How Much of our Happiness Depends on
Circumstances Beyond our Control?
Happiness is relative. Just as the boiling point of water changes according to the atmospheric pressure, so the boiling point of happiness changes according to the pressure of external circumstances. In passing through bad circumstances to better ones, one feels the external pressure lightened, while the mind still retains the power of resistance appropriate to the former situation: and there arises the boiling point of happiness. But if the worse circumstances weren’t fresh in memory, the better ones might pass unnoticed.
Just think how happy you would be if you lost everything you own right now, and then got it back five minutes later.
[Samuel Johnson is probably the most famous and most loved unhappy man who ever lived. Mrs. Hester Thrale, a close friend who became estranged from Johnson after her second marriage, recounts the following story of Johnson in her memoirs.]
Mr. Johnson did not like any one who said they were happy, or who said any one else was so. “It is all cant (he would cry), the dog knows he is miserable all the time.” A friend whom he loved exceedingly, told him on some occasion notwithstanding, that his wife’s sister was really happy, and called upon the lady to confirm his assertion, which she did somewhat roundly as we say, and with an accent and manner capable of offending Mr. Johnson, if her position had not been sufficient, without anything more, to put him in very ill humour. “If your sister-in-law is really the contented being she professes herself Sir (said he), her life gives the lie to every research of humanity; for she is happy without health, without beauty, without money, and without understanding.” This story he told me himself; and when I expressed something of the horror I felt, “The same stupidity (said he) which prompted her to extol felicity she never felt, hindered her from feeling what shocks you on repetition. I tell you, the woman is ugly, and sickly, and foolish, and poor; and would it not make a man hang himself to hear such a creature say, it was happy?”
The happiest people seem to be those who have no particular reason for being happy except that they are so.
W. R. Inge
[In 1933, after seven months as the (Manchester) Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, Malcolm Muggeridge returned to England in a state of utter disillusionment. On his way home he connected with his family in the Swiss resort town of Montreux, just weeks after Hitler had achieved dictatorial powers.]
Montreux Station in the very early morning waiting for Kitty seemed about as far away from the USSR and Oumansky [the press censor], from Berlin and the storm-troopers out in the streets, as it was possible to be. The coffee so hot and fragrant, the rolls so crisp, the butter so creamy; the waiter so obliging, his hair so sleek and black, his face so sallow, his coat so fresh and spotlessly white. Everything and everyone so solid and so durable. Even Kitty’s train, roaring in exactly on time, was part of the omnipresent orderliness.
We extravagantly hired a car to take us to Rossiniere, where our chalet was, climbing up the still snow-covered valley under a blue sky and in bright sunshine. I took stock of our new son, very robust and hearty, and renewed my acquaintance with the older one. There we were, reunited, in the seemingly secure peace and security of the Canton de Vaud, with the rumblings of the wrath to come that I had unmistakably heard, well out of earshot. It was a moment of great happiness; as though, having found each other, we should never again be separated. As though, having found a blue sky, there would be no more grey ones; breathing in this fresh, clear mountain air, no more smog.
Such moments of happiness, looked back on, shine like beacons, lighting up past time, and making it glow with a great glory. Recollecting them, I want to jump up and shout aloud in gratitude at having been allowed to live in this world, sharing with all its creatures the blessed gift of life. Alienation is to be isolated and imprisoned in the tiny dark dungeon of the ego; happiness to find the world a home and mankind a family, to see our earth as a nest snugly perched in the universe, and all its creatures as fellow-participants in the warmth and security it offers. Its very components, the very twigs and mud of which it is made, likewise participating. Then, indeed, all the world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour, infinity grasped in one’s hand. So, such moments of happiness comprehend a larger ecstasy, and our human loves reach out into the furthermost limits of time and space, and beyond, expressing the lovingness that is at the heart of all creation.
Real happiness stands outside time, it is part of eternity.
