Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

16 JUNE, 2015

Adam Smith’s Underappreciated Wisdom on Benevolence, Happiness, and Kindness

By:

“Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.”

“Spiritual health and material well-being are not enemies: they are natural allies,” wrote E.F. Schumacher in his timeless clarion call for “Buddhist economics,” penned amid the hippie counterculture of the early 1970s. But it was another visionary economist, as far from hippie culture in both time and ideology as possible, that made the most convincing case for this very concept two centuries earlier — a mind, paradoxically enough, presently celebrated for just about the opposite sentiment.

The great Scottish moral philosopher, political economy pioneer, and Enlightenment maven Adam Smith (June 16, 1723–July 17, 1790) is best known for authoring the 1776 masterwork The Wealth of Nations — a foundational text of behavioral economics two centuries before behavioral economics existed. It originated the famous “invisible hand” metaphor for how socially beneficial outcomes can be traced back to the self-interested actions of individuals. True to our modern incapacity for nuance, Smith’s “invisible hand” has come to symbolize a rather bleak view of the human spirit as bedeviled by inescapable selfishness. And yet Smith’s own views were more generous and elevating — something he explored in his eclipsed but excellent earlier work, the 1759 treatise The Theory of Moral Sentiments, full of timeless wisdom on ambition, success, good personhood, the far-from-linear relationship between money and happiness, and that wonderfully old-fashioned notion of “benevolence,” so urgently needed in our divisive world today.

The book’s opening sentence alone is a masterpiece of prose and philosophy:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

That misunderstood aspect of Smith’s philosophy and its applications to our everyday lives is what Russ Roberts explores in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness (public library). I share a certain kinship of spirit with Roberts, who hosts the EconTalk podcast, in dusting off forgotten and often misunderstood ideas, restoring their original dimension flattened by our sound bite culture of superficial familiarity, and recontextualizing them as timeless technologies of thought that help us live happier, more ennobled lives — which is precisely what he does with Smith’s text.

Roberts recounts chancing upon this obscure book and being, to his own surprise, deeply enchanted by its relevance to so much of modern life:

The book changed the way I looked at people, and maybe more important, it changed the way I looked at myself. Smith made me aware of how people interact with each other in ways I hadn’t noticed before… [He] helped me understand why Whitney Houston and Marilyn Monroe were so unhappy and why their deaths made so many people so sad. He helped me understand my affection for my iPad and my iPhone, why talking to strangers about your troubles can calm the soul [and] how morality is built into the fabric of the world.

[…]

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a book of observations about what makes us tick. As a bonus, almost in passing, Smith tells us how to lead the good life in the fullest sense of that phrase.

Roberts disentangles one of our most chronic confusions — that between self-interest and selfishness. Citing Smith’s famous line — “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” — he unpacks the deeper, more dimensional meaning:

People are fundamentally self-interested, which is not the same thing as selfish.

[…]

Yes, you are profoundly self-interested. But for some reason, you do not always act in what appears to be your self-interest… Given our self-love, why do we so often act selflessly, sacrificing our own well-being to help others?

One answer would be that we are inherently kind and decent, filled with what Smith calls benevolence or what we moderns call compassion. We are altruistic; we care about others and hate to see them suffer. Yet Smith reminds us that losing our finger bothers us more than millions losing their lives.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

When we are altruistic, according to Smith, “it is not that feeble spark of benevolence … capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love.” Rather, we are compelled to behave honorably before an “impartial spectator” — a kind of unconscious stand-in for conscience, a form of secular accountability that displaces the vice-policing gods of organized religions; or, as Roberts puts it, “a figure we imagine whom we converse with in some virtual sense, an impartial, objective figure who sees the morality of our actions clearly.” When faced with a moral choice, we answer to this imaginary arbiter of righteousness. Smith himself writes:

It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration.

Roberts terms this “The Iron Law of You,” which he illustrates with a relatable modern example:

You think more about yourself than you think about me. There’s a corollary to the Iron Law of You — the Iron Law of Me. I think more about myself than I do about you. That’s just the way the world works.

