The closest whisper of wisdom I’ve heard is too simple and rings naive so I’m embarrassed to write about it. The idea is that you must learn to enjoy life in order to be happy. Specifically, you must fixate your appetite and gaze on pleasure.
Somewhere, the priest whose lap I sat on for my first confession is shaking his head.
Pleasure exists in two handfuls of dark plump berries. It’s a frenzy of kisses on my cheeks and the surprise of finding sunflowers in another’s deep hazel eyes. It’s trembling in the same breath. It’s feeling known for who I am.
Most of us smile about “happy” and lock away “pleasure”.
Arriving at “peak happiness” is an insurmountable mountain or a 6×6 rectangle below ground. But the poets have hope
especially for the truly miserable. For example, Kahlil Gibran wrote that “the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. We experience little genuine joy in part because we avoid the depths.”
The two words, pleasure and happiness, are intimate partners. The philosopher Epicurus said, “pleasure is the beginning and the goal of a happy life.“
So how to get from here to off – I mean, to there?
Laugh loudly and sniff deeply.
You can loosen bonds tying shame to joy by practicing indulging without regret. A little bit of pleasure mixed with a heap of shame is a witches’ brew that could spook your happiness to the farthest willow tree. Rather, study yourself as you savor a moment of indulgence.
Savor is code for “slow down, you frenetic human”. Give yourself permission to laugh all night with friends, to make love until you’re sore, to whistle an entire song to your very best ability.
Look around for sensuality and feast on it because the damn moment will pass like it always does. Differentiate between beauty and sensuality as well as between the marketing of beauty and the marketing of sensuality.
Sensuality is a gift: it’s pleasure plus your senses. The sensations you feel please you and what pleases you is feeling a thick blanket wrapped around your shoulders. Sensuality is a long cat stretch. You get the idea, of course, but act on it and literally feel sensuality out.
Beauty is found in the places you search. Sensuality, too, is discoverable.
Unless your friends are awful people, you’ll sleep better at night after gathering round ye old bonfire. The point is to actively work to make friends. Your pets, even if they are as darling as my cat Delilah, do not count.
Spend time with your family if you don’t have any friends. I have to remind myself that if I have 15 minutes to kill then I also have 15 minutes to text, call, or spend with my loved ones. I strongly recommend seeing your favorite people face-to-face as often as possible.
If family’s not for you or you don’t have any then try to make conversation with strangers, which I admit is easier when you are meeting friends of friends. Once you firmly believe that you could safely spend 15 minutes with this new person in a second location, ask them to get coffee, see a movie with you, or invite them to an event nearby.
If you don’t like anyone you’ve ever met then please seriously reconsider your criteria for who can be friends with you. Side question: are you also a finicky eater? Yes, you can have high standards, but sometimes you need to appreciate the humble potato. The solution is to be less picky and befriend weird and crazy people who are not afraid to make fun of you.
I know the trend right now is to cut people out of your life, but don’t drop your random friendship with the sassy woman that runs your neighborhood sushi restaurant or with that peppy older guy with the chihuahua who only ever says “hi! how you doin” or “long time no see!”
In his book On Friendship (page 5 of a Penguin 1991 copy), the philosopher Montaigne also recommends setting up a buffet of friends. He wrote that “in one friend one can love beauty; in another, effability; in another generosity; in another, a fatherly affection; in another, a brotherly one, and so on”.
In the same sentiment and on the same page Montaigne wrote, “the love of friends is a general universal warmth, temperate moreover and smooth, a warmth which is constant and at rest, all gentleness and evenness, having nothing sharp nor keel. What is more, sexual love is but a mad craving for something which escapes you.” Loneliness can be excruciating so please do not underestimate the role of friendship in your life.
And if you still cannot make friends then devote time to helping an animal or someone. You have many options; among them include tending to a neighborhood garden, volunteering at an animal shelter, or attending events put on by your local library.
There is some elegance in refusal.
Copy my little sister who practically invented the phrase, “it’s not for me” when she was a small child. She is an explorer who also knows exactly what doesn’t work for her. You want to experiment constantly first and then limit your options.
Live modestly by ignoring advertisements.
If you’re reading it, it’s for you. Ads are purposefully designed to reach target audiences and “advertising would not be so prevalent if we were not such susceptible creatures.
We want things when they are beautifully presented on walls and lose interest when they are ignored or not well spoken of.
We receive little encouragement to attend to modest gratifications.
Levels of consumption would be destroyed by greater self-awareness and appreciation of simplicity”.
“One must regard wealth beyond what is natural as if no more use than water to a container that is full to overflowing.”
(Both quotes pulled from De, B. A. (2000). The consolations of philosophy. New York: Pantheon Books).
I’m recommending living simply, within one’s means, rather than accumulating wealth. It’s crucial to have savings, but I agree with Montaigne about resisting the urge to chase money.
For more on the difference between wealth and money, I recommend this article by Paul Graham titled “How to Make Wealth”.
Daydream about your death.
“Though they are finite and mortal, humans are gripped by illusions of the infinite — infinite pleasure and infinite pain.”
“[The wise] will start each day with the thought… Fortune gives us nothing we can really own… we live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die.” Consider a memento mori whether in the form of a card, an altar, or a tattoo if you’re so inclined.
And those who are not afraid of anything should find something worth being afraid of.
Here’s a mental exercise: call out superstitions in your head as they arise. “It is plain that there are no rewards for the dead, certainly there are no punishments either.” Then call out your fears. You may not be able to overcome all of your fears, but you want to go through the process.
“For I think I was once taught that a belief is like an impression stamped on our soul: the softer and the less resisting the soul, the easier it is to print anything on it.
Just as medicine confers no benefit if it dose not drive away physical illness so philosophy is useless if it does not drive away the suffering of the mind.” (Montaigne again, same book).
None of my suggestions may help you and should you reject all of them then it may be wise to ignore me, study stoicism, or try therapy. I earnestly encourage these last three suggestions.