“A lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth.” –George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
Distilling a complex notion such as happiness down to its essence, its core, its soul if you will, is tricky business. The advent of undertaking such a task can seem especially daunting once we consider that the methodology that our society favors in order to define the world we live in, comes to us by way of science. Through this methodology, we learn to define the plethora of objects, both animate and inanimate, in terms of essential observable characteristics in contrast with other things whose essential characteristics differ from those currently being observed; basically, we learn about something by defining what it is, as well as by defining what it is not. This works great when trying to define that which is concrete, but this method falls horrendously short when trying to define abstract concepts like happiness. Happiness is one such thing that, even if we could know with a degree of certainty what it isn’t, we don’t necessarily learn anything useful about what it is.
With that being said, this hasn’t created any shortage of postulations on the matter. As we can see by perusing the general psychology and self-help sections at any local bookstore, happiness seems to be in great demand, yet short in supply. If you were to walk through a local bookstore today, you could very easily get the impression that no one is happy, not even the authors of the so-called self-help books; if they were, they wouldn’t need to sell more books simply to buy more things they don’t need. So, if we can’t define happiness because it is abstract, and the so-called spiritual gurus and modern psychology can’t tell us what happiness is, how are we supposed to know? We may never be able to tell what it is exactly, but the quote at the top of this paper does a very good job of saying what it is not. At first glance, it seems as though George Bernard Shaw is simply saying that a lifetime of happiness is a worthless and miserable existence. At least, that’s what I thought upon first reading it. It would seem as though it isn’t possible to glean anything about the nature of happiness from this quote, if Shaw is saying that happiness indeed does equal misery.
I think many, if not all people would agree that happiness is at least to some extent, some kind of state of having achieved a form of stasis or stability in one’s life. Most people would use the word contentment to describe such a state, the Dalai Lama, one of the wisest men on the planet would most certainly agree; however, what if this stasis were taken to an extreme? This would no longer be some kind of homeostatic bliss, but rather a soul draining stagnation. If one were to live “a lifetime of happiness” as Shaw sees it, then one would want for nothing and thus would strive for nothing.
Most of us can find at least some measure of contentment in our lives, we may have a fairly decent job that provides for our needs, and isn’t too arduous to boot. We may have a close-knit circle of family and friends in whom we place our trust, and we may even have a special someone, and the relationship might even be going very well… but if you stop to think about the state of your life, you may notice that even though all of these things have fallen into place for you, you most certainly wouldn’t consider yourself entirely happy. It is in our nature to strive for that which we do not have. If we simply lived in a state of perpetual happiness, or dare I say a false sense of bliss, we would merely be handing ourselves over to the beast that is stagnation. When people become stagnant in their lives, they often become depressed regardless of how their situation may seem from an objective point of view. The problem is, that perspective is simply that, perspective. What Shaw seems to be saying, and what I happen to agree with, is that so long as we are striving for something, we are never stagnant; therefore the possibility of happiness can exist. The moment we forsake the journey, is the moment the path becomes useless.
Perhaps it may seem futile to chase after happiness, or perhaps we should simply stop looking at happiness as a goal to be achieved, but rather a continual process to embrace. Typically, in Western society, we tend to think of happiness is some sort of blissful state in which there can be no stormy weather. This idea however, may be the problem with our conception of what happiness actually is. I think Vivian Green said it best when she said, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” So as we contemplate happiness, let us take a cue from Dick VanDyke and go singing in the rain, because as long as we’re moving forward, rain or not, there will always be something to look forward to.