January 24, 2012

Happiness (or the blog post that is too long and wordy)

Pilgrim Inn by Elizabeth Goudge

 I just read this book and enjoyed it. The writing was decent, but not spectacular. I can see why this is not an enduring classic, since it is quiet and wordy. And there was entirely too much that was simply understood by looks and too little dialogue at times. But maybe everyone else in the world is more observant than I am and actually DOES communicate by looks and I need to practice penetrating glances more.

What I really enjoyed about this book written in 1948 in England was the plot and basis of the story. Of course, there were various sub-plots and themes, but I don't feel like getting into them. The main theme to me was finding or creating our own happiness. One of the largest plots was a woman who was in love with her husbands nephew actually. I know, it might sound weird, but in the book they were of similar ages and it wasn't that weird. And these two people were in love and planning on being married once the husband finally granted the divorce. Then the mother-in-law steps in and nixes this and tells the wife to get back to her husband and kids. The book happens about 7 years later. There is still a lingering love and attraction between the two which makes both of their lives miserable. This book is about them letting go, setting each other free, and getting on with their lives. And through doing that, the woman realizes that she has spent the last 7 years wallowing in what might have been and sacrificing her families happiness to her resentment of having to give that up even though she stayed with her husband. And she realized that in doing that to her family, she was basically rendering her previous sacrifice, of not pursuing the divorce, null and void.

I think this struck me so much because this is a theme rarely found in modern books. Most contemporary books make relationships happy or not happy and if it isn't happy, you need out. Occasionally you come across one where they work out their differences and make it work. But I don't think I have ever come across a book written in the last 25 years, in a first world nation, where a woman denies her "one true love" to make her marriage work. And then settles pretty happily into the marriage. Maybe I am just not reading the right books. Still, in today's society, if you love someone that you aren't married to, then you are definitely encouraged to make the sacrifice of your families happiness to pursue this love because it IS your life after all and you only get one shot at it.

What interests me is how this idea of happiness being a circumstance or situation came about. IE You will just make yourself and your family miserable if you stay in this loveless marriage, so, quick! go find love! Rather than, you are married to a decent person, happiness is there if you are willing to honestly give it a go. Quite often people look back on the days when parents chose your spouse or when marriage wasn't so much the culmination of a happy relationship as an absolute necessity so you could move out of your parents house. We think how much happier we are now because we can choose our spouse or be single if we want. Choices.We are better off now. But are we happier?

On purely an observational, non-scientific level, I don't think people are happier today. Since there is no effective way to compare today's happiness with the happiness of 100-200 years ago, no one can prove me wrong. (I like points like this.) It is pretty easy to see that situations, at least in our country, ARE better or "happier" than they were years ago. We have antibiotics (less death), education (more knowledge), better work rules and regulations (less death, higher wages), women's rights (less sexual discrimination, more choice for women), more racial equality (less hate and discrimination, more opportunities) easier communication (more connected to families, friends), easier transportation (wider horizons), and all kinds of technology to make life easier (more time to spend in leisure or knowledge pursuits). Yet with all these advances in the quality of life, I don't think we have seen an equal increase in people's satisfaction with life or happiness.

Is it possible that throughout time there is a certain amount of misery and discontentment that is in the world at any given time? Sort of like matter not being created and destroyed-- there is always the same percentage of miserable creatures in this world..... I doubt it. If happiness is our own construct, each person has an equal shot at happiness right? This theory would be laughable to someone from a privileged first class life looking on a persons life where there is death, abuse, suffering, drug addiction, and hunger on a daily basis. Yet there are whole countries or regions that live in those conditions and I think it would ludicrous to say there is no happiness in the entire population indigenous to that area.

If people can be happy in a war torn nation, in starvation, in daily desperation, happiness is obviously not a situation or circumstance. I don't pretend that that people in third world nations want to stay as they are and wouldn't jump at the chance to experience peace and excess. But looking at America today, or any other first world nation, I think we can safely say happiness is not guaranteed by advantages. This is nothing new. People have known that the rich, "who have everything" suffer from depression just as much or more than poor, underprivileged people.

So how could society as a whole embrace this idea that happiness lies in attainment, which is in our grasp if we just make the right choices? The American Dream. Higher education is the fast track to success which is where happiness lives. True love is perfection. Women will naturally be happier if they aren't tied to the home. People in general are happier if they are free to choose.

