"Is happiness a skill that, once acquired, endures through the ups and downs of life? There are a thousand ways of thinking about happiness, and countless philosophers have offered their own. For Saint Augustine, happiness is 'a rejoicing in the truth.' For Immanuel Kant, happiness must be rational and devoid of any personal taint, while for Marx it is about growth through work. 'What constitutes happiness is a matter of dispute,' Aristotle wrote, 'and the popular account of it is not the same as that given by the philosophers.'

"Has the word happiness itself been so overused that people have given up on it, turned off by the illusions and platitudes it evokes? For some people, talking about the search for happiness seems almost in bad taste. Protected by their armor of intellectual complacency, they sneer at it as they would at a sentimental novel.

"How did such a devaluation come about? Is it a reflection of the artificial happiness offered by the media? Is it a result of the failed efforts we use to find genuine happiness? Are we supposed to come to terms with unhappiness rather than make a genuine and intelligent attempt to untangle happiness from suffering?

"What about the simple happiness we get from a child's smile or a nice cup of tea after a walk in the woods? As rich and comforting as such genuine glimpses of happiness might be, they are too circumstantial to shed light on our lives as a whole. Happiness can't be limited to a few pleasant sensations, to some intense pleasure, to an eruption of joy or a fleeting sense of serenity, to a cheery day or a magic moment that sneaks up on us in the labyrinth of our existence. Such diverse facets are not enough in themselves to build an accurate image of the profound and lasting fulfillment that characterizes true happiness.

"By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.


"Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at — nothing — at nothing, simply. . . . What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss — absolute bliss! — as though you'd suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?
— Katherine Mansfield, Bliss and Other Stories

"Ask any number of people to describe a moment of 'perfect' happiness. Some will talk about moments of deep peace experienced in a harmonious natural setting, of a forest dappled in sunshine, of a mountain summit looking out across a vast horizon, of the shores of a tranquil lake, of a night walk through snow under a starry sky, and so on. Others will refer to a long-awaited event: an exam they've aced, a sporting victory, meeting someone they've longed to meet, the birth of a child. Still others will speak of a moment of peaceful intimacy with their family or a loved one, or of having made someone else happy.

"The common factor to all of these experiences would seem to be the momentary disappearance of inner conflicts. The person feels in harmony with the world and with herself. Someone enjoying such an experience, such as walking through a serene wilderness, has no particular expectations beyond the simple act of walking. She simply is, here and now, free and open.

"For just a few moments, thoughts of the past are suppressed, the mind is not burdened with plans for the future, and the present moment is liberated from all mental constructs. This moment of respite, from which all sense of emotional urgency has vanished, is experienced as one of profound peace. For someone who has achieved a goal, completed a task, or won a victory, the tension they have long carried with them relaxes. The ensuing sense of release is felt as a deep calm, free of all expectation and fear.

"But this experience is just a passing glimpse brought on by a particular set of circumstances. We call it a magic moment, a state of grace. And yet the difference between these flashes of happiness seized on the fly and the immutable peacefulness of the sage, for instance, is as great as that between the tiny section of sky seen through the eye of a needle and the limitless expanses of outer space. The two conditions differ in dimension, duration, and depth.

"Even so, we can learn something from these fleeting moments, these lulls in our ceaseless struggles; they can give us a sense of what true plenitude might be and help us to recognize the conditions that favor it."