Is “Being” Happy (or Sad or Anything Else) a Misconception?

How often has someone or other said, “I want to be happy” or “I want you to be happy”? But what if there were no such thing? What if, instead, what we call “being happy” were really a state of awareness of a happiness that is always there? What if all emotions existed eternally (or at least beyond any measurement that we are capable of), inside and outside of us, and, instead of “having” them or “being” them, we simply heard them with varying clarity at different times in our lives? This is not an original idea; I think of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha listening to the river. I think of Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” But it is an idea that perhaps has been forgotten or brushed aside.

It would help explain why people are capable of feeling multiple and contradictory emotions. It’s possible to feel happiness and sadness, anger and forgiveness, fear and calm—and maybe all of these are always there, just fading in and out of prominence in our minds. Yes, we do something with them. We choose whether to entertain them, whether and how to act on them. But in some sense they exist beyond us; they are not ours, though our responses are.

This is a short post, but the thoughts continue. I have a lot happening at once: the wonderful start of the school year, the upcoming trip in October, and even right now, this weekend, a few events in tight succession. So this is all for now.

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7 Comments

  1. I wondered myself awhile ago whether happiness was an effect created by a meeting of certain conditions or personal requirements.
    This, of course, undervalues the importance of this to our senses of self-worth and being.
    The products of reason fall far short of our actuality/

    Reply
    • That is interesting. I think that’s somewhat the opposite of what I’m saying here, but I was in a rush and explained it only briefly. More another time.

      Reply
      • We are allowed to think at variance. It’s good and perfectly acceptable. You are far more honed and practiced than I’ve now become.

      • Hooray for variance of thought, and thank you for your comments! I will reply more when I am back at my computer.

      • here is another view, by one of my favourite poets, Rutger Copland
        What is happiness

        Because happiness is a memory
        it exists because at the same time
        the reverse is also true

        I mean this: because happiness
        reminds us of happiness it pursues
        us and therefore we flee from it

        and vice versa, I mean this: that we
        look for happiness because it
        hides in our memories and

        vice versa, I mean this: happiness
        must exist somewhere at some time because
        we remember it and it remembers us.

      • Wow. This poem is great. I love the triple reverse/vice versa, the triple “I mean this,” and the ending.

      • He was one of The Netherlands top writers, as well as being neuro-scientist. There is a part of the poem that is almost word for word from Augustine’s Confessions, chapter 10 on Memory.

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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