by Joan Harvey
Catching of happiness
from Born Yesterday by Philip Larkin, quoted in Adam Phillips, One Way and Another
But the fear’s so strong it leaves you gasping
No way to last out here like this for long
‘Cause everywhere I go, I know
Everywhere I go, I know
All my happiness is gone
All my happiness is gone
It’s all gone somewhere beyond
All my happiness is gone
—David Berman, All My Happiness is Gone
It’s tied to that word we were talking about this morning—ebbrezza. There is a sort of wondrous fever that can go on, and that is very near a feeling of happiness. The Sanskrit word tapas, “ardor,” is deeply connected with this. —Roberto Calasso
In Microhabitat, a film by Korean Jeon Go-woon, a young woman who cleans houses for a living goes to an elegant bar after work each day where she sits alone and contemplatively drinks a glass of good whiskey and smokes a cigarette. When her rent goes up, rather than give up this daily bit of relief she gives up her apartment, and moves nomadically around the city, staying with friends when she can. Some of her friends in the film are morally outraged at her choice, especially as neither cigarettes nor whiskey are considered healthy. I found the film striking in showing a woman taking care of herself, in a way not socially acceptable, knowing what she needed to get through the day. Men are often filmed in bars, but we rarely see women just pausing, not unhappy, not looking for anything but time alone for themselves, in a place where, for a change, they are waited upon. I saw in this a woman’s way of allowing herself some daily respite, an achievement of a space of happiness.
While I’ve cleaned houses as a young woman, both then and now my situation is far removed from that of the young woman in the film. But on a much different scale, I too find a place at the end of each day for a break from regular life. I’ve had many knee operations and years ago a construction worker told me I should get a hot tub for general pain relief. I figured that with all the manual labor he did he knew what he was talking about and followed his advice. Now, almost every day, first thing in the morning and last thing at night, I’m able to sit alone and naked in warm water surrounded by trees, rocks, and sky. At night I look up at the stars, at the waxing or waning moon; in the day I watch the clouds and the snow on the distant mountains, and the ripples and reflections on the water. I might have a beer or glass of wine, allowing me a slight change in consciousness and increased pleasure. I could use this time to meditate, but I don’t. Mostly I look around me and daydream. Supposedly daydreaming makes people unhappy, but there are all kinds of people, and my daydreams, which are not ambitious, don’t seem deleterious. A friend of mine who looks after her mother who is confined to bed also finds time alone in her hot tub a kind of solace.
Eric Weiner in a 3 Quarks Daily essay talks of a “praxis of pleasure” and suggests that finding pleasure in one’s life is a political move against the increasing fascism we find ourselves confronted with today. Perhaps we are more inclined to be aware of happiness or moments of it because so much of life is increasingly disturbing. The omnipresence of the increasingly vicious internet, which cares only about how we appear and how we sell ourselves, may make us unhappy. It is perhaps no surprise that in a waiting room I find a thick glossy magazine called happinez. It doesn’t take much French to think “happy nose,” and from there it’s a short leap to cocaine. Obviously not their intention. They do, of course, sell products to make you happy, “good” soap and vegan knapsacks. And, in the right mood, one can enjoy the pictures of desirable places for escape, of lush plants, beautiful women by fires in the desert, and elegant pink-toned displays of candles and Buddhas. On the other hand, if these things are out of reach, or if one isn’t in an open accepting place, the magazine could feel like a sneer at one’s life. Or, perhaps, just the glossy empty magazine it is.
There are plenty of books about achieving happiness, and I’m not going to read them. A woman I know told me to buy The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, with Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. I did dutifully buy it, but haven’t read it, though I have no doubt that the instructions are worthwhile. But to follow instructions is rational, and I’m of the mind that happiness is mostly something that comes on one, like love or lust. Though in thinking about it I realize there are also individual ways we carve out happiness in our own lives.
We know when we’re happy, but because it is such a subjective state we can’t really clearly define it. The hap in happiness comes from luck or fortune. Happen of course is also from hap. As we see with much-loved celebrities who commit suicide, the ability to be happy is a matter of many things, and having the right combination of those is often a matter of chance. An unusually beautiful friend of mine with plenty of money, opportunity, freedom, and loving friends killed herself this year. Just like looks or intelligence or the talent for making it in the world, the ability to be happy is a thing some are gifted with from birth, some can achieve, and some are almost completely denied. I’m lucky enough to know that I’ve come through various kinds of pain again and again, and the experience of coming out of rough patches so often before makes it easier to know that I’ll come through again. I know that this doesn’t mean it will necessarily be the case forever. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips quotes Emerson “Our moods do not believe in each other.” But perhaps with enough experience a dark mood, while not believing in a good mood, can remember somewhere that the good mood might again exist.