I don't in ANYWAY want to give the impression that I am against personal choice. I think it is the most precious American right we have. I am glad to have rights as a woman. I am thankful I was able to pursue higher education. But to portray them as what makes you happy is silly. And I think it is what encourages depression and dissatisfaction in today's world. When happiness is something we should be able to reach through good choices, happiness in life is suddenly an outer failure rather than something that can be fixed by changing our mindset. And being an outer failure it is something that needs to be corrected by changing life. If changing life is out of the question, people feel like failures, feel like they are settling, feel like they are being held back from reaching their full potential by the things that surround them in their life. Which leads to resentment which, if properly fed, leads to selfishness and greed. And there will never be happiness in that direction.

Like in this book, is it not possible that happiness is easier to come by through accepting the limitations in our life and learning to be content, feel fulfilled, and be thankful even in our less than perfect life? Why would we saddle people with the idea that they need to ever be attaining, choosing, and changing their lives? Sounds like a recipe for a nervous breakdown, not a good life.

I feel like I am now writing a dissertation on happiness rather than a blog post. I didn't mean to write this much and I won't be offended if you gave up trying to follow my mental gymnastics 8 paragraphs back. Happiness is such a basic human emotion that it becomes fascinating to think about when people misconstrue it to be some huge litmus test of life. Either a validation or condemnation of life choices. And while we are so busy fussing about choices and expectations we pretty much take up so much mind space, we can't even see the little bits of happiness, of contentment, fulfillment, and  things to be thankful for floating around our peripheral vision. We think older people are wise mainly because they have changed their focus from attaining and petty human nature to those things that have always been hanging out in their peripherals. Or at least, that is what I think of as wisdom.

And before I get launched on various personal definitions of wisdom, I will stop writing. And it is lunch time and my happiness depends on food in the next little bit. My happiness is so fleeting.... :-)

Back to the original point, I enjoyed Elizabeth Goudge's book and if you like quiet, happy books, read it!


Evan and Clover and Co. said...

WHY have you not read "The Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin yet? The fact that I raved about it for 6 months straight wasn't enough for you? GO READ IT!!!

Cecil and Amy said...

One reason that I don't like Oprah Winfrey is a quote I heard her say (or probably in my case, read that she said)which was, "You don't have to be in a bad situation to want something better." A pretty innocuous quote, but what she in particular was talking about was marriage. So, according to her, you don't have to be in a bad marriage to want to have a better marriage. WHAT? Just get rid of that decent fellow (he may not spark your fire anymore, he may not be bringing home a 6+ figure wage, etc.), and go get he-who-is-now-your-dreams. Puh-leaze. Happiness will never be realized if you have a stupid view on life like that!

Sheena said...

Good post Bethaney.
@ Cecil and Amy - Wow that is rediculous. Now I don't like Oprah. (Not that I was a huge fan before...)

Virginia said...

Honestly, I don't think that anyone who is starving or in a war torn country is happy. Also, I would say it's probably a pretty even keel throughout the ages when it comes to the ratio of happy vs. unhappy people. There's nothing new under the sun. I think the ideas of attaining, choosing, and changing are good things. If we, as human beings, aren't striving for improvement, what's the point? I'm not perfect by a long shot, but I like to think that I've improved myself over the years. To reach a certain point and be like, "yup, I'm good, I accept myself as good as I'm going to get," is a dangerous place to be. I think that people are too quick to look at their surroundings and be like, "this isn't right, I need a physical change" when they should be looking inside instead and thinking they need a mental and spiritual change instead. Or maybe it's more of a horizontal thing vs. vertical thing. Maybe too many people think they'll solve their problems by changing something, but exchanging it for something on an equal level and then getting frustrated that nothing REALLY changed; however, maybe they should be looking for change that brings them to a different level of something. I hope this is making sense. I get what you're saying, but I think it's easy to think people were happier in the past and to think that people's issues would be solved by resigning themselves to their situations. Society-wise, we got to where we are b/c people wanted improvement. So obviously some people need to feel that discontentment to a certain extent. I don't know. I agree w/ you, but I don't at the same time. Perfectly rational, yes? :-)

Also, I hate Oprah. She's a horrible person.

Verity Earl said...

I like this post. I agree with you. I also hate Oprah Winfrey. Thanks for writing this, Bet. I did need to be reminded.