Ever send someone an e-mail asking for a favor and he or she doesn’t respond? It’s easy to forget that the recipient, like you perhaps, gets way too many e-mails to respond promptly. Your e-mail means more to you than it does to the person whose help you need. There’s no reason to take it personally. When I don’t hear back from someone, I assume that the person never received the e-mail in the first place. I resend it a few days later without mentioning (or complaining) that I sent it before.

[…]

The impartial spectator reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. Remembering that we are no more important than anyone else helps us play nicely with others. The impartial spectator is the voice inside our head that reminds us that pure self-interest is grotesque and that thinking of others is honorable and noble — the voice that reminds us that if we harm others in order to benefit ourselves, we will be resented, disliked, and unloved by anyone who is looking on impartially.

Illustration by Benji Davies from 'The Storm Whale.' Click image for more.

Smith himself elegantly captures this dual role of the impartial spectator in both our self-reliance and our sense of belonging:

It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.

Roberts explains how this drives our actions and reverberates across the essential arts of living, from personal growth to a capacity for presence:

The modern calculus of economics that looks at material costs and benefits alone is a flawed calculus. It’s perfectly rational to tip in a restaurant that you’ll never visit again, donate anonymously to charity, give blood without expecting to use blood in the future, and even donate a kidney without being paid for it. People who do those things do them gladly… Smith believes that our desire for approval from those around us is embedded within us, and that our moral sense comes from experiencing approval and disapproval from others. As we experience those responses, we come to imagine an impartial spectator judging us.

Whether or not honorable behavior is really motivated by people’s imagining a watchful and judgmental impartial spectator, the concept gives us a powerful tool for self-improvement. Imagining an impartial spectator encourages us to step outside ourselves and view ourselves as others see us. This is a brave exercise that most of us go through life avoiding or doing poorly. But if you can do it and do it well, if you can hover above the scene and watch how you handle yourself, you can begin to know who you really are and how you might improve. Stepping outside yourself is an opportunity for what is sometimes called mindfulness — the art of paying attention instead of drifting through life oblivious to your flaws and habits.

The impartial spectator, far beyond enhancing our standing with the non-imaginary spectators in our lives by steering us toward behavior that is perceived as decent and kind, actually helps us reach the intrinsic rewards of taking comfort in our own decency and kindness. Smith himself puts it best in one of his most famous and enduring passages:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blameworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame.

In a complementary sentiment, Smith writes:

What so great happiness as to be beloved, and to know that we deserve to be beloved? What so great misery as to be hated, and to know that we deserve to be hated?

Roberts translates this in the language of our most intimate rewards:

Loveliness isn’t an investment looking for a return. That’s why you don’t keep score in a good marriage — I did this for you, so now it’s your turn to do something for me. I went to the grocery, so you have to run the kids to soccer. I was nice to you when you were under stress. Now I’m under stress, so you have to be nice to me. Or I’m up four to one, so the next three tasks fall on you…

If you think of your actions as a husband or wife as an investment or a cost-benefit analysis, you don’t have a marriage motivated by love. You have a mutually beneficial arrangement. I can have that with my butcher or my baker. I don’t want that arrangement with my wife. In a good marriage, you get pleasure from helping your spouse simply because that’s the kind of partner you want to be — a lovely one.

[…]

Smith’s ideal is achieved when your inner self mirrors your outer self.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. Click image for more.

This convergence of being lovely in one’s private person and being publicly beloved is what we might call “authenticity” today. This harmonic symmetry, Roberts points out, isn’t revealed in our grand gestures but in our small daily choices — the nanoscale of the-right-thing-to-do — which add up to our larger character. That’s why we often fail, on the small and practical level, to live up to the ideals we espouse philosophically — and yet we continue to think of ourselves as highly moral people, thanks to the uniquely human talent of self-delusoin. Roberts writes:

One explanation for selfishness — or, worse, cruelty — is that some people don’t imagine an impartial spectator, have no desire to imagine one, and in fact have no interest in being lovely. This is a tempting way to view our fellow human beings: people who don’t act the way we think they should are immoral or evil.

But Adam Smith had a different idea of why we fail to live up to the standards an impartial spectator might set or the standards of the people around us whose respect and affection we’d like to earn: we are prone to self-deception. The impartial spectator whom we imagine and whose counsel we hear isn’t quite as impartial as we’d like to think. In the heat of the moment, when we are about to act, our self-love often overwhelms any potential role for the impartial spectator, “the man within the breast,” our conscience: “…the violence and injustice of our own selfish passions are sometimes sufficient to induce the man within the breast to make a report very different from what the real circumstances of the case are capable of authorising.”

