I have sometimes thought that the pursuit of happiness is very much like the pursuit of one's own shadow. It always eludes the man who breathlessly runs after it; but if he turns away and strives for something else, it will follow close behind him.
The condition of happiness is quite as elusive as the shadow: it certainly eludes analysis, and seems to have as many definitions as it has pursuers.
I have asked several people to tell me what happiness meant to them, and each gave me a different answer. One man told me that it was getting money; another that it was having plenty of money to spend; while a dear young friend of mine said that the word happiness to him suggested a wood-fire and a magazine — infinite leisure in which to study and dream.
So it seems that happiness to most people means pleasure — contentment, for the time being at least, with what is theirs.
But all pleasure is not happiness, and the distinction is sometimes more than that of degree. Mere pleasure is necessarily brief; it comes to an end; but true happiness is serene; it is abiding and may be eternal. It is not found in the wild scramble after wealth and amusement which characterizes our civilization. Our people are always striving after something — something to get a hold of, to possess and to enjoy. Give them the object of their pursuit and they will not stop to enjoy it, but will immediately start after something else. And so on through life. At the end they have nothing worth having, and a whole lifetime has been wasted in the chase for shadows. Those who follow after happiness in this way will find it a will-o'-the-wisp.
Why not live in the present? Nothing can take that from you. If you are to suffer tomorrow, make the most of the peace of today. Do not fear the future. The unpleasant thing you dread may never come to you. Enjoy yourself now — in the present. All time is the present. It is always now; it always will be now.
All very young people who are not satisfied with their present surroundings expect to be happy some day. As they grow older they are not quite so certain that they will be. They begin to have doubts and to demand less. A woman whose life held much suffering has said:
"The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, relief from pain;
And then those little anodynes,
That deaden suffering;
And then, to go asleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die."
This doesn't sound very hopeful; but, like most pessimistic utterances, it holds a grain of truth.
The trouble with most of us is that we take ourselves altogether too seriously. A sense of humor has saved many a man from melancholia. By this I do not mean that we should indulge in levity and look at life as a joke: rather let us regard it as a great game, which we can play well or ill, as we choose, and according to our skill. In the great chess-game of life there are kings and castles and pawns, and knowing the relative value of each piece is wisdom.
Someone has denned genius as "a disregard for the unimportant"; and there surely is no more fruitful cause of discontent than a continual fussing over little things. If your dress is old-fashioned and you have no money to buy another, why fret about it till your very soul feels old-fashioned too? Forget all about it, and other people will be very apt to do the same — if, indeed, they ever noticed it at all.
Cultivate the larger carelessness. We trouble ourselves too much about what other people think of us. The chances are that they think very little about us, one way or the other. I have known a woman of intelligence to make herself miserable for a week, by reason of some little social mistake, which probably passed unnoticed — save by one or two people, and by them was quite forgotten in five minutes.
Why grieve over your mistakes? You will make them; we all do. Just profit by the lesson and put the thought aside.
Emerson has spoken of regrets as "false prayers."
Another cause of unhappiness is that we all ask too much of life. We demand that all our ideals shall be realized, and because they are not realized we are unhappy. This feeling of disenchantment grows slowly, year by year, as one by one our hopes die unfulfilled; as one by one the friends whom we regarded as ideal friends are proven to be only mortal — and sometimes very weakly mortal; as we are forced to surrender one by one the fondly-cherished ideals of youth. An ideal dies hard. I believe there is no greater suffering than having to relinquish an ideal.
But know that your ideal of love, of friendship, of perfection in anything, will never be realized in this life. I do not say this in a pessimistic spirit, but because I believe it to be true. In this unpoetic world we do not find poetic realities. We may shut our eyes to the real facts of life and live in our own little world of dreams, if we want to — and can. There is always poetry enough there. There we may entertain our ideals to our heart's content. As for me, I entertain many an ideal which I know can never be realized. I have often wilfully and knowingly deceived myself, because the deception made me happy. This may or may not be wise: that is a matter about which there may be a reasonable difference of opinion.
