The Pursuit of Happiness
I found myself wishing plaintively the other day for an engrossing and lengthy series of novels to get stuck in to – a series that would enchant and engross. Like The Borrowers, The Farseer Trilogy or the Anne books. It’s no accident that two of that small list are children’s books. What I wanted was to recreate the easy happiness I associate with aspects of childhood. What I wanted was to fall in to happiness, without thinking about it or questioning it. To simply be.
It must have been around the same time that I pre-ordered Arthur C. Brooks’ new publication after reading his article in The Atlantic. I’ve also been trying to live more frugally so it felt appropriate to read about wanting less. I’d already put my order in before I came to the end of the article where the author talks about his religious practice which includes a daily Mass shared with his wife. Oops. Still Brooks also quotes Thich Nhat Hanh so the least I can do is keep an open mind.
Why am I so obsessed with happiness? To be sure, everyone seems to be in this position to judge from the number of times ‘self-care’ crops up on various social media platforms. It seems as though we are all chasing, if not happiness, mental equilibrium. Perhaps it’s the result of the two-year plus pandemic? I wonder if Pepys felt the same way after the Plague? He certainly actively pursued happiness – not only finding it with a variety of women, encounters he often records in snippets of French, but also in new clothes and books and in doing his personal accounts. He notes on 22nd August, 1665 that ‘this disease [is] making us more cruel to one another than if we are doggs’ but his own zest for life is undiminished.
How much of that was created by his diary writing, I wonder? While gratitude journals were definitely not a thing in the seventeenth century, Pepys often gives thanks for his good fortune. He is not shy of recording any praise he attracts, but is equally ready to scold himself for unkindnesses to his wife, and social or professional blunders. The diary, then, can be seen as a kind of settling accounts, an activity which Pepys found deeply satisfying.
At the end of his article, Brooks offers three habits which he pursues in order to find happiness and purpose. It’s not a list Pepys would find useful. He actively seeks and embraces worldly glory, celebrates his possessions and is fearful of thieves who might steal his accumulated money, for which at one point, he buys an iron chest. But he is gregarious, curious and – above all – contented.
I’m still on the look-out for that magical series but the search feels a little less urgent now. Thank you, Samuel!
If you feel like a seventeenth century pick-me-up, you can read Samuel Pepys here. And, if you have any reading suggestions, do let me know.