Smile, forgive, appreciate the small pleasures, unplug, exercise, make time for leisure. You’ll find these among other commonly used “guidelines” to happiness that media disseminates across the Internet: “Habits of Supremely Happy People,” “12 Things Happy People Do Differently,” and my personal favorite, “How to Be Happy: 11 Steps (with Pictures).”
I understand how some may find comfort in said pieces. “I smiled at a stranger in Trader Joe’s today … check. I appreciated the smell of fall and the sound of crunching leaves beneath my boots this morning … check.”
While I agree that many of these so-called “steps” to happiness harvest a positive lifestyle, it’s naive to believe following them to a T will result in an altogether perfect life.
I’m currently taking English Prof. Ralph Williams’s “Memoir and Social Crisis” course. We’re finishing a memoir by Primo Levi — an Italian Jew who recounts his story of survival in Auschwitz. While many of the passages are incredibly salient, our discussion last week on Levi’s perception of happiness resonated with me most.
“Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable.… In fact it is not a question of a human incapacity for a state of absolute happiness, but of an ever-insufficient knowledge of the complex nature of the state of unhappiness; so that the single name of the major cause is given to all its causes, which are composite and set out in an order of urgency. And if the most immediate cause of stress comes to an end, you are grievously amazed to see that another one lies behind; and in reality a whole series of others.”
Let’s break this down.
Our culture is obsessed with the elusive idea of happiness. In fact, one of the most infamous studies of happiness occurred over a 75-year span. Led by George Vaillant, the comprehensive study followed the lives of 268 Harvard men who were undergraduates when the study began in 1938. Though there are some apparent limitations to the study, such as the exclusion of female subjects, insights into the value we place on happiness can still be widely applied today — the most notable being personal experience over material success.
It’s a finding we’ve heard time and again, and one that we claim to understand. Yet somehow, social expectations remain, and by nature, we do our best to find and hold onto happiness by mirroring them. We become fixated on creating and maintaining the perfect image, we enter an arms race with our peers and we fall into pressures to pave the way for our dream future now, believing one misstep puts us on the fast track to failure. We are constantly reaching for and infallibly falling short of an imagined nirvana. In doing so, we wear thin our relationships with others and with ourselves. I, for one, am guilty of both.
Though we continue striving for unreasonable cultural standards, I think we can all agree that it’s fundamentally impossible to uphold them and be blissfully happy at all times. But Levi is right — we often don’t consider that it’s just as impossible to be wholly unhappy, either.
What I think Levi meant is that while lows are inevitable, resilience is a choice. Not only that, but we as humans experience unhappiness at the capacity to which we are able. Amid the merciless conditions of the camps — unfathomable to ordinary people — Levi found happiness in giving Italian lessons. In doing so, exhibiting that even in circumstances beyond understanding, perfect unhappiness remains as unattainable as its counterpart, perfect happiness.
Levi also suggests that even if we overcome what we believe to be the cause of our unhappiness, surely more lies beyond it. We could follow the guidelines put forth in every “happiness how-to” article, yet the vast majority of outside factors — both tragedies and blessings — remain out of our control.
Vaillant simplifies his findings in his own words by saying: “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points to a straightforward five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’ ” In a fast-paced culture where productivity is the means to every end, we easily forget to pause and be present. We have become consumed by the fear of wasting time, when actually, the only time lost lies in our inability to accept that it’s OK to reject the notion of perfect happiness. I think Levi would agree.
Sara Morosi can be reached at email@example.com.