Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What is happiness?

A reader sends in a recent piece from the New York Times, an author reflecting on happiness. Read the whole thing (it's the length of a regular OpEd) but here are some sentences that caught my eye:
I was similarly miserable throughout the happiest summer I ever spent in New York City.

I wonder, sometimes, whether it is a perversity peculiar to my own mind or just the common lot of humanity to experience happiness mainly in retrospect.

We do each have a handful of those moments, the ones we only take out to treasure rarely, like jewels, when we looked up from our lives and realized: “I’m happy.” One of the last times this happened to me, inexplicably, I was driving on Maryland’s unsublime Route 40 with the window down, looking at a peeling Burger King billboard while Van Halen played on the radio. But this kind of intense and present happiness is heartbreakingly ephemeral; as soon as you notice it you dispel it, like blocking yourself from remembering a word by trying too hard to retrieve it.

Perhaps the reason we so often experience happiness only in hindsight, and that chasing it is such a fool’s errand, is that happiness isn’t a goal in itself but is only an aftereffect. It’s the consequence of having lived in the way that we’re supposed to — by which I don’t mean ethically correctly so much as just consciously, fully engaged in the business of living.

I agree with a lot of his sentiments. In some ways, I think I'm lucky (or perceptive, or something) to appreciate my happy moments while they are going on rather than only in retrospect. But there are also a lot of times when, if you asked me how are you doing, I don't think happy would be the first word out of my mouth (e.g. organic chemistry classes in college) but I now recall quite fondly as some of the best times in my life. Part of this may be nostalgia, for I know that I will never be in organic chemistry classes in college again, while time with my family, games at Fenway, etc. are all on-going events in my life. That certainly doesn't mean I don't appreciate the latter, but I think there is a different kind of happiness one experiences in the midst of something, compared to when you look back on something that is gone, never to come back.