I think of Anton Chekhov as a happy man. He couldn’t have been delighted that he grew up in poverty with a scoundrel for a father and then, at the height of his success as a writer, contracted the tuberculosis that killed him at age 43. He had every reason to curse his luck. But his letters, his stories and his plays demonstrate that he understood how to be happy.
He was most alive, he knew, in the act of discovery. He was a doctor who never stopped using his knowledge to help people around him. And his writing demonstrated his intense curiosity and his self-nurtured intelligence. He had the ability to seek out complicated human situations and make sense of them.
He found happiness in his accomplishment, a point that’s often reflected in his writing. In the play Uncle Vanya, when Vanya complains about his lot in life, his wise young niece, Sonya, reminds him that only work is truly fulfilling.
So far as history records, Chekhov spent little time thinking of his sickness, his failures and his sometimes wretched childhood. He was apparently not concerned with what might have made him unhappy. He illustrates the point that you’re unlikely to achieve happiness by concentrating your thoughts on your sad lot in life.
If Chekhov were alive today, he would be the perfect research subject for Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychology professor who teaches courses on, among other things, the causes of happiness. Her central theme is “mindfulness,” a word that she’s made almost her own.
The recipe for a good life is: Pay attention!
“The essence of being mindful is to notice new things. Noticing leads to engagement and engagement leads to fulfillment.”says Langer.
After 30 years of research, she states:
“mindfulness is literally enlivening.”
Psychologists also agree that whatever form happiness takes, it isn’t permanent. It’s a sometime thing at best.
Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist who wrote Stumbling on Happiness, explains that we’re not supposed to be happy all the time. Constant joy sounds pleasant but we are designed otherwise: “Emotions are a primitive signaling system. They’re how your brain tells you if you’re doing things that enhance — or diminish — your survival chances.” Moving through various emotional states is a necessary and inescapable part of life.
Look for no more than ephemeral bursts of happiness
— but don’t miss them out of mindlessness.
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