Happiness lessons from literature

Happiness lessons from literature

I love reading and I’m always struggling with what to read next, because there are so many great novels and books I’d love to devour. Lately, I’ve been going through a massive re-reading phase by which I mean I’ve been re-reading some of my favourite books from years gone by. I’ve re-read some all time classics such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (which some claim to be among the greatest American novels), some contemporary classics such as “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, and what many argue to be the classic of classics (possibly the greatest novel of all time!) “Anna Karenin”.

Anyway, the point of this column is not to debate which book is best (I don’t really like these types of comparisons because like good wine, happiness and so many other things in life, what we like when it comes to the arts and fiction is so subjective) but rather, to simply refer to some great quotes I re-discovered in this indubitably great story.

For example, in the early pages of “Anna Karenin” Tolstoy has two characters debate the differences between one who lives in the country and one who resides in the city, where the former argues for more practical issues while the latter proffers the benefits of intellectual pursuits that may not have such obvious benefits. Ultimately, the latter states that “the whole aim of civilisation is to make everything a source of enjoyment.”

Not long after this, the following poem is referred to:

Splendid if I overcame

my earthly passion

But if I succeed not,

Still I have known happiness!

Why do I mention these two seemingly unrelated sections from the book? Because they both, I believe, go to the heart of one of the more common misconceptions of happiness; they both equate, admittedly in slightly different ways, happiness with the satisfaction of desires and the experience of pleasures.

But true happiness is so much more than that; happiness does include pleasure and enjoyment but it also crucially includes meaning and purpose, connection with others and engagement in life. Without these latter aspects happiness is just hedonism which we know brings with it benefits, but benefits that are short-lived and relatively superficial.

So this week’s tip is an invitation to experience appropriate pleasures; to find sources of enjoyment; to allow yourself some earthly passions…but also, and this is an important also, to pursue activities that are meaningful and purposeful, and to remember that happiness is not just about feeling good but also about doing good because other people matter and selfishness is not a very effective path to positive emotions.