We say, "There is no religion higher than truth." I suppose we may also say-there is no ideal higher than truth; but there are ideals which are more beautiful than certain facts, and whether or not it is unwise to cherish them I do not know. I only know that I shall go on doing so as long as I have an ideal left to cherish.
My reason tells me that if I should die, or go away for a long time, most of my friends would cease thinking often of me; that those whom I love best would soon fill the vacant place left in their hearts. Shall I let the knowledge make me miserable? Shall I refuse to believe in the love that is given me because I know a very moderate shock might shatter it? No, certainly not. It is just as true, so far as it goes, as if it were made of a stronger and sterner stuff. Do we blame the basswood tree because it is not an oak, or the little stream because it is not a river? Each has its own work to do in the great plan of creation.
Let us take things as they are, with all their imperfections, and not grieve because they are less beautiful than we would have them. Making the best of circumstances will go as far as any other one thing toward securing happiness. The man who does this can never be truly miserable; he will always find the silvery lining to the darkest cloud; and if he has no great and active happiness, he will always have the passive satisfaction that comes from knowing that things are not as bad as they might be.
And it is just possible that to be happy is not the greatest concern of this life, anyway.
If we do, to the best of our ability, such work as is given us to do we shall feel the blessed consciousness of having done our duty; we shall know the felicity that comes to the worker at the close of a well-spent day.
And I suppose there is nothing that gives greater and more satisfying happiness than success in one's chosen work in life. I am one of those who believe in work. It is not an evil, but a positive good. Work, even uncongenial work, is a great teacher, a great mother. It strengthens the will and develops fixity of purpose. It takes a strong will to persist year after year in work which is not congenial, in order to accomplish some desired result; harder still when the end in view is only that of eking out a bare existence. Yet one may be moderately happy even under these circumstances.
But if our work is something that we love, like an art or a science, something that we do for its own sake, without regard to pecuniary gain, then our felicity is very nearly perfect, especially if we meet with a fair measure of success.
If I remember rightly, Schopenhauer says that the nearest approach to perfect happiness in this world is that of the creative artist in his work. So they are wise who worship Art.
"For she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of common life
Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith that all which we behold
Is full of blessings."
In Art one can lose one's self, can get rid of that feeling of separateness from others, which is desolation. In his moments of inspiration, of creative excitement, the artist feels himself a part of the great Creator; he is communing with the gods.
A young man once told me that in order to be happy he must become so much interested in something as to forget himself entirely. He had unconsciously hit upon a great truth, a great mystery.
There is another question much discussed by philosophers — and others, and that is the necessity of killing out desire. I think that the person without desire for something must find life a great bore. Imagine a world in which there is nothing to work for, a condition in which you desire nothing, in which nothing will give you either pleasure or pain. I would prefer a good, hard ache to such apathy.
Yet I think these two extreme views may be harmonized.
I suppose that those who talk so much about killing out desire mean simply the desire for selfish gratification; while those who love life and action, must have some purpose in living beside mere existence and the gratification of merely selfish desires.
Let us live simply, naturally, without haste and without fear, desiring strongly what is good for us, casting aside the things which are selfish and unwholesome, and we will be sure of a healthful amount of happiness, for we will have created harmony in ourselves.
All true happiness comes from within the self. You may wander the wide world over, you may have wealth to gratify every desire that can be gratified by wealth, you may have friends and cheerful companions with whom to spend your days and nights; but if the awakened soul is truly conscious of wasted hours and duties unperformed, and the atrophy of gifts that might be put to noble use for self and for mankind, that soul can know no happiness worthy of the name. In moments of forgetfulness it may find pleasure, but happiness is a deeper, calmer feeling; it is contentment with all that was, and is, and will be.
Then one must have faith in one's self; one must be self-reliant. We are happy when we trust ourselves; when we doubt ourselves we are wretched. Did a feeling of distrust of self ever creep over you? It is despair! It is utter hopelessness! But no man who truly trusts himself can be unhappy long. The truly self-reliant man is insured against the weaker kinds of misery.
