Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Perhaps you remember having an experience of being overcome by happiness, such as that described by W.B. Yeats in "Vacillation":

"While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes, more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless."

We feel blessed indeed to have felt such happiness, and remembering that feeling helps us at times of sorrow or distress.  Happiness and sorrow are natural landing stages on our human journey.  It is also natural to desire to stay with happiness, and to attempt to avoid sorrow.  Yet wisdom tells us that the current of life flows irrespective of our desires.  However masterfully we steer our craft we cannot change the tides of human experience.  William Blake expresses it thus:

"Man was made for Joy and Woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the World we safely go,
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine."

Such language the poets use!  "Blessed", and "soul divine" indicate the spiritual qualities of happiness and sorrow, of joy and woe.  We are touched by these feelings; we cannot manufacture them.  We must take care of them and respect them.

It is unrealistic to expect to be happy all the time and, thankfully, it is the same with sorrow.  We need to apply reason to these emotions and to accept them for what they are. The most poignant feelings are those where happiness and sorrow are so finely woven as to be inseparable.  Many happy family celebrations are made poignant by the sorrow that beloved members are no longer there.  It is a paradox that one can feel a complete happiness and a complete sadness at the same time.  It is because each state has its own integrity. Equally we cannot choose to enjoy one and deny the other without putting our emotional health at risk.

Another unrealistic and dangerous situation lies in allowing woe to degenerate into despair; or in allowing joy to balloon into euphoria. These states of mind can arise from our inability at times to face the inevitable ups and downs of life.

Aristotle stated that we should train children to face life realistically and to apply reason to even the most troublesome situations.  He believed that happiness came from the wisdom of living a life of reason, virtue and moderation.

Nowadays the most common lack of wisdom, amounting to self-deception, seems to lie in depending on other people for one's own happiness.  A lover, partner or spouse cannot make us happy.  If we feel happy to be with them that is a blessing.  It is even more blessed if they are happy to be with us too.  Thus do many marriages begin.  The joy in a happy marriage lies as much in pulling together and supporting each other through the trials and tribulations of life as it does in celebrating married love and the precious milestones of family life.  To say to someone, "You make me happy," or "You no longer make me happy", is to abdicate responsibility for one's feelings.  It is more honest to say, "I am happy being with you," or "I am no longer happy being with you."

A relatively new phenomenon seems to be the joint illusion amongst citizens and governments in the modern world that happiness is one of the common goods for which government is responsible.  We might blame a misunderstanding of the principle expressed by Jeremy Bentham:

"The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation."

This is not happiness as I have been looking at it here.  The modern utilitarian principles are more about equality and justice and access to the common goods such as education, health care and housing.  Instead of "the greatest happiness" we might substitute "the greatest well-being of the greatest number", as a suitable concern of government.  John Stuart Mill himself said,

"Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so."

Maybe we need to learn to distinguish between well-being, contentment and happiness.  Happiness is closely linked with joy, and neither emotion can we command at will; it comes upon us and blesses us.  Contentment is a pleasant state that comes from a general sense of satisfaction with life.  Sometimes we can bring this about by hard work and saving but generally it requires us to have a nature that finds most of life agreeable.  Well-being is when we are physically, emotionally and spiritually well.  We do not have well-being if we are sick, hungry, homeless, ill-treated, discriminated against, afraid or in danger.  These wrongs are rightly the concern of government.

But one's own happiness is a matter of being open to being happy, appreciating it while it lasts and carrying the warmth of that happiness around with us even when we are sorrowing.  Aristotle said that we can also find happiness in the happiness of others.  Equally in having happiness in our lives we might also be more able to bring some happiness to others, as Yeats said, "I was blessed and could bless."


  1. I love this piece, June. I have read it several times. I specially liked the phrase ' landing stages on our human journey', though at first I couldn't decide if the picture it brought up was that of mooring places on a river or stations of a stagecoach. Later though you refer to 'the current of life flows' so perhaps the idea of a river is more apt with its many currents & obstacles. Sometimes - not often nowadays it seems - the water or life meanders through the shallows but at other times it rushes along at great speed & even cascades down falls.

    I do see that many people nowadays seem to feel they have a right to be happy & that it is someone else's responsibility. My concern is that then they are waiting for something that will never happen or may only happen for a short time. But then, I suppose, they have someone to blame. Sorry I am digressing - see, you have mde me think & that is why I enjoy your blog.

    Perhaps the greatest happiness is in bringing happiness to other people. In that way we can indirectly bring ourselves happiness too. If we all tried to do that every day, or just once a week couldn't that make a difference to the world?

  2. Hooray it worked! I have tried several times to comment but without success.
    Come on people, let's have a dialogue now as June's writing is so stimulating. It's straightforward now to comment.

    I like the book background too, June.