Writing and the pursuit of happiness

Pleasure, contentment, joy, bliss, felicity … The pursuit of happiness can be a tenet of deeply individualistic thinking with a million private definitions of good, each worked out in independence or just an optimistic attitude. Yet, despite being something we aspire to, we probably all know someone whose cheerfulness feels ‘too much’.

How to be happy, and how to embody the type of happiness that is genuine, not a facade for social media, is a huge subject. But along the way, writers, who offer us glimpses of what it means to be human, have thrown in some clues.

Happiness in the gaps

Happiness is slippery and shy, but the authentic version seems prone to turning up unanounced, not when we are hunting it down, but simply allowing sufficient space in our life for it to put in an appearance. This is Walt Whitman in Specimen Days:

I don’t know what or how, but it seems to me mostly owing to these skies, (every now and then I think, while I have of course seen them every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before,) I have had this autumn some wondrously contented hours — may I not say perfectly happy ones?

He goes on to note that happiness is hard to pin down, so difficult to define that we cannot be unsure if such a moment is happiness or

a mere breath, an evanescent tinge? I am not sure — so let me give myself the benefit of the doubt.

This is good advice. If it feels like happiness, allow it to be so.

Happiness it seems is better allowed for than stalked. It happens in the gaps when we are filling a water kettle on a cool autumn morning or sitting on a train letting the landscape fill our attention.

The writer, Willa Cather, had her definition of happiness, from her novel My Antonia, engraved on her gravestone:

…that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

In the novel, her character simply lays on the earth to feel the sun, with no great expectations.

This is also what Albert Camus advises, not to set conditions around what counts as happiness, but to be alive and expectant and ready for its surprise. For Whitman that surprise comes in a gorgeous sunset. For Camus it comes from being out of place.

Happiness in self-forgetfulness

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Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

Travel, is good not only for our writing, but for the writer.

Travel robs us of … refuge. Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn’t know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value. A woman dancing without a care in her head, a bottle on a table, glimpsed behind a curtain: each image becomes a symbol.

David Whyte talks about

living in the world with a wild self-fogetful ability to respond to its call.

When we move outside the familiar and comfortable and go somewhere we don’t have to pretend to be anyone other than a visitor with everything to learn, we can forget ourselves enough to let happiness make an appearance. This is another of the benefits of travel for writers, for anyone.

Happiness in slow awareness

Productivity is a global obsession. Life is short and precious, certainly, but the most profound moments are often not at the office when you just landed a big contract. This is Camus again, in Lyrical and Critical Essays:

Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But being active is still wasting one’s time, if in doing one loses oneself. Today is a resting time, and my heart goes off in search of itself. If an anguish still clutches me, it’s when I feel this impalpable moment slip through my fingers like quicksilver… At the moment, my whole kingdom is of this world. This sun and these shadows, this warmth and this cold rising from the depths of the air: why wonder if something is dying or if men suffer, since everything is written on this window where the sun sheds its plenty as a greeting to my pity? I can say and in a moment I shall say that what counts is to be human and simple. No, what counts is to be true, and then everything fits in, humanity and simplicity. When am I truer than when I am the world? My cup brims over before I have time to desire. Eternity is there and I was hoping for it. What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness.

A sentiment that Kierkegaard shares when he notes that being constantly busy is a source of misery.

Attentiveness trumps productivity always, whether in how much more kind and generous it makes us or how much more creative. Yes, we have to sit down and do the hard work and produce poems and articles and books, but not by means of stress and rush. And not by obliterating our souls in busyness along the way.

Happiness in flow

Freud thought that creative writing was an adult version of play. As writers, finding our flow is an extraordinary gate into happiness. This many not be a dizzy exuberance perhaps, but a deep sense of being in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time. It is a contentment that once experienced we want more and more of and are eager to lose hours and days in its reverie.

Writers write for many reasons, one of which is for the trance of the writing process itself. When writing is completely in flow we enter a dreamlike, almost mystical state. It is a reverie that the philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, says helps us:

… inhabit the world, inhabit the happiness of the world.

Happiness is not something we can hunt or force, but there are things we can do to make room for it in our lives.

  • Leave some gaps where happiness can sneak in, enough time to watch a sunset or a starry sky, play with a baby, linger over a cup of hot chocolate.
  • Allow yourself the pleasure of feeling your connection to the natural world.
  • Get out of your comfort zone or your familiar surroundings.
  • Forget yourself for a while.
  • Slow down.
  • Attend: be aware.
  • Practice your art and get deeply into flow

Happiness in writers

Why does it matter that a writer understands happiness?

Writers make meaning. We tell the stories that illuminate the world, the human condition, and which make the world more habitable.

It’s a moral responsibility to pay attention to happiness if we are to understand the full range of human emotion from hope to despair. Indeed Camus saw not the pursuit but the ‘patient quest’ for happiness as an existential duty.

Even if the world will not surrender the secret of meaning to us, even if the world is irrational and life is absurd, there are still narratives to make. There are still radical things we can do in the face of enormity. Writing in his diary just before World War II, Camus notes:

Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything. It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace? We must simply begin without thinking of such grandiose aims.

We live with attention and focus despite knowing that life is transient. And then we write to save the world.

Call to become your story

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Written by

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/

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