skilled in bringing the matter home by alluding to experience that the disciple already has. This is why they use so many stories, metaphors and parables. Grace has already happened to us, many times. Just we have sloughed it off. One day the matter will hit home in a more profound way. When that happens, one experiences the riches that have always been and always will be, and then there is faith. Then one realises that the three levels are substantially the same, magic moments are simply glimpses of it while spiritual awakening is the same magic established and at home in one’s heart.
Don’t Close the Door
The moral, therefore, perhaps, is to cherish the little things. Too often when bitterness is established, the little glories get screened out. Let them in. Even the most unhappy person has moments of grace. The trick is not to deny the sadness or pain when it comes, but to let in the light as well to whatever degree is possible at the time. I remember once long ago I had several melancholic years. I would stand and look at a glorious sunset and feel nothing. But I still looked. As information I knew that this was beautiful but did not feel it, but I also trusted that the dark time would pass and even the misery that I felt must be for some reason. Even it too was part of the bigger scheme of things. Then, one day, after a long passage of time, sunsets and rainbows became beautiful again and the magic of them was even greater than before.