[…]

We want not only to be loved, we want to think of ourselves as lovely. Rather than see ourselves as we truly are, we see ourselves as we would like to be. Self-deception can be more comforting than self-knowledge. We like to fool ourselves.

In the remainder of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, Roberts goes on to explore how this quarter-millennium-old text can teach us to fool ourselves less and, in doing so, enhance rather than compromise our happiness. Complement it with the psychology of how our delusions keep us sane and Albert Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

11 JUNE, 2015

24-Year-Old William Styron on Happiness, Presence, and the True Measure of Maturity, in a Letter to His Father

By:

“I’ll always hate the stupid and the bat-brained and the petty. But it doesn’t seem nearly so important anymore to hate, as try to understand.”

William Styron (June 11, 1925–November 1, 2006) is one of the most influential writers of the past century, a man as doggedly dedicated to the craft of writing as he was to his unflinching faith in the human ability to discern right from wrong and, based on that discernment, to act nobly, however difficult the choice might be. Nowhere does the wholehearted idealism for which he is most beloved shine more luminously than in a letter Styron sent to his father in the spring of 1949, found in Selected Letters of William Styron (public library) — the same marvelous compendium that gave us the young man, while still a senior at Duke, on why a college education is a waste of time for writers.

Right around the time Alan Watts was beginning to popularize Eastern philosophy in the West, formulating his enduring ideas on happiness and how to live with presence, 24-year-old Styron arrives at these eternal truths through incredibly insightful introspection, articulated with the intellectual elegance and pulsating prose of a great writer.

Having just moved to New York and settled into an apartment in Brooklyn, Styron begins with an endearing rant on rent — second only to Vonnegut’s — certain to delight and mildly infuriate any past or present New Yorker with its embedded testament to the collusion of time, capitalism, and rent gouging:

Dear Pop,

I am writing this letter from my new home in — you wouldn’t believe it — Brooklyn. I arrived in New York a little over a week ago, immediately began hunting around for an apartment, but found that places to live in are still terribly difficult to get, even though I had heard beforehand that things had loosened up somewhat. The last isn’t true at all. You’d think that everyone in the country had converged upon New York, and that each was making a concerted effort to get an apartment, room — even an alcove somewhere. I suppose that it all involves some terrifically complicated economic theory, but it still strikes me as being a gigantic sort of fraud — that one has to knock his brains out and pay away his soul to boot to be able to get a roof over his head and a minimum of the necessities of life.

Brooklyn by pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott from her series 'Changing New York.' Click image for more.

But such struggles, young Styron precociously intuits, feed the empathetic muscle that fortifies the heart of all idealism and creative purpose:

I guess it’s merely the fact that I’m politically naïve, and that the way to knowledge is mainly through experience — such experience as I am going through now. I suppose, too, that 99% of the radicals, so-called liberals, and Communists are only that way, not through any a priori, bookish idealism, but because they were broke once, or out in the rain, and had to turn to some politico-economic father confessor. Which from my point of view is all the more reason for bucking life as you see it — artistically speaking, that is — or accepting it, or making the most of it — writing about it faithfully, in the long run, and not getting mixed up with the soothsayers. I suppose that if you really catch hell from life — as an untouchable, say, or a sharecropper — your artistic instincts wither, and you become political. That’s natural enough. But Americans are political enough as it is. We’ve got nearly everything, and we still bitch about this and that at every turn.

Which is all by way of saying that though I somehow resent not being able to settle down in a cozy Greenwich Village apartment at $40 a month, I am still glad to be in Brooklyn in a clean and decent place…

Actually I hope I’m not giving the impression that I’m complaining, because this is a pretty nice place by anyone’s standards. It’s in an old weatherbeaten house overlooking Prospect Park. There are plenty of trees around, plenty of grass, and big windows to look at the grass through. I’m in an apartment on the ground floor — two rooms, bath, kitchen, all furnished, $70 a month — the rent being impossible were it not for the fact that I am — or will be in June — sharing the apartment with Bob Loomis of Duke, who is coming to N.Y. to get a job. Split, the rent will be $9 a week, utilities included, which isn’t bad.

