“Happiness,” Woolf writes, “is in the quiet, ordinary things. A table, a chair, a book with a paper-knife stuck between the pages. And the petal falling from the rose, and the light flickering as we sit silent.”
Happiness is an intriguing concept. We all want to be happy, but how easy is it to be something that we cannot quite define?
I have read several books on the the art and science of happiness, from The Happiness Trap (2007) by psychologist Russ Harris to Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide (2015) by Frederic Lenoir. But a letter George Eliot wrote to her close friend Miss Sara Hennell still remains my favorite discussion on the notion of happiness.
On Sunday, May, 1844, Eliot writes to her friend:
“You will soon be settled and enjoying the blessed spring and summer time. I hope you are looking forward to it with as much delight as I. One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy. I am just beginning to make some progress in the science, and I hope to disprove Young’s theory that “as soon as we have found the key of life it opens the gates of death.”
Every year strips us of at least one vain expectation, and teaches us to reckon some solid good in its stead. I never will believe that our youngest days are our happiest. What a miserable augury for the progress of the race and the destination of the individual if the more matured and enlightened state is the less happy one! Childhood is only the beautiful and happy time in contemplation and retrospect: to the child it is full of deep sorrows, the meaning of which is unknown. Witness colic and whooping-cough and dread of ghosts, to say nothing of hell and Satan, and an offended Deity in the sky, who was angry when I wanted too much plumcake. Then the sorrows of older persons, which children see but cannot understand, are worse than all.
All this to prove that we are happier than when we were seven years old, and that we shall be happier when we are forty than we are now, which I call a comfortable doctrine, and one worth trying to believe!”George Eliot’s Life, Vol. I (of 3) as related in her Letters and Journals, 2013, pg. 90
For me, the meaning(s) of happiness lies somewhere between Woolf’s understanding of the concept and Eliot’s perception of it.
If you think “what does Woolf know about happiness; she committed suicide?”—think again, or rather read again. Her writing shows the powerful ways in which she mastered the art of being present- of finding beauty and meaning in a fleeting moment.
It is also true that, in Eliot’s words, “one has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy” mainly because one has to spend so many years in learning how to be present.
What do you think? What is the meaning of happiness for you?
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