What is the secret of happiness?
Is there any other question whose answer has been as fervently sought after as this one? Perhaps the nature of God, including the key attribute, existence. But that too, is linked to the basic quest for happiness.
These are lofty, abstract questions. But we live in ordinary, muddy worlds. Any answer that is going to have any practical meaning has to live down here in the untidy mess of our lives.
As a philosopher, I think about these sorts of questions and all their attendant issues quite a lot. Naturally, I am interested in what other folks have to say about them. I’ve read many lofty, abstract answers about the meaning of life and the secret of happiness. Many of these insights are brilliant and inspiring.
Except when I am sitting at the kitchen table with the cup of tea gone cold, staring at the filthy kitchen floor, at my hand a long list of chores and no motivation, gloomy with thoughts of the unhappy spouse, the wayward children, the writing career stuck in second gear. Then the cat throws up on the carpet.
Sometimes I feel like a mouse, huddled in her small nest underground, worried about tiny little mouse troubles, while titans battle above me in great and glorious wars of ideals and destiny. I poke my nose out of my hole and listen to their speeches, watch as they clash, amazed at their great acts of courage or cruelty or outright insanity. But then I go back to worrying about mouse things again, because although all that stomping and raging above me does knock dirt down into my nest from time to time (or even turn it up with a plow), it really doesn’t have much else to do with me. My life is about food and warmth and taking care of the mouselings.
So, happiness. This morning I got up at 5:00 am as usual. I have a bad cold that has gone into my chest, so last night I kept waking up coughing. I am tired and ill but I have to get up and get the fire going, because it is 56 degrees in the living room. So I put the kettle on to boil water for tea and let the dogs out, muddling through my morning routine. Presently my husband and younger son will come stumbling out of bed and I’ll get them on their way before getting to my own agenda for the day. It’s February, cold and dark with a thin layer of new snow on the ground.
I got the fire going and a mug of tea made, and I sat for a moment on the couch, my fingers wrapped around the mug and a blanket wrapped around me. And a funny thing happened. I noticed that I was content. For just that moment.
The fire was roaring in the wood stove with fierce gusto. The tea was hot and soothing. It tasted delicious. The warmth of the mug felt wonderful on my cold fingers. The blanket around me kept back the chill. For that moment, all I needed to do was sit and sip my tea, not thinking about what I had to do today, not thinking about what I failed to do yesterday, just being warm and self-contained. I was content.
And it occurred to me that this was happiness. It is like an island. Not a place where you live all the time, but a place where you rest for a few moments. The sea is full of sharks and pirates and storms, but you’ve got to keep going, you and your little ship. Sometimes you take on cargo and riches; sometimes you lose it all. Sometimes the waves get so high that you don’t think you’ll make it to the next island. But you keep going, and you do, until the day you don’t, and the journey is over.
Having these islands to stop at makes the darker parts of the journey bearable. Even little islands; a cup of tea, a walk in the woods, a cozy chair and a book. Laboring across some treacherous or simply tedious stretch of water is made easier by the thought of the island ahead. The trick is being able to create more little islands by being able to seize moments and find the pleasure in them, and being content. Not looking back at the battles lost and mistakes made; not looking ahead at the vast, difficult and disheartening expanse of ocean that will keep on going long after you have expired. Just sitting on your warm, gentle little island, feeling only its breeze, seeing only its soft sand and friendly flowers.
Even a mouse can swim the Atlantic given enough small islands close together.