“What is happiness?” asks John Ciardi. “What is happiness?” we ask ourselves. (Read John Ciardi’s “What is Happiness” essay here.)
I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty
I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore
You want thingamabobs?
I’ve got twenty!
But who cares?
No big deal
I want more
As Disney’s little mermaid sings about her desire to see the world above and to be truly happy despite her undersea caves of treasures, John Ciardi laments our apparent insatiability. Although Aristotle said that happiness depends on ourselves, every abstract word like happiness does have its criteria, of which Ciardi seeks to identify and strengthen. Through his sometimes exaggerated criticism, Ciardi wants us to ultimately change how we view happiness and how we (think we) achieve it.
We’re too dedicated to the idea of buying our happiness, Ciardi said, and I agree. Up until recently, whenever my paycheck or allowance money came in, I would head off to the mall, in search of a new shirt or a new phone case. The more the merrier, right? But they never made me happy. Maybe for a few hours, a few days at the most, but it was that evanescent happiness, that “Yay! I’ve wanted this thing forever!” that was soon replaced by a “Ohh, look at that. I want that, too!” It was the never-ending cycle of buying a new item, feeling happy for a few days, and then wanting to buy something else. Just a short-term formula for happiness, you can call it.
But money may also be the key to long-term happiness. Deciding to test a theory offered by the University of British Colombia that stated that a person becomes happier when they spend money on others rather than on themselves, I donated for the first time to Pencils of Promise last month. It was a meager five dollars, but the next morning, I received a simple email from the charity. It read, “How generous of you! Thanks for donating to Pencils of Promise,” accompanied by a photo of a group of ecstatic children and their teachers. They were laughing with their mouths wide open while hugging each other and waving their arms around, the epitome of happiness. And I felt happy too. That five-dollar donation had meant more to me than any other purchase I’d made in my life (or anything else I’d done before, in fact) because I knew I had helped bring about such a genuine smile to a kid’s face and made a difference in the world.
A healthy dosage of challenge and novelty are also impressive fountains of happiness. After all, that’s why some schools offer higher-level classes—to challenge the students to think of more profound ideas, instead of falling asleep somewhere in the back of the room, bored out of their minds. So I see where Ciardi is coming from when he says that happiness is in the pursuit itself. But imagine a life of pursuing, a constant quest for happiness. Say it’s that crazy hard university math question they give to you in sixth grade-advanced math. At first, you’re happy (No more multiplication tables!), and eagerly designate two hours to finish it. But after a break and a couple more hours (if you even make it this far without switching to video games), you’re tired. You just want the answer. Which leads me to wonder, how long can we actually remain happy from the pursuit of happiness alone? Perhaps happiness is something that we shouldn’t pursue, but rather something we recognize in the everyday aspects of life. As Ysreal Rice asks, “Which would you rather have–the ability to be happy with what you have, or the ability to pursue all things that will make you happy?”
So while I do agree with Ciardi’s argument to an extent, and I’m glad that he acknowledges that we still need the minor satisfactions sold to us by the “happiness market,” I find his views on happiness to be rather limiting. If you feel, though, that you aren’t focusing on the things that are important and finding “true” happiness, I highly recommend reading The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin. It’s one fascinating account of how a mom decided that she would try to be happy for a year, so you may want to hear what she says about happiness and the pursuit of it, and it may offer a slightly more optimistic story than Ciardi’s essay.
(You may want to read the comment section for this post. My friend raised a great question that you should definitely consider. )