I ponder the idea of happiness more than I write about it.
It's on my mind a lot, for starters, because it's a subject I assign my students to explore for a few weeks every quarter and the more they explore it, the more I do.
It hasn't always been this way for me.
For years, I distrusted the word "happiness". Much of my distrust was rooted in my study, as well as my enjoyment, of the American theater.
For example, in Death of a Salesman, the amoral, pleasure seeking, womanizing, and immaturely self-centered, shallow son of Willie Loman was named Happy. He represented to me something Arthur Miller portrays as American that I didn't identify with: Happy didn't want to face the difficulties in his family or the realities about his father or difficulties anywhere. To use a current phrase, he didn't want the difficult things to "harsh his mellow". He wanted to live in his own bubble of illusion and momentary pleasures.
For years, Happy embodied what I thought of as happiness: if a person were happy, s/he wasn't paying attention to hardships and suffering. Happiness was synonymous to me with being oblivious.
I've had good reason, though, for seeing happiness this way. Repeatedly, back in college, in my many years working with college students, at church, with friends or acquaintances, and elsewhere, I heard, and still hear, people say that they didn't want to see serious movies because they were depressing or talk about thorny problems because they just bring a person down or engage in anything very serious because, I'd often hear (and still do), the person prefers to be happy.
I thought, often, if being happy means not dealing with serious matters, not examining the painful aspects of human life, then I didn't want happiness.
But, I now think that I had underestimated happiness.
When I was younger, the thought never crossed my mind that happiness and suffering, or happiness and awareness of what's difficult, or happiness and seriousness might actually complement each other; that being happy might make me less superficial, not more superficial, more attuned to the world around me, not less so.
Could it be that the happier one is, the more one can be aware of and constructively responsive to what is unjust in the world and one's life? Could it be that happiness, not cynicism, distrust, fear, and general negativity is a key to being realistic, having one's eyes wide open, and being human in response to the world?
And could it be that during those times in my life when I said I didn't believe in happiness, when I thought happiness meant seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, that I was actually being selfish and out of tune with the realities of my life and the world at large?
Has the steadily growing happiness in my life actually been a sign of increasing maturity? Was my skepticism about happiness, while it sounded worldly and knowing, actually an indication of my immaturity?
And how much of my happiness, or lack of it, has been connected with external circumstances, and how much with my inward life, my general outlook? How much can these factors be separated? How much do they feed on each other?
I think the place to begin in writing about these questions is to look at what I think my sources of happiness are and to reflect on what I think is unique to me and what might be generally true about people, given my observations of people and what I've read. Moreover, I'd like to see if I can connect the sources of happiness in my life with being realistic, of my awareness of and response to what is painful and unjust in the small world I live in and the world at large.
We'll see how it goes.