Hidden down a back alley, somewhere along an expanse of a grey wall, I stumbled unexpectedly upon this mysterious little red door.
Colour in the midst of drabness. Mystery in the mundane. And a way through the grey. It seemed slightly Alice-in-wonderland-ish. A portal leading from this place to some other.
Maybe happiness is a little like this in some ways?
Vibrant. Transporting. And ultimately somewhat mysterious.
For though so many of us search for it, and so much therapy revolves around it (or its absence), what actually is it? What is this stuff whose lack we feel so keenly?
How would you define it?
Or is it too slippery for that?
Perhaps there’s something indefinable about it (that might actually be an important part of it).
Last year, I attended a whole conference on happiness and its causes*, and the definitions sprang up everywhere. Everything from the saccharine sweet stuff that the advertising world promises us is out there (if only we buy the right lifestyle), right through to something more akin to radical acceptance, even of our pain.
And woven throughout were references to a thing called “eudaimonia.”
You may already have heard of it, but it’s worth noting that it’s often misunderstood.
Usually, it’s translated as something like, “living well” – which might still lead you to wonder what ‘well’ means, and how to get that.
(And then the definition problem just shifts from what “happiness” is to what “well” looks like).
But, from eudaimonia’s perspective, it’s the living part of the “living well” that matters.
The being of it.
The just getting started and into it bit.
Eudaimonia, like happiness, is often thought of as a state or a feeling. Something sort of static and complete that you can just slip into (if you’re lucky enough to find the way in).
But philosopher Martha Nussbaum suggests this is misleading; that, instead, eaudaimonia’s an active thing. A being. A doing. A becoming.
This sounds a bit like the ‘flow’ that Mihály Csíkszentmihályi wrote about – being really absorbed into an experience. Getting lost in it. Forgetting yourself for a while. And being transformed by that sense of one-ness with the experience.
So maybe, if the ideas of eudaimonia and ‘flow’ are right, maybe happiness isn’t about searching for the ‘right door’ or the ‘right feeling’ after all.
Maybe it’s just found in the doing.
And so maybe the very act of opening – perhaps opening yourself to life – is itself the door to happiness…
*Happiness & Its Causes is an annual conference featuring the brightest minds from philosophy, psychology, science, religion and the arts, who explore the age-old question, “How can we lead a happier, more meaningful life?”
It’s on again in June 2011 in Brisbane, Australia.
Photo: Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar
Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar (Grad Dip Counselling & Psychotherapy) is a writer, blogger and Sydney psychotherapist in private practice at One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy. Gabrielle also co-facilitates telephone support groups for people who are living with cancer, for their carers, and for people who have been bereaved through a cancer experience. She is the editor of a journal on counselling and psychotherapy and she provides regular therapeutic updates on facebook and Twitter @OneLifeTherapy.