Orson Scott Card on What happiness really is

The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy said it with the first line of his novel “Anna Karenina”: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Actually, he said it in Russian — this is just the most common translation — and of course he was exactly wrong. Following a very few patterns, unhappy families seem to chart almost identical downward spirals into misery or dissolution.

Happy families, however, seem to find the resources to overcome obstacles, conflicts, griefs and the natural cycles of life.

What do we mean by a “happy” family?

If we mean one in which each individual never knows a moment’s grief, frustration, anger, disappointment, resentment, envy, loneliness or suffering, then “happy family” is a term without a referent in the real world.

Even if such people existed, they wouldn’t even know they were happy, having never experienced anything else. In fact, knowing what I do of human nature, I’m quite sure such imaginary people would soon work themselves into a frenzy of suffering over the fact that their lives were so boring!

A happy family will always contain unhappy individuals, because such is the nