The Art of Living


There are not many more evocative words in the English language than the above. It is simultaneously simplistic in concept and impossible to define; it is used often and sought after even moreso, from the everyday “I’m happy to see you” to the ever-elusive “I wish I was happy” on through the derisive “I hope you’re happy”. We use the very idea of it as a weapon, as a motivational tool, as a benchmark for where our lives should be as compared to where they are. We always know it’s right around the corner, and yet, so far from grasp that we sometimes wonder if we’ve ever even understood the most rudimentary elements of it. It is universal, spanning aeons, cultures, counter-cultures. Soviet-era patriotic duty. Free love. The egress to the New World, to the West, to the mall — all in pursuit of this same ideal, the same desire for completion of self, of satisfaction with existence.

Buddhism teaches that the root of all suffering is desire; that the thing which prevents our attaining that perfect happiness is, frankly, our want for that happiness, from which springs our inability to attain it simply through a driving need to have it. This reflects into material substitution — if I could have that car, I would be happy. That new job. That raise I’ve been working for. Another child to care for. We manifest desire in every aspect of our lives because it is so clear to us, at any given moment, that the missing piece to our extended temporal puzzle is within our grasp and yet ephemeral, dependent on outside factors that we cannot control; by this mechanism, we release ourselves from personal responsibility to our own feelings. We create a labyrinthine system of checks and balances within our own psyche, forging a complex web of why exactly we know that happiness should be within our reach while at the same time excusing the fact that we haven’t yet tasted it — forgetting, perhaps, that we have, and that the hunger we know is not the result of some innate voracity, but founded on the principles of our own experience.

The key to recognizing our own happiness, I think, is the separation of ‘desire’ from ‘require’. We assume that things which would help us be happy, attainable or otherwise, are necessary components to that happiness — that without them, we are incomplete, and thereby unhappy. We forego (and forget) the accomplishments we’ve amassed on the path so far, eschewing what we thought would make us happy for whatever newer, shinier version of our idealised emergence is on the horizon. With this trend set into us from an early age, with the assistance of media blitz, schoolyard one-upmanship, and a natural competitive drive, we create a system in which our happiness is, by definition, forever beyond the furthest reaches of our attempts. Through breaking ourselves of this cycle and grouping our desires into a recognized category of such, we become more aware of what we’ve done to be where we are — we are more able to appreciate what we have while still recognizing that there is still more that we may want, but do not need.

By this simple breaking of the inlaid categorization (see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), we can establish attainable goals, separate from loftier ideals, and separate from prior victories giving us our present happiness. We begin to recognize that achieving happiness and increasing happiness are not the same thing; that we can be happy while pursuing things to make us more happy. It is not a black-and-white comparison, stark and cold, but a gradient effluence of endless satisfaction which can flow greater, flow stronger, and be none the less for its capacity to grow. As we would consider a sapling growing into a great oak over time, so can we see our own fulfillment grow and mature into something greater than it could be — but the infant tree is not made nonexistent by its youth, rather, it is rendered all the more important as a necessary component to the nearly endless potential bursting from its verdancy with each rise and fall of the seasons.

And like this tree, so too are our whims of emotion subject to tides and time and seasons. Events may wither our joy, but it is important to remember it for what it was, that when the light shines upon us again we can feel the warmth and expand upon a history of extant satisfaction. It may wither, but it need not die. Though the frost scours the leaves from its branches, the tree renews itself; it does not shrink, nor lose its capacity to remain beautiful — rather, it spawns new growth, new life from that which was culled, becoming something more than it ever had the ability to be upon the point of its brush with winter. As we feel our own emotions fall, so too should we recall that we have only greater things to attain from the lessons we learn by this crucible. So, too, may we grow with each season, that our souls may stand firm through all things which would weather us. So, too, are we able to be renewed not just to a state once known, but to heights unreachable without the apparent setbacks which brought us to where we are.

So, what is the point of this little ramble? Some might say that it is encouragement, that I am telling you to be happy. Some might say it’s a needless treatise on etheric concepts which has no real meaning. For my part, I do it simply so that someone reading it may realise that they are happier than they thought, despite all trials and tribulations.