Quite apart from the gobsmacking amusement of the then-and-now rent comparison — my own tiny apartment in Brooklyn, mere blocks from Styron’s, costs about fiftyfold as much — there is a deeper reward to his reflections, one found in the mindfulness with which he counters his complaints with an antidote of gratefulness.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Decades before Pico Iyer asserted that “what gives you lasting happiness is not the stuff you have but the use you make of it,” young Styron reflects on the real source of happiness, which has to do with mastering the art of presence, and the true measure of maturity, which requires learning how to be alone and savor one’s own company. He writes:

For some reason, although I’m not exactly ecstatic about the world and life in general, I’m very happy. I don’t know why that should be, as I’ve always thought of myself as an exceptionally melancholy person.* Maybe the melancholy was merely adolescent, and maybe, though I can’t really sense it, I’m growing up, or reaching an “adjustment,” as the psychologists say. Whatever it is, it’s nice.

It’s not love — love of a girl, that is, because I haven’t found her yet.** It’s not the excitement of being in New York, because I’ve been in New York before and now know how to take with a grain of salt its synthetic stimuli (though I still love New York). Actually I don’t know what it is. For the past four or five days I’ve been alone, not seeing anyone or talking to anyone I know except over the phone. Ordinarily this aloneness would have made me miserable, utterly wretched. But I haven’t minded it at all. I haven’t drunk hardly anything — a few beers, that’s all. And yet I’ve been quite content, suffused with a sort of pleasant well-being that demanded really nothing strenuous of myself, or of anyone else.

Perhaps it’s merely that I’ve gained a measure of Emerson’s self-reliance. Perhaps it’s just that, for some reason I can’t put my finger on, I feel surer of myself than I ever have before — more confident of my worth and my ultimate success, and less fearful of failure.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s wonderful notion of “a seizure of happiness,” Styron describes a quality of vibrant presence at the heart of his contentment:

Maybe — again for some reason I haven’t quite been able to analyze — I’m finding that life excites me, appeals to me in a way I’ve never felt before. I still have awful moments of despair, and I guess I always will, but they don’t seem to be as overpowering as in the past. I don’t take so much pleasure in my despondency any more; I try to throw my bleak moods off — which again perhaps is a sign that I’m growing up.

I don’t know how this novel will turn out. Naturally, I hope it’s good. But best of all is the fact that I’m not afraid of its being bad, literarily speaking, provided I know I’ve done my best. In the meantime I’m taking great pleasure in living, and in being alone without being a recluse. At night, after I’ve worked through the day, I walk up Church Avenue to Flatbush and thence down Flatbush, enjoying every minute of the walk.

Atlantic Terminal Tower, Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn. Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock from 'All the Buildings in New York.' Click image for more.

But his most heartening insight is the precocious awareness that kindness, selflessness, and empathic understanding are not merely a gift to others but, above all, a gift to ourselves. Nearly a decade before Jack Kerouac advised that you should “practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now” and three decades before Kurt Vonnegut admonished that “hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide,” Styron tells his father:

It’s somehow all of a sudden wonderfully exciting. Maybe it’s just forgetting one’s self for a minute, not trying to be smug and self-centered and aloof. And I’ve learned to do finally — at least with far less effort and self-consciousness — something that three or four years ago you told me was one of the touchstones of maturity: being nice to people even when they’re not nice to you… I’ll always hate the stupid and the bat-brained and the petty. But it doesn’t seem nearly so important anymore to hate, as try to understand.

Styron considers the ever-elusive art of balance in his closing lines, planting the seed for the beautiful credo that would come to define his literary legacy:

It’s incredible how one runs about frantically at times like a rat in a maze, not really knowing right from wrong (and often really not caring), victim of one’s own passions and instincts rather than master of one’s own soul. I suppose the proper thing to do is just to stop every now and then and say, Where am I heading? Actually, though I’m still much like the psychologist’s rat, I find myself asking myself that question almost too often. I suppose the very fact that I realize my indulgence in too much introspection is another sign (I hope) of maturity. Too much brooding is unhealthy and, although I still have my slumps, I’ve begun to realize that one of the great secrets is striking a balance between thought and action… Living, acting, thinking; not just vegetating neurotically, on one hand, or blundering about, on the other hand, like so many people do, like trapped flies. It’s a hard balance to strike, but I think it can be done, and that in this exciting-sorrowful age of ours it can make great literature.