Coming through something painful can also lead to happiness. I went to an extraordinarily disturbing dance performance in which I felt trapped inside the mind of someone whom I desperately didn’t want to be. By the end, dancers were bruised and bleeding. I was happy to leave but also happy to have had my mind disturbed in such a way. When I saw the dancers walking out afterwards, the formerly agonized expressions on their faces had changed to expressions of pride and pleasure in themselves.
My own happiness often seems to have to do with a kind of inner balance in which everything feels in the right place. But sometimes happiness has nothing to do with balance and everything to do with excess. Happiness doesn’t have any kind of moral value. In Sadegh Hedayat’s classic Iranian novel The Blind Owl the narrator describes a sudden sensation of great peace and happiness after he has just cut up the body of a woman and put it in a suitcase and carried it to a remote place to bury. Adam Phillips remarks that cruelty can make people feel happy, that taking drugs can make people happy, and not taking drugs can make people happy. Killing Jews or homosexuals can make some people happy. I confess that Pelosi’s finally coming round to impeachment caused me hours of relief and joy. Sometimes, too, happiness can be overwhelming, in the sense Calasso puts it above, of a wondrous fever. It’s a very bad state for getting any work done. At the times when it comes over me I think I might qualify as a mystic, if only I believed in something.
I began thinking about this a subject after a brief episode of inner conflict which I wasn’t able to resolve, but was instead able to accept as something I was perfectly able to live with. It was then that I felt a wave of happiness. Adam Phillips would be on board with this. In One Way and Another he discusses Americans’ right to the pursuit of happiness, and puts it this way: “. . . the right to pursue happiness has seduced us into pursuing happiness when we could have been doing something better.” The pursuit of happiness, Phillips says, shortcuts our ability to bear frustration, and our frustrations hold much for us that is useful. “For better and for worse, being able to feel our frustration is the precondition for becoming absorbed; when this is impossible the pursuit of happiness tends to take over.” Perhaps instead of a right to happiness we should have, he says, “the right to irresolvable conflict.”
Phillips tells us “there is something about the pursuit of happiness that sponsors and endorses addiction.” But this too may be a narrowing of the ways we can arrive at happiness. While it is chance that we’re able to be happy, I’ve come to think that it is often the ability to stop and allow a space for it and ourselves that contributes to happiness. Though perhaps this is different from pursuit. I doubt that Phillips would object to the young woman in the film spending her money on a solitary glass of whiskey and a cigarette when her rent is due. It might be called addiction, but it is more a way of coping with a situation that has no solution. She has the choice of poverty with no pleasure or poverty with some pleasure. In a set of extraordinarily limited options, she has found a way to give herself some moments of selfishness, moments of contemplation, moments of peace and pause. Audrey Lorde rightly referred to these moments as political. Part of why we enjoy having a drink with friends at the end of the day is because we have the pleasure of stopping together. The problem becomes when we seek this pleasure in the alcohol, rather than in the moments of existence.
In a week, like the others, of disasters and threats and lies, my son’s friend calls my son his “emotional support goblin” and I’m happy my son is this kind of person and that his friend has this kind of humor. There is the wonderful feel of cool stone on my bare feet and Parliament’s “Night of the Thumpasaurus.” Or Alfred Brendel playing Beethoven. Or some stupid Facebook thing that names me Queen of Shimmering Fire. Online I stumble on the piece Iso-erotic calibration. Iso means equal, and the phrase allows all kinds of imaginings. While it sounds ideal with a partner, its also could perhaps relate solely to oneself, to a state when things are in a kind of erotic inner balance. Although the phrase itself is what gives me pleasure, it also makes me think that finding that calibration takes a moment of pause, of appreciation, of perhaps attention, and as Phillips says, absorption.
Phillips advocates allowing frustration to exist and letting it transform, rather than running from it in a determined pursuit of happiness. Just as there is no objective view of happiness, there are no reliable means of obtaining it. But perhaps stopping, allowing oneself a certain space, no matter how arrived at—through meditation, or daydreaming, or work, or appreciating the insolubility of some problem, or having a good glass of whiskey alone in a bar—can at times, for some, allow a kind of inner expansion that lets happiness find its way in.