“I wonder, sometimes, whether it is a perversity peculiar to my own mind or just the common lot of humanity to experience happiness mainly in retrospect… Maybe we mistakenly think we want “happiness,” which we tend to picture in very vague, soft-focus terms, when what we really crave is the harder-edged intensity of experience.”

This blog post is one of the most popular pieces on the New York Times today. There has been a lot more discussion of “happiness” lately from different blogs attached to big name media outlets.

I think if happiness is something we can only recognize in the past, then it’s little more than nostalgia. I think it’s true that the stories we tell ourselves changes with time, and sometimes retrospect helps us create a story about ourselves where we can shape happiness. But I find that stories I tell about myself create a distance where I place myself as a character removed from my present life. I don’t want to live in memories. I don’t want to live in a semi-fictional world I create from the stories that I tell about my past.

The “soft-focus terms” of happiness that this author refers to is not an intangible, unreachable form of happiness. I think it’s very real, but lacks the drama of “hard-edge intensity of experience”. It’s a tranquility formed more of it’s ability to feel full from the absence of intensity.

For Thoreau, happiness was stretching time, gliding in a boat. Taking control of the moment and drawing it out until you fill yourself in the present moment. I’ve had many of those moments this year – particularly, walking down Broadway, so engrossed in the people whom I’m with, that I’ve forgotten that I’m half-way to Midtown. Or walking along the edge of the river, whether it’s the Hudson, the Thames, or whatever cuts across Philadelphia, completely absorbed. (Why do I crave the same type of experience whatever city I’m in? What is it about rivers?)

I’ve also felt that intensity of experience, where you feel so full with emotion from something terrible that’s happened. But I think I can experience that same intensity of experience just being completely still and feeling utterly calm. It doesn’t require torturing yourself over unrequited…– that’s just masochistic.

Kreider’s post delves into much more than moments of happiness with other people, but it’s the part that’s struck me the most. But are there actually several gradations between the tranquil and tortured happiness that I interpreted from the post? Can you reconcile the essence of a tortured artist/lover, the archetype hero of these intense experiences, with…a monk/enlightened one? Or am I completely misinterpreting Kreider’s point?

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