Fr. Hubert Van Zeller
Not long after [his 89 year-old father’s death in a fire that the elderly smoker seems to have accidentally started, Northrop] Frye experienced a curiously radiant personal vision which seemed to eradicate any harsh view of death. Frye remembers waking up [at the Guild Inn] and opening the curtains to find a blazing vision of snow and ice. Icicles hung down on two branches outside. On one sat a cardinal and on the other, a blue jay. It was a perfect balance but had no particular meaning. Frye confessed, “If I could have died then, I would have died a happy man.”
John Ayre (from Northrop Frye, A Biography)
Happiness is the most difficult of all things to convey. Tolstoy, I should say, comes nearest; for instance, in his description in War and Peace of Natasha’s visit to the huntsman’s house; how she and the others listened to stories, then danced, then rode back in their sledge through the frosty starlit night.
Human beings expect immortal satisfactions from mortal conditions, and lasting and perfect happiness in the midst of universal change. To encourage this expectation, to persuade mankind that the ideal is realisable in this world after a few preliminary changes in external conditions, is the distinguishing mark of all charlatans.
Knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness.
[Merula was the wife of the British actor Alec Guinness, whom she married in 1938.]
Towards the end of the war, Merula told her brother Eusty “that our month [with her husband and her son Matthew] together in Middle Lodge was worth the whole of the rest of my life—almost—and one or two days or weeks have been as important as whole years: length of time doesn’t really count.”
Thoughts about Happiness
Allow children to be happy in their own way, for what better way will they ever find?
Mankind are always happy for having been happy; so that if you make them happy now, you make them happy twenty years hence by the memory of it.
Happiness is a byproduct of liking what you do.
If a man has important work, and enough leisure and income to enable him to do it properly, he is in possession of as much happiness as is good for any of the children of Adam.
Richard H. Tawney
Happiness is a how, not a what; a talent, not an object.
Two University of Minnesota researchers claim to have discovered that an individual’s capacity for happiness is genetically pre-set. And while day-to-day experience will cause it to fluctuate, sooner or later it always returns to its programmed level.
Happiness is a monstrosity. Those who pursue it are punished.
The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.
Happiness is a mystery like religion, and should never be rationalized.
G. K. Chesterton
Play writing gave [George Bernard Shaw] ‘moments of inexplicable happiness’ and when he tried to explain it to himself he was taken ‘out of the realm of logic into that of magic and miracle.’
Michael Holroyd (biographer)
Happiness may be defined as the satisfaction that continues to be satisfactory.
Happiness is not smug, peaceful or contented. It doesn’t bring peace but a sword. It shakes you like rattling dice. It breaks your speech and darkens your sight. Happiness is stronger than oneself and sets its palpable foot upon one’s neck.
(from G. K. Chesterton’s letter to his fiancÚ)
Happiness must be a form of contemplation.
Happiness lies in conquering one’s enemies, in driving them in front of oneself, in taking their property, in savouring their despair, in outraging their wives and daughters.
Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords.
The happiest time in any man’s life is when he is in red-hot pursuit of a dollar with a reasonable prospect of overtaking it.
Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.
Merely wanting to be happy is like merely wanting to be fit—totally ineffectual unless you go into training.
The belief that youth is the happiest time of life is founded upon a fallacy. The happiest person is the person who thinks the most interesting thoughts, and we grow happier as we grow older.
William Lyon Phelps
Youth is vivid rather than happy.
The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
Robert Louis Stevenson
To be happy you must organize your time around the things that are true priorities in your life, and not allow the things that matter most to be at the mercy of those that matter least.
To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.
He that has no one to love or confide in, has little to hope. He wants the radical principle of happiness.
To be happy you need community, authenticity, and energy.
If we could have just one thing, it would be energy.
John F. Kennedy
To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.
Always leave something to wish for; otherwise you will be miserable from your very happiness.
We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.
I have known some quite good people who were unhappy, but never an interested person who was unhappy.
A. C. Benson
Zest is the most universal and distinctive mark of happy men.
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