Nineteen years later, Styron would win the Pulitzer Prize for transmuting that hard balance into great literature.

Selected Letters of William Styron is a trove of wisdom in its hefty totality. Complement it with young Hunter S. Thompson’s equally precocious, if bittersweet in hindsight, letter of advice on living a meaningful life and young Sylvia Plath’s breathtaking, and at least as bittersweet in hindsight, letters to her mother on living wholeheartedly.

* Decades later, Styron became painfully reacquainted with his melancholy nature and its deeper pathology — an experience he would come to recount in the 1990 masterwork Darkness Visible, perhaps the most powerful memoir of depression ever written.

** Styron did find the girl four years later in a young Baltimore poet named Rose Burgunder, who soon become Rose Styron and, after loving Bill until his dying day, brought to life this very collection of letters.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

25 MAY, 2015

Emerson on Small Mercies, the True Measure of Wisdom, and How to Live with Maximum Aliveness

By:

“To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.”

In contemplating the shortness of life, Seneca considered what it takes to live wide rather than long. Over the two millennia between his age and ours — one in which, caught in the cult of productivity, we continually forget that “how we spend our days is … how we spend our lives” — we’ve continued to tussle with the eternal question of how to fill life with more aliveness. And in a world awash with information but increasingly vacant of wisdom, navigating the maze of the human experience in the hope of arriving at happiness is proving more and more disorienting.

How to orient ourselves toward buoyant aliveness is what Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882) examines in a beautiful essay titled “Experience,” found in his Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — that bible of timeless wisdom that gave us Emerson on the two pillars of friendship and the key to personal growth.

Emerson writes:

We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them… To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom. It is not the part of men, but of fanatics … to say that the shortness of life considered, it is not worth caring whether for so short a duration we were sprawling in want or sitting high. Since our office is with moments, let us husband them. Five minutes of today are worth as much to me as five minutes in the next millennium. Let us be poised, and wise, and our own, today. Let us treat the men and women well; treat them as if they were real; perhaps they are… Without any shadow of doubt, amidst this vertigo of shows and politics, I settle myself ever the firmer in the creed that we should not postpone and refer and wish, but do broad justice where we are, by whomsoever we deal with, accepting our actual companions and circumstances, however humble or odious as the mystic officials to whom the universe has delegated its whole pleasure for us. If these are mean and malignant, their contentment, which is the last victory of justice, is a more satisfying echo to the heart than the voice of poets and the casual sympathy of admirable persons.

Indeed, Emerson highlights the practice of kindness as a centerpiece of the full life, suggesting that our cynicism about the character and potential of others — much like our broader cynicism about the world — reflects not the true measure of their merit but the failure of our own imagination in appreciating their singular gifts:

I think that however a thoughtful man may suffer from the defects and absurdities of his company, he cannot without affectation deny to any set of men and women a sensibility to extraordinary merit. The coarse and frivolous have an instinct of superiority, if they have not a sympathy, and honor it in their blind capricious way with sincere homage.

An equally toxic counterpart to such self-righteousness, Emerson argues, is our propensity for entitlement, which he contrasts with the disposition of humility and gratefulness:

I am thankful for small mercies. I compared notes with one of my friends who expects everything of the universe and is disappointed when anything is less than the best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods.

Illustration by Julia Rothman from 'Nature Anatomy.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment almost Buddhist in its attitude of accepting life exactly as it unfolds, and one that calls to mind his friend and Concord neighbor Thoreau’s superb definition of success, Emerson bows before the spiritual rewards of this disposition of gratefulness unburdened by fixation:

In the morning I awake and find the old world, wife, babes, and mother, Concord and Boston, the dear old spiritual world and even the dear old devil not far off. If we will take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures. The great gifts are not got by analysis. Everything good is on the highway. The middle region of our being is the temperate zone. We may climb into the thin and cold realm of pure geometry and lifeless science, or sink into that of sensation. Between these extremes is the equator of life, of thought, of spirit, of poetry, — a narrow belt.

