George Eliot & Virginia Woolf on Happiness

A few days ago, I came across one of my favorite quotes from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) here.

“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.”

Eclectic Literature

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.

Illustration by PIERRE MORNET

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?


P.S: If you’re following this blog:

I’m not sure if this shows up on your reader. Since I changed my domain yesterday, my list of subscribers has disappeared. I’m waiting to hear from the support, but I hope my posts are still visible to my subscribers. Can you drop me a note and let me know? Thanks!

36 thoughts on “George Eliot & Virginia Woolf on Happiness

    1. Hi I can still see it through the reader. This is an interesting read. I think happiness means not just exsisting but actually living and to live you have to be present. I see happiness in terms of having fulfilling adventures (whatever that means for you).

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      1. I’m so glad that my posts still show up on the reader! I love that you reiterate how to actually live you need to be present. It wasn’t aware of this until a few years ago. Once I had this realization, my perception of and approach to happiness have shifted dramatically. -Neri

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  1. This was a really great read and I love the quotes you’ve used! I too think that being present and learning to just be is the most important (and difficult) part when it comes to both happiness and feeling content. Trying to appreciate more of what is taken for granted probably comes into it as well, which I’m sure these times will highlight. I can see your posts in my reader fine as well.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Taylor (and for letting me know that you can see my posts)! I’ve also been thinking about how our experience and perception of happiness, along with so many other things, will have to change during these difficult times. It’s been so very challenging to practice mindfulness and be present, but I think that that is the path to appreciating small things. -Neri

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  2. I don’t get emails but you still come up in my WordPress reader Neri. I love Virginia Woolf quotes, her message is so timeless and very much relevant right now, its like a comforting tea to read her words 😊

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  3. Oh how I love this post! Happiness is indeed in small things in life, a fact I keep screaming at all hours. I am so glad that a fellow blogger reblogged this and Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite authors 🙂

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