When was the last time you faced yourself in the introspective mirror of the mind, and felt happiness?

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  1. Skittles
    Posted 22 October, 2009 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    You have such great clarity when you talk about the rise and fall of happiness. It touched me, and I could feel myself become more humble by your words, thank you.

  2. Boy
    Posted 22 October, 2009 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    What does it really mean to be happy though? Why not just be content?

    Aside from… well, to be content is to not desire to change anything. For the most part. Equivocally, contentment is to not desire change, as that would disrupt being content. Not the point

    The point is, to be happy is to not actively desire a change in the way things are. The human condition (from the way you put it) is to always desire more. What I’m arguing for, is how can one know peace, and stillness in this lifetime? I know, we all get brief flashes of happiness, and contentment amid all of this. But, to use Buddhism here, our own Tanha gets in the way of things. Life is dukkha, and it isn’t until we rid our lives of tanha will we be free of suffering.

    But, I so strongly dislike the meaning of that idea. I enjoy life far too much, and the desires my body and mind creates for me to give it all up

    So, i guess, in a way, that might be the happiness and contentment you were urging us to look for

    But what do i know? 😛

  3. Posted 22 October, 2009 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    I think that contentment and happiness are very similar things, but I will contend that there is a slight difference between the two; while contentment is a satisfying state, I believe that it lacks something that happiness helps to provide — the drive to pursue something better.

    You claim that contentment is to not desire change; I believe that happiness includes a desire for change on a level that I would consider necessary to continuing meaningful personal growth.

    Of course, whether that’s a distinction *you* care to make (or one worth considering along your path) is for you to decide on your own.

  4. Boy
    Posted 23 October, 2009 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Since my other amazingly well thought out post didn’t…. post

    Here goes! again

    What, in happieness, does it give a drive foreward to find more happieness? I know when I’m happy, I want it to stay that way. Because i like being happy. Who doesn’t? The problem is, in happieness, I am also content. I don’t want to do things to upset this nice little equilibrium. What in there would cause a person to drive forward?

    Sure, there are some who are happy but not content, and they desire to drive forward. But that happens rarely, and often has some kind of catastrophe to actually start driving a person forward.

    To continue, or even start meaningful growth, there must be a desire to grow. Why grow, when everything is hunky dory?

  5. Posted 23 October, 2009 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    I don’t think the two are as closely related as you put forth. While enjoying happiness, I am capable of recognizing that there are things which could increase that happiness — from whence springs the desire to attain those things. Contentment is a release of care based on satisfaction, a sort of positive-spin ennui that tells us that since everything is “hunky dory” there is no need for change. Happiness, I think, abhors that same lack of initiative because it is so founded on having accomplished your way this far, and still recognizing that there are things left to gain.

  6. Boy
    Posted 23 October, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I think the confusion comes in our different viewpoints on happiness and contentment. It seems to be rather throwing off our argument

  7. Posted 23 October, 2009 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Agreed. The first step in any logical debate is the defining of terms used in the debate.

    For what it’s worth, I did at one time hold a view very similar to yours, and in fact, I was happy to be content (if that makes sense) and had the same “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” outlook from there. It’s only recently that I’ve developed what I believe is a refined view of each concept separately.

  8. Boy
    Posted 26 October, 2009 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps in time my views will change.

    Well, they will change anyways, but its up in the air as to what they will change to

  9. Angel Sharp
    Posted 13 November, 2009 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I heard it said somewhere that life is like lemonade. The idea is to keep everyone’s cup filled, but to do that, you have to remember to fill your pitcher. I like this analogy because it’s less infectious than the flu one, and much more delicious. It also allows connection with “When life gives you lemons…..”

    Anyhow. Contentment would be having your cup full of lemonade. It’s nice, and you don’t want it to change, but in the end it will. You can either wait for the pitcher to come back around, so you can be content for a bit again, or you can upgrade to a pitcher of happiness, work towards keeping yours full and in that, end up filling other cups as well.