I can’t help but think that happiness is valued too highly. Happiness arises from forgetfulness: the woman who has been living on the street for too long is happy when she finds a loaf of stale and slightly moldy bread in the trash bin behind a grocery store, for at last she has something more or less edible; but if she remembered what it was to eat a sandwich made with fresh bread and hot chicken breast just sliced from a freshly-cooked bird, she would be filled with despair at her lot in life. Happiness arises from ignorance: the man who lives in an affluent suburb is happy when he purchases what the economists call “consumer goods”; but if he could understand how shallow and meaningless his life is, that he is made happy by purchases, his happiness would dissipate like mist when the sun rises higher in the sky. Happiness arises from self-deception: when we look in the mirror and see something that really isn’t there, we are happy merely because we have fooled ourselves.
We shouldn’t expect happiness to be anything more than a fleeting moment. When you complete some arduous task that has engaged all your best faculties, you are truly happy at the moment of completion; but then, if you are true to yourself, you must move on to the next arduous task, with all its false starts and later disappointments, and no guarantee of success. When parents see their child achieving some milestone — the first step, the first words, the first stirrings of healthy independence — at that moment the parent is happy for the child, pleased at the child’s continuing and successful growth; but in a flash that moment is left behind, for the child must continue growing. Happiness arises in the natural course of growth, but it lasts a moment, then is gone. It is pleasant in that moment, but to cling to it is madness.
Contentment, by contrast, may be valued too little. Many people say they want to be happy, but less commonly do we hear someone say that they strive for mere contentment. We tend to dismiss contentment; good enough is not good enough for us. But if we could be contented with contentment, I suspect we would worry less about happiness, and be the better for it.