Being happy all the time ― 3 min read
Back in suffering and pain I talked about how we could separate the passive sensation of pain from the active sensation of suffering. The idea was that you could define suffering as a mental activity that came in response to the primary pain sensation. The nice thing about dividing it up that way is that it gives you the ability to change your response to pain and train new habits and new ways of coping with and possibly even embracing pain. Looking back I feel like the words "suffering" and "pain" don't really mean what I was trying to define them to mean, but hopefully it helped to get the point across.
Today though I want to talk about the concept of perpetual bliss that seems to me to be the goal of most religions and spiritual practices (whether in this life or the next). I've often struggled with the idea that it is possible to be happy all the time. My logic was that all pleasures seem to require their opposites to exist. Take the pleasure of eating for instance - if I eat some simple food when I am extremely hungry it usually tastes far better to me than dinner at a fancy restaurant when I'm not particularly hungry. The times when I most appreciate breathing come after swimming for a long time under water or choking on something. The times when I've most appreciated companionship have been when I am feeling lonely. Nothing feels better than a cool breeze on a sweltering day, or a roaring fire on a frozen night.
So if we were to remove pain from life then the pleasures we have available to us lose their intensity at the least and possibly even disappear. How then can you appreciate what you have? Furthermore, if we lived lives free from negative sensations then how would we ever be able to grow or become better people? What meaning could we derive from existence?
These are interesting questions that I have thought about a lot in the past, but today I want to come at the core issue from a different angle - what happens if we try to separate the primary and secondary components of positive feelings in the same way we did with negative feelings (suffering and pain)?
The ancient Greeks used a word "eudaimonia" which might work for our purposes. Roughly it can be translated as happiness, but it's supposed to have deeper connotations of flourishing, wellbeing and blessedness. So let's go ahead and break positive feelings down into pleasure (immediate impressions like taste, sex and laughter) and eudaimonia (secondary impressions like gratitude, wonder, flourishing and feelings of virtue).
Now I think there are still very good arguments that we cannot live a life where all we experience are constant primary pleasures. But can we live a life where we feel a constant, pervasive and strong sense of eudaimonia? And on reflection, does the fact that pain still exists in our lives and the fact that we cannot feel pleasure all the time actually increase our ability to experience gratitude, wellbeing and flourishing? My gut feeling is yes, but I want to muse on this idea for a little longer!