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Quotes: What is happiness?

Gary Zukav:

”The word "happiness" is the label, or symbol, which we pin on this indescribable state. "Happiness" belongs to the realm of abstractions, or concepts. A state of being is an experience. A description of a state of being is a symbol. Symbols and experience do not follow the same rules.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

"Let me distill the main idea behind what researchers call hedonic happiness.

Making $1 million in one year, but nothing in the preceding nine, does not bring the same pleasure as having the total evenly distributed over the same period, that is, $100,000 every year for ten years in a row. The same applies to the inverse order--making a bundle in the first year, then nothing for the remaining period. Somehow, your pleasure system will be saturated rather quickly, and it will not carry forward the hedonic balance like a sum on a tax return. As a matter of fact, your happiness depends far more on the number of instances of positive feelings, what psychologists call "positive affect," than on their intensity when they hit. In other words, good news is good news first; how good matters rather little. So to have a pleasant life you should spread these small "affects" across time as evenly as possible. Plenty of mildly good news is preferable to one single lump of great news.

Sadly, it may be even worse for you to make $10 million, then lose back nine, than to making nothing at all!

* * *

Consider that our major satisfaction for thousands of years came in the form of food and water (and something else more private), ad that while we need these steadily, we quickly reach saturation."

Fernando Pessoa:

"To be happy it is necessary to know that one is happy. * * * But the knowledge of happiness brings unhappiness, because to know one is happy is to know that one is passing through happiness and is, therefore, soon obliged to leave it behind."

Brené Brown:

”Anne Robertson, a Methodist pastor, writer, and executive director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, explains how the Greek origins of the words happiness and joy hold important meaning for us today. She explains that the Greek word for happiness is Makarios, which was used to describe the freedom of the rich from normal cares and worries, or to describe a person who received some form of good fortune, such as money or health. Robertson compares this to the Greek word for joy which is chairo. Chairo was described by the ancient Greeks as the ‘culmination of being’ and the ‘good mood of the soul.’ Robertson writes, ‘Chairo is something, the ancient Greeks tell us, that is found only in God and comes with virtue and wisdom. It isn’t a beginner’s virtue; it comes as the culmination. They say its opposite is not sadness, but fear.’”

Jonathan Lear:

"But if psychoanalysis lies outside the ethical, how does it promote happiness? Here we need to go back to an older English usage of ‘happiness’ in terms of happenstance: the experience of chance things’ working out well rather than badly. Happiness, on this interpretation, is not the ultimate goal of our teleologically organized strivings, but the ultimate ateleological moment: a chance event going well for us — quite literally, a lucky break. Analysis puts us in a position to take advantage of certain kinds of chance occurrences: those breaks in psychological structure which are caused by too much of too much. This isn’t a teleological occurrence, but a taking-advantage of the disruption of previous attempts to construct a teleology. If one thinks about it, I think one will see that in such fleeting moments we do find real happiness."

Virginia Woolf:

"Very gently and quietly, almost as if it were the blood singing in her veins, or the water of the stream running over stones, Rachel became conscious of a new feeling within her. She wondered for a moment what it was, and then said to herself, with a little surprise at recognising in her own person so famous a thing:

'This is happiness, I suppose.' And aloud to Terence she spoke, 'This is happiness.'"

Baron de Montesquieu:

"Happiness is not the absence of problems but the ability to deal with them."

Dr. Who:

"Sad is happy for deep people."

Amos Oz:

"Well you know In Hebrew, we don't even have a proper word for happiness. The Hebrew word 'osha' which is normally translated as 'happiness' means 'positive feedback from others.' There are six Hebrew words for joy, because there are many kinds of joy, whereas happiness is an abstraction and everlasting happiness is a nonexistent experience. I believe in passing joys, in coming joys which come and come and go and disappear. I don't believe in everlasting happiness."


Gary Zukav. The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1979. p. 271.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007. p. 91.

Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet. Edited by Maria Jose de Lancastre. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. London: Serpent's Tail, 1991 (a collection of writings that were unorganized upon Pessoa's death in 1935). p. 219.

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Center City, Minn.: Hazelden Publishing, 2010.

Jonathan Lear. Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. p. 129.

Virginia Woolf. The Voyage Out (1915).

Baron de Montesquieu, quoted in the Associated Press, quoted in The Week, April 15, 2011, p. 21.

Amos Oz, in a radio interview by Tom Ashbrook, On Point, Oct 31 2011. (11 minutes into the show)


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