What is happiness?/Wat Is geluk?

Posted: September 8, 2012 in Chat
Tags: , , , ,


Because happiness is a memory
it exists because at the same time
the reverse is also true

 ………………… I mean this: happiness
must exist somewhere at some time because
 we remember it and it reminds us. 

Rutger Kopland (Until It Lets Us Go, 1997)


A circling argument, circular reasoning; he is attempting to capture here the processes of actual experience. It is a meld between learnt things ie the particular blends that give the sense of well-being, and the sense of already existing well-being within the person.

And notice that it is one long sentence. Is it a sentence? It’s more properly described as a gestalt, a knot of argument.

Maybe we have a harking back here to something like R D Laing’s collections of problems in his book Knots:

They are playing a game. They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.

But this seems to be a different order, similar, but different. Unless, the difference is in the ambience that translation gives. James Brockway’s translation of the poem here is more a kind of, what he called, a collaboration: both writer and translator find the most appropriate new terms with which to convey the original poem.

What Kopland is doing here is expressing the thinking processes of emotion. That is, emotion in a broad sense.


There have been times in my own life I have forgotten what various things look like. One of them has been happiness. Many of us know this – if you haven’t you most probably will. Wait, especially until some loved one dies.

What was it Brecht said? The Happy man has not heard the bad news yet.
I quoted that to a colleague once and they asked in all seriousness what the bad news was.  What can you say!

To forget happiness. We all assume it is our right as a human being. That we are entitled to it, and to go to extraordinary lengths to gain, retain, or find it.
And yet it can be lost.

That last stanza in particular of the poem makes perfect sense: we have a capacity for it, or have developed one, therefore it is something we must need.
And let’s admit a life without happiness is not much of a life.
But is this just because we feel we are no longer getting our usual quota, whether it is necessary for us or not? Can we live a full life without  it?
To have ring-fenced what is necessary for a life; how narrow is that space? Or how over-big?

And then if we look back to, say, St Augustine, and his Confessions, we come across… someone overfond of describing themselves, of wallowing in their own specialness. But we also come across Chapter Ten.
What is Chapter ten? It is where he contemplates Memory.

Subsection 8 of chapter 10 begins: So I must also go beyond this natural faculty of mine… The next stage is memory, which is like a great field or a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds….

And if that isn’t a description of a memory system, then I don’t know what is! Those of us familiar with Patrick Jane from The Mentalist, will recognise the reference to the ‘memory palace’ in this, that he constantly goes on about.

Memory contains, says Augustine, amongst everything else we know, what we know as happiness. The chapter description reads –  Since all men long for happiness, they must know in some way what it is…

Even the phrasing seems to be echoed in the Kopland poem. Augustine’s reasoning in the chapter, subsection 20, runs:
Am I to seek it in memory, as though I had forgotten it but still remembered that I had forgotten it?

It seems what is being considered in all this is whether happiness is a constant presence in our psyches, or a memory of, say, well-being, that we had once, and constantly refer to when we mean ‘happiness’.

This last bit reminds me of so many things we value, that in actuality were singular and temporary, limited occurances.

We constantly hark back to happier times in our lives, which we then project onto our environment, society, history, culture. These were probably a few days/months/at most a few years when certain pleasure chemicals took precedence in our lives, and we were able to live almost blissfully.

I’ve heard people in the UK recall the 1950’s as ‘good times’, yet when we look at those times they were pitifully bad in most respects.

A general loss of energy and with it the capacity to take on the multiplicity of thought and experience, leaves a simplified, narrowed and shallow picture: a ring-fenced concept .


I am interested in moving forward, or, as a ‘forward’ probably doesn’t exist, opening up the present more and more.

Against this is a constant reference to what are thought to be past glories (: Jerusalem – see last posting); someone’s glory is someone else’s defeat. But also there is the meld between the victor and the defeated, that accounts for some of the sense of difference that victory brings.

I still maintain that what Kopland was investigating, especially in his later work, was a Phenomenological stance.
Phenomenology kind of grew out of european existentialism, the work of Husserl.

You find with modern Phenomenolgy this constant vacillating between one’s idea of one’s body in the world, that we get from sensory feedback, and the brain’s sense of  self’s existence, that is maybe generated from sheer sense of itself functioning.
This can lead to a looped vacillation; but there is this extra ingredient, and that is our being’s sense of… curiosity, for want of a better term. It is this keeps us going on.

One thing that seems to move us on better than most, is a sense of fun, play.

Bring on the fun!

I would have dearly loved a picture of Snoopy from Charlie Brown here, you know the skipping, gleeful ones?Copyright.

  1. viennafamous says:

    There was a cheesy house song a few years ago that went “Happiness seems to be Loneliness/And Loneliness killed my world.” Was this some backroom nihilist using a pop song as a Trojan horse to get drunk people to be accidental philosophers? This kind of music is the soundtrack to a certain kind of happiness that is usually gone in the morning. I wonder whether the song ended up being the soundtrack to it’s absence too? Just thinking out loud…

    • Lavinia Murray says:

      Must have missed this – am i glad/’happy’ about that? Yeh, probably.

      Loved your comments by the way – so good when someone takes you on! And takes you on further.

      S’what it’s all about!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Thomas says:

    Great, thorough analysis. Enjoyed reading it! The way you start with a Kopland poem and refer to Augustine, Brecht and others appeals to me. It also reminded me of Joseph Campbell, who said wonderful things about happiness, such as: “What we are really living for is the experience of life, both the pain and the pleasure.” (And, small correction: the Dutch word for happiness is ‘geluk’!)

    • Great, thanks for your comments, and your warmth in a cold world!
      Geluk – my typo, I’m afraid. I’ll change it. I made a start of teaching myself Dutch once, to get an idea of thoughts are phrased, and if it changes one’s perspective on the world. Still waiting to carry on with it.

      Joseph Campbell – is that the anthropologist? That one seems to have been making an appearance in my house a lot recently, my wife is reading him. I will not get much chance!

      I do not seem to be any nearer to answering the question, though. Maybe it is one of those occasions when it is best just to get on with life; I tend to think of happiness as a by-product of either contentment, lessening of worry, attaining a sense of balance between involvement, and a sense of disinterest.

      • Thomas says:

        And thank you for your kind words! There is much that can be said about happiness… I thought your sentence ‘We constantly hark back to happier times in our lives’ is quite striking. I do the same thing myself, but I also realise it makes it harder to see the happiness in what is right before our eyes. Joseph Campbell (yes, the anthropologist!) said the same thing about rapture: “It is here, it is here, it is here…” Easier said than done, perhaps, but I think there’s truth in those words. Anyway, my thoughts are meandering a bit now. As you, I feel I didn’t come any closer to answering the question, to really define happiness, but then again: is it necessary to define it?

        Great talking to you 🙂

      • I think to the end of my piece I was trying to approach the basic tenets of Johan Huizinga (whose works I love) in his ‘Homo Ludens’.
        Another time, perhaps.

        Have a good week!

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