Of course there are degrees of happiness. Some natures are capable of an intensity of emotion which the majority never know. But the majority are not unhappy in their deprivation of the greater ecstasy, because they know nothing whatever about it; and being denser and of a duller sensibility they are thereby protected from much suffering which must come to the more finely organized and more sensitive nature.
Everything has its compensation somewhere. This is the law of Karma.
A happy disposition may be a gift of nature, but, like all other natural gifts, it can be cultivated. As someone has said:
"This life is what we make it;
And whether it is good or bad
Is just the way we take it."
A feeling of discontent, if humored, will become chronic. I have known people who truly seemed to hate themselves and everybody else, and they were always miserable.
Happiness is Love, — not only of one or two, but of everybody, a great love of all created things. A noble genius has given it expression:
"Oh, ye millions, I adore ye!
Here's a kiss to all the world."
No man can feel like that and not be happy.
But this universal love need not make one indifferent to the special love, as so many seem to believe. And right here I want to say that I think those who try to kill out all special affection in their hearts make a great mistake. They do not love Humanity any more because they are indifferent to those nearest them. It is pure sophistry — in my opinion. I believe that in proportion to one's ability to love one man or woman deeply, truly and unselfishly, will be one's ability to love the race and work for the uplifting of the fallen. And Pinero tells us that "those who love deep never grow old."
The trouble is that we are all too selfish in our love. We are always thinking of what we are going to get, not of how much and how generously we may give. We need not be so stingy of our hearts.
Also let us cultivate the spirit of kindness and of tolerance of others. So long as one hates anybody, one's happiness will be vitiated. There will be a dark spot on the soul.
Give freely; not only of material things, but give of yourself, of your sympathy. We may not quite accept the extreme view of Drummond, that "there is no happiness in having or getting, but only in giving"; yet if we look back upon our lives we will find that our happiest moments have been when we brought a smile to replace a tear, or a song to lips that had known only sighs. Happiness results not from the possession of something, as commonly supposed, but from the free, full, unimpeded use of the powers in unselfish service."
To vain and selfish men and women this may seem impossible; but I have come to believe that the happiest man in the world is the true philanthropist, the man whose main purpose in life is to bring sunshine into other lives. You will remember that the name of Abou-ben-Ahdem, who "loved his fellow men," stood on the angel's list above the names of those who "loved the Lord." The soul of such a man is in harmony with the universal soul. Such harmony brings happiness. It is the lack of harmony that causes infelicity.
What I wish to say in closing has been so well said by Matthew Arnold, in his lines on "Self-dependence," that I will quote the poem here.
"Weary of myself, and sick of asking
What I am, and what I ought to be,
At this vessel's prow I stand, which bears me
Forwards, forwards, o'er the star-lit sea.
And a look of passionate desire
O 'er the sea and to the stars I send:
'Ye who from my childhood up have calmed me,
Calm me, ah, compose me to the end!
'Ah, once more,' I cried, 'ye stars, ye waters,
On my heart your mighty charm renew;
Still, still let me, as I gaze upon you.
Feel my soul becoming vast like you!'
From the intense, clear, star-sown vault of heaven,
Over the lit sea's unquiet way,
In the rustling night-air came the answer, —
'Would'st thou be as these are, live as they.
'Unaffrighted by the silence round them,
Undistracted by the sights they see,
These demand not that the things without them
Yield them love, amusement, sympathy.
And with joy the stars perform their shining,
'And the sea its long moon-silvered roll;
For self-poised they live, nor pine with noting
All the fever of some differing soul.
'Bounded by themselves, and unregardful
In what state God's other works may be,
In their own tasks all their powers pouring,
These attain the mighty life you see.
O air-born voice! long since, severely clear,
A cry like thine in mine own heart I hear, —
'Resolve to be thyself; and know that he
Who finds himself loses all misery!'"
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