TEXT EXCERPT "A PRIVATE HISTORY OF HAPPINESS" (9781933346885)
from the INTRODUCTION:
We can immediately tell when someone is happy. It shows in their eyes and becomes, at that instant, their presence in the world.
In the pages that follow, there are ninety-nine moments of happiness. Each was experienced by an individual at a specific timea few minutes, an hour, one particular dayranging from over four thousand years ago to the recent past. These were women and men, young and old, of various backgrounds. They lived (or traveled) in many parts of the world, including North America and Britain; Continental Europe and China; North Africa, India, and Japan. They were on city streets or by rural rivers, in gardens or on mountaintops, in cottages or mansions, on long journeys or short breaks when they had these varied moments of color and sensation, understanding and peace, contact and laughter.
These everyday experiences of happiness have remained vivid and recognizable across the centuries, even millennia. They come naturally into focus, making lives that might otherwise seem distant feel intuitively understandable. Many of these joyful moments belong to diaries, which in different forms have been kept by people since the dawn of writing. Others are from letters, another form of personal chronicles of passing time. A few were written as poems, usually rather private works. Even in the case of well-known individuals, these are generally words from their quieter side.
These focused glimpses of other lives and times add up to a bigger idea. They bring real human happiness before our eyes. We can see here the potential for joy hidden inside ordinary life. This is a surprising and renewing effect in our own complex and high-pressure time. For many of us in the twenty-first century, happiness has become a riddle, a goal that remains strangely nebulous. Politics and economics, education and psychology all have happiness as their promise or end. But we need to grasp the happiness that is a strand of everyday life if we are to make good on any of these promises. If we look at the statistics, we are, in industrialized societies, in general wealthier and healthier than our ancestorsbut are we happier?
Like seeing colors or hearing a tune, feeling happy is different for each of us and in every experience. It is a sensation in the air, a depth to the horizon. These moments of joy from the past resonate and echo, prompting positive reflection. They invite us to think about particular people’s experiences of being happy and not merely about generalities or clichés or abstract puzzles that seem to need solving. Perhaps happiness is much of a riddle because we usually look for too big an answer. Here, however, we can see how ninety-nine individuals felt happy on their unique days. All of them are witnesses to some of the richest potential in our human lives. They do not embody the world, but they do help us to imagine humanity as a whole. Across our differences, people share a common capability of happiness, and it reminds us of the universal side of our being. Equally, these were all experiences of a particular place and time, since our being is always locally shaped and flavored. This is what made someone happy, these pages reveal, on one particular day in their life.
Like us, these men and women from the past may have been simply absorbed at the instant they felt good. But soon after, they must have recognized something special about those moments of happinessand their written records can now pass like sunbeams or a breeze through our own everyday life.
People have, on ordinary days, been glad of life without triumphing over others or accumulating fortunes. Each of these preserved records brings this truth to the fore in a fresh way and with its own shades of meaning.
If human beings seem to become possessed by destructive urges at times, they also have an instinct for the joy of small things. In surprising times and places, the world has appeared like a precious gift.
Public history tends to turn the flow of time into a staccato rhythm of “big” dates: the coronations and resignations, coups and treaties, battles and conquests that supposedly changed the world. By contrast, private history introduces us to “little” days that were important because of what one unique person felt.
As these people from many ways of life wrote down their experiences, there was an inner core that said, “This was a moment when I was happy to be alive.” Reading their words now, even centuries later, we can feel immediately how their happiness filled passing moments, creating occasions that needed to be recorded.
Each text, each voice is different, full of a particular life with all its lights and shadows. We are invited by these ninety-nine individuals to share what was specific to their experiencesa place, a time, a relationship. Their ninety-nine moments of joy are arranged by common themes, connected to each other by the natural movement of time from morning to evening.
We gain both wisdom and pleasure from meeting these women and men. We learn naturally about happiness from their stories, which make us happy as well.
These experiences connect with our own lives. Feeling the passion of other people, their zest or deep peace, sudden pleasure or relish for life, their companionship or inwardness, we have new perspectives on the best moments in our own lives.
It is extraordinary how powerful real, remembered happiness is, how deep and true its source. Our happiest lived experiences have the power to help us face the real world with all its difficulties. They exercise a power that the advertised, virtual images and phrases of perfection do not possess. Celebrity and consumption melt away at the merest hint of trouble, but real happiness carries us onward toward the next dawn.
The aim of these pages is to show the enduring value and beauty of ordinary human happiness as we find it in passing moments.