Only by surrendering to life’s uncontrollable and unknowable unfolding graces — or what Thoreau extolled as the gift of “useful ignorance” — can we begin to blossom into our true potentiality:

The art of life has a pudency, and will not be exposed. Every man is an impossibility until he is born; every thing impossible until we see a success.

Or, as a modern-day wise woman admonished in one of the greatest commencement addresses of all time, it pays not to “determine what [is] impossible before it [is] possible.”

A century and a half before Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert illuminated how our present illusions hinder the happiness of our future selves, Emerson adds:

The results of life are uncalculated and uncalculable. The years teach much which the days never know… The individual is always mistaken. It turns out somewhat new and very unlike what he promised himself.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures is indispensable in its totality. Complement it with his kindred spirit Thoreau on what it really means to be awake and the true measure of meaningful work.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

27 MARCH, 2015

A Seizure of Happiness: Mary Oliver on Finding Magic in Life’s Unremarkable Moments

By:

How to revel in the “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

Nearly a century before modern neuroscience presented the uncomfortable finding that mind-wandering is making us unhappy, Bertrand Russell contemplated the conquest of happiness and pointed to the immense value of “fruitful monotony” — a certain quality of presence with the ordinary rhythms of life. The diaries and letters of humanity’s greatest minds are strewn with such instances of finding happiness in simple everyday moments, but no one captures the humble grace of presence better than Mary Oliver in one particularly bewitching passage from her altogether enchanting Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (public library).

Mary Oliver in 1964. Photograph by Molly Malone Cook from Oliver's 'Our World.' Click image for more.

With Thoreau’s attentiveness to the outer world and Rilke’s attentiveness to the inner, Oliver writes:

On the windless days, when the maples have put forth their deep canopies, and the sky is wearing its new blue immensities, and the wind has dusted itself not an hour ago in some spicy field and hardly touches us as it passes by, what is it we do? We lie down and rest upon the generous earth. Very likely we fall asleep.

[…]

Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and — it was the most casual of moments — as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conditions of this total, effortless surrender to happiness parallel the “flow” state typical of creative work.

Oliver, who has extolled the urgency of belonging to the world as the supreme act of aliveness, writes:

Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity — the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women. And yet it was a moment I have never forgotten, and upon which I have based many decisions in the years since.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from 'Sidewalk Flowers,' a visual ode to living with presence in the modern urban world. Click image for more.

Indeed, this immersive attentiveness to the casual, unremarkable, yet remarkably enlivening moments of life is the raw material of Oliver’s genius, of her singular gift for bridging that vast abyss between the mind and the heart. (“Attention without feeling,” she wrote in her beautiful memoir, “is merely a report.”) She considers how the unremarkable becomes the screen against which the remarkable shines its luminous beam:

My story contains neither a mountain, nor a canyon, nor a blizzard, nor hail, nor spike of wind striking the earth and lifting whatever is in its path. I think the rare and wonderful awareness I felt would not have arrived in any such busy hour. Most stories about weather are swift to describe meeting the face of the storm and the argument of the air, climbing the narrow and icy trail, crossing the half-frozen swamp. I would not make such stories less by obtaining anything special for the other side of the issue. Nor would I suggest that a meeting of individual spirit and universe is impossible within the harrowing blast. Yet I would hazard this guess, that it is more likely to happen to someone attentively entering the quiet moment, when the sun-soaked world is gliding on under the blessings of blue sky, and the wind god is asleep. Then, if ever, we may peek under the veil of all appearances and partialities. We may be touched by the most powerful of suppositions — even to a certainty — as we stand in the rose petals of the sun and hear a murmur from the wind no louder than the sound it makes as it dozes under the bee’s wings. This, too, I suggest, is weather, and worthy of report.

Long Life, which also gave us Oliver on how habit gives shape to our inner lives, is exquisite and enlivening in its entirety. Complement it with Oliver’s gorgeous reading of “Wild Geese,” her moving remembrance of her soul mate, and her playful meditation on the magic of punctuation.

If you haven’t yet devoured Oliver’s wonderfully wide-ranging On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, give yourself this seizure of happiness:

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.