Last month The Age published a story detailing new research on the happiness of Australians, tracking how our satisfaction with life dips and soars during major transitions as we age. The basis of this ‘happiness index’ was the use of data taken from 27,000 Australians over a period of 12 years, analysed by the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
The story featured a graph, which was also shown on the television news that night and, perhaps like others, I found myself trying to apply it to my own life and was struck by how misleading it seemed. I concluded that the difficulty lay in my understanding of ‘happiness’.
The etymological root of ‘happy’ is hap, which means ‘chance’, as in ‘happenstance’. It follows then that it is a temporary state or feeling – hence all the fluctuations in the graph.
Thinking about past (or future) happiness is of course a very self-centred activity. I have never found happiness by directly seeking it – when I have experienced it, it has always been a gift. As such, when I try to understand it or judge it in terms of past and future, I find myself unable to ‘reach the real’.
Peak experiences of happiness are, I suppose, those rare exciting moments that offer an enhanced perception of life. For me they have often yielded a sense of wonder, awe and reverence. They can be times when my spirit is given ‘flight’.
By contrast there have been many times when I have descended into the valleys of what some might perceive as ‘the graph of life’, where I am drawn into the depths of the earthy and the ordinary. I like to think of these places as ‘rooted’ places, where I have invariably, and just as gratuitously, been given new life.
It seems to me that if I were to try and plot a ‘happiness graph’ over a period of time, my focus would not so much be on the soaring of the heights, it would necessarily be accompanied by the transcendence of everything that is ordinary, even dreadful. The graph would be less about temporary haps and more about the whole journey, which I have come to appreciate as blessedness.
Somewhere along the line of my life (and I have heard many people very precisely plot the x coordinate of this point) I began to feel an amazing sense of being accompanied, of not being alone – even when there was no one else around. It may be that I previously had it and lost it, but there came a time when I experienced some growth in my spiritual life that required an adoption of a conscious ‘habit of being’. Philosopher Simone Weil described it as, “a refusal to exist outside God”, offering that description as her definition of “humility”.
It doesn’t matter where this point was, but I believe that it involved tipping the graph over on its side so to speak, so that it was more like a river running along a plain – no longer in the vertical like a ride at Luna Park. The river continues to zig and zag but moves along without effort, yielding as it flows around obstacles, exposing roots on the bends and allowing driftwood to simply float by.
This perspective is best represented by a story, ‘The Joy of Fishes’ from a book by Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu:
Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were crossing the Hao River by the dam.
Chuang said, “See how free the fishes leap and dart: that is their happiness.”
Hui replied, “Since you are not a fish, how do you know what makes fishes happy?”
Chuang said, “Since you are not I, how can you possibly know that I do not know what makes fishes happy?”
Hui argued, “If I, not being you, cannot know what you know, it follows that you, not being a fish, cannot know what they know. The argument is complete!”
Chuang said, “Wait a minute! Let us get back to the original question. What you asked me was ‘How do you know what makes fishes happy?’ From the terms of your question, you evidently know I know what makes fishes happy.
“I know the joy of fishes in the river through my own joy, as I go walking along the same river.”