The Basics of Happiness

In 2010, novelist Amy Bloom published an essay called "The Rap on Happiness" in the New York Times Book Review. In it she rounds up her reading of several then-contemporary books on happiness, a genre which seems to have continued strongly into the present.

She saves us a lot of time for all that reading (formatting added):

We could canvass [the authors and others] and produce the Fundamentally Sound, Sure-Fire Top Five Components of Happiness:

  1. Be in possession of the basics — food, shelter, good health, safety.
  2. Get enough sleep.
  3. Have relationships that matter to you.
  4. Take compassionate care of others and of yourself.
  5. Have work or an interest that engages you.

That sounds about right. Nowhere on the list is necessarily making a lot of money, being famous, or having the big house.

But she also knows that feelings of happiness are fleeting, which is part of the magic:

The real problem with happiness is neither its pursuers nor their books; it’s happiness itself. Happiness is like beauty: part of its glory lies in its transience. It is deep but often brief (as Frost would have it), and much great prose and poetry make note of this. Frank Kermode wrote, “It seems there is a sort of calamity built into the texture of life.” To hold happiness is to hold the understanding that the world passes away from us, that the petals fall and the beloved dies. No amount of mockery, no amount of fashionable scowling will keep any of us from knowing and savoring the pleasure of the sun on our faces or save us from the adult understanding that it cannot last forever.

I'm guessing that an important secret in publishing is that the next 10,000 books on happiness don't add anything to the list, or that the simply end up in the same place.

Thank you, Ms. Bloom, for reading the books and giving us the short form!