The Happy Life Of The Mind Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-02-19 13:00:00 No comments

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Václav Havel wrote those words at some point, and I have been thinking about them a great deal as of late.

A long time ago, as a much younger man, I was hung up on the idea of happiness as an ideal state. Not all of this thinking was a complete waste; I ended up doing a lot of reading about what's now called the "psychology of optimal experience", the works of Maslow and the like, and so on. From this I gathered, but didn't really implement, the idea that happiness wasn't so much a goal or a tangible thing, but a process. It isn't so much that you are happy as you do things with joy, whatever those things may be. Even sad things can be done joyfully if you approach them right.

We get hung up on the idea of happiness as some kind of finish line to cross. If only this particular set of circumstances in my life were dealt with, then everything would be Peachy Forever. Someone I once knew was a lot like this: she was a fine and dear person, but her thinking about her future happiness was limited to the next movie, the next book, the next video game. Once that came out, everything would be awesome and perfect. She never noticed that her life was "jam yesterday and jam tomorrow, but never jam today."

My thought is not that if you're lucky/disciplined enough to think about life as a process rather than a cycle of goals, it's easier to find meaning in it. It's something of the other way around: If you are certain that things will make sense, it becomes easier to think of life as a process — as a mechanism from which you can glean perspective, and insight, and hope in Havel's sense of the term, and thus happiness.

If you start off with faith that you can make sense of the world, and that out of such things will come the greater grace of wisdom and perspective, you stop looking for happiness in specific things, and instead find it in perspectives and insights — in the ways you look at the good and bad alike, rather than in holding your breath and waiting for the good to come along, and in wishing the bad away. You worry less about whether or not everything needs to be perfect and the best ever, and you find that everything can be a source of good when approached with open eyes.

The really important point I need to make, and I don't think it's one Havel made either, is that this is not some lofty insight you need a Ph.D to wrap your head around. This is stuff that is available to absolutely every single person walking the face of the earth right now — and I mean right now — as long as they drop their guard and allow themselves to approach it. This is not an intellectual insight, although it's something that can blossom all the more in proper intellectual soil. No, I got that backwards; from what I see, it's the intellect that blossoms all the more in the soil of this hope, because it now has that much more to take root in and prosper with.

I know people twice as smart as me who are four times as miserable, and people with half my brains and twice my joy. But I also know people twice as smart as me and four times as happy, and people half as smart as me and less than half as happy, and sometimes not even happy at all from what I can tell. So don't take this as an argument that brains are irrelevant. They matter, urgently so when intellect and wisdom and facts and logic and common sense and truth are under attack from all sides, but they cannot be relied upon consistently to be engines of joy.

Where brains matter, I think, is in being able to complete the picture. If Havel is right, and that hope is about trusting that things in time make sense, it is brains that best equip us to figure out how they do make sense. That perhaps is what I find most convincing about Havel's words: they are an affirmation that the head and the heart belong together and have so much to trade.

Tags: Buddhism intellectualism philosophy psychology