These questions were posed over at Charmingly Chandler: “Can happiness and sorrow coexist? Or if you feel sorrow about something, does that mean that you aren’t allowed any happiness?”
I’ve given questions of happiness a lot of thought and have come up with an opinion that is probably a little controversial.
Happiness is an illusion.
That doesn’t mean that happiness is doesn’t exist, though.
Have you seen a zoetrope? It’s an early form of animation, made up of small still images that, when spun, form the illusion of motion.
I think happiness is just like this, made up of small moments of joy that, when viewed as a whole, form the illusion of happiness. The more of these moments you experience, the better this illusion is.
In between these moments of happiness, there will be pain. There will be sorrow. This is the fabric of life. Imagine that you are weaving a tapestry. To make an image in the fabric, you must use different color weft threads, woven in patterns in, around, and through the warp threads, which are under pressure. We might make mistakes and miss a thread, or use a wrong color, but if we keep going, the image will still turn out okay. If we stop each time to fix every little mistake, the tapestry will never be complete and we’ll be left with a mess of tangled thread and a stressed loom.
We, too, are always under pressure as we strive to weave ourselves into this Idea of happiness that doesn’t exist. I don’t think this is a new thought. Plato had the Allegory of the Cave in The Republic. In it, there are people, prisoners maybe, in a cave who cannot see the entrance, but see the shadows of the outside world cast on the wall. For someone born in that cave, their concept of reality is only insubstantial shadows – representations of the actual things outside the cave.
“physical objects and physical events are “shadows” of their ideal or perfect forms, and exist only to the extent that they instantiate the perfect versions of themselves. Just as shadows are temporary, inconsequential epiphenomena produced by physical objects, “physical objects are themselves fleeting phenomena caused by more substantial causes, the ideals of which they are mere instances. For example, Socrates thinks that perfect justice exists (although it is not clear where) and his own trial would be a cheap copy of it.”
Happiness is no different. “Perfect happiness” exists as a concept, but our attempt to attain it just results in a cheap copy of it. This leads us to dissatisfaction. We want to achieve perfect happiness, but never will.
I have been told that this is a depressing thought, but I don’t think it is. I think it is liberating. By realizing that perfect happiness is not possible, we won’t be disappointed when we don’t have it. Instead, we can enjoy the little moments (and the big moments) of joy… smiles… pleasure… excitement… magic… and all the things that we enjoy in our lives, knowing that by savoring these things we are building a tapestry that forms the illusion of happiness and collecting the images that, when spun together, form the illusion of happiness.
This doesn’t mean we should stop striving for perfect happiness. As Ed McMahon said, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” The concept of happiness is there for a reason: it gives us something to strive for. It’s not the destination that matters, but the journey, and on that journey, you have to stop and smell the roses.