Interesting discussion today, prompted by a student's very good question: how much is the happiness we derive from an activity (playing basketball, washing the dishes, studying, writing, teaching...) a direct reflection of what we bring to it, in the form of attitude, attention, and focus? That led to mention of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi's "flow," the state of "optimal experience" when we're immersed in our activities and time seems to slip away. If we could only learn to tap and direct the flow of our experience at will, the "deficit state" of unhappiness would just flow away. More on this later.
Continuing the earlier discussion of James and happiness:
An enduring paradox of our existence is that most of us are happiest when we are least troubled to understand why we are happy, when we resist the natural pull of our curiosity to reduce all phenomena to problems for research. Only when we are unhappy, or worse, do we seem to profit from explicit attention to whatever hidden biochemical or emotional mechanism it may be that results in our states of conscious weal and woe. That is when we can least afford to ignore the causal springs of our workaday selves, when we possess the lowest tolerance for our own compromised spontaneity.
The rest of the time, we probably do better not to look the gift horse of happiness too directly in the mouth. But are we most "spontaneously" ourselves when happy? Is mild depression normal and proper? Severe clinical depression is one thing; the Prozac-popping refusal of so many in our time to confront the objective causes of personal discontent is another. But James is finally a Jeffersonian in the matter of happiness, on the side of those who proclaim its pursuit by any self-regarding means a basic human entitlement.
So why not study our happiness? Do we risk the evaporation of mystery? It must be an evanescent mystery, indeed, that vanishes under critical investigative scrutiny. But maybe there is a greater risk of overlooking a mystery beneath all serial causation. Multiply-subjective experience is unspeakably richer than the stunted imagination of the philanthropic trustee who, when asked for examples of intractable mystery worthy of his foundation's research dollars, mentioned the dietary regimen of a random Frenchman on an arbitrary day in the fourteenth century... Springs of Delight