“Happiness is never grand.”
-Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
I hear the word “happy” bounced around a lot these days. The majority of my students think “being happy” is the primary goal in life, and most of the rest think it’s one of the main goals. The internet has a lot of articles and pretty pictures and recommendations about “Doing what makes you happy” or “10 Things To Do Right Now That Will Make You Happy.” Harrumph, say I. Look at the etymology (back to etymonline.com, and down the rabbit hole we go!): from “hap,” “chance,” like haphazard or perhaps (“through chance”) or happen or mishap. To be happy is just to be lucky: it’s what you feel when you drop your phone but the screen doesn’t crack, or you hit all the green lights, or you wake up at midnight realizing you left the stove on, but the power’s gone out, too, so your house isn’t on fire. And that’s nice, but can’t we do better?
I like “joy.” It comes from a long line of words that all mean “joy” or “to rejoice,” but might, according to my source, be related to the Old Irish guaire. Guaire means “noble.” Couldn’t we have a kind of joy like that? A joy that isn’t the result of things having happened in our favor, but that comes from something inside, something we’ve practiced, something we are? Something in the way we go into life? Disce guadere, says Seneca. Practice joy.
That reminds me of something from the Dalai Lama. Way back when, we started out as hunter-gatherers: we went out to find what could keep us alive, and stripped its fruit or dug its roots or stuck it with a spear, and brought it home. Later we became farmers: we stayed in one place, we thought about seasons and water and soil. We grew what we needed. The Dalai Lama says that, when it comes to happiness, most of us are still hunter gatherers. We look for the girlfriend or the position or the degree or the acknowledgement that will make us happy. That kind of game is zero sum: when Natalie Portman’s with me, she’s not with you. (Natalie, if you’re reading this, Oh. My. God). But there’s another option. We could be farmers. We could plant kindness, equanimity, awareness, connection, and watch it grow into joy.
I wonder if we latch onto happiness as a kind of last resort: when we’re not sure what to believe in, we tell ourselves we can believe in this. Whatever we think of our place in the galaxy, or of a God’s specific doctrinal love for a certain sect, Stephen Hawking says the “human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.” Faced with that, what else can we believe in? Well, let’s think a minute. I say kindness. I say compassion. I say connection, purpose, giggling, helping (even though it won’t help forever), striving, reaching, hurting, hoping, loving. I say now.
Maybe even joy isn’t as high as we could reach. Maybe none of the things I just said stick for you, but could you plant some seeds, and see what grows? And see what it takes to nourish them?