If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.
Eric Hoffer (25 Jul 1902 – 21 May 1983)
This apparent oxymoron bears scrutiny, for it has application beyond itself. But first, let’s focus on the statement as such. Think about it: does anybody consciously say to himself that he is on a search for happiness? Money, love, career … sure, but happiness?
If so, that individual is on my view deeply confused about the nature of happiness and very likely never to succeed at anything except unhappiness over repeated failure.
Because happiness is, like that holy grail of external valorization now fashionably yclept self-esteem, in my view not something one can ‘go after’ and gain from others but something that is very interior and the direct result of doing a lot of other things. Each is an end (in the Aristotelian sense of a τέλος telos ‘purpose’) that emerges as a byproduct of doing and living ‘right’.
The problem is that ’happiness’ covers such a broad swath of meaning. Can I unerringly define for myself just what happiness is … for me, today? Surely this ‘search’ must begin with a definition, or definitions, of happiness that apply to me. I’m old enough to appreciate that, having reasonable health, a place to live and enough food to eat, happiness for me is not more money, a tonier place to sleep at night, caviar for daily appetizers, fancier threads, more travel to exotic climes … the usual suspects in this kind of roundup. It would be an ever receding, an ever unattainable goal.
How can you search for something you can’t even define?
I don’t honestly know what I would in fact specifically search for if I were to set out on an affirmative search for happiness, and that would in and of itself no doubt prove sufficiently frustrating that it might well bring on the unhappiness whereof Hoffer writes. It’s clear from this blog that some of my happiest moments are when I am writing or reading – and these are attainable goals, well within my financial and intellectual grasp, and not actions or states for which a great search is required on my part. In other words, any ‘search’ for that kind of happiness would for me be largely supererogatory – I pretty much have that particular happiness at hand, and it comforts when the darkness impinges.
Maybe there just is no one ‘happiness’ you can pin down like a dead butterfly to a cork board but merely a kind of flitting situational contentment, a version of the old Roman carpe diem from Horace Odes 1.11:
carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero
seize the day and don’t worry too much about tomorrow
Can you really do much better than that with something as mobile, as elusively itinerant as happiness?
Or is that too facile? a reductive copout?
I’ll go with what I have.
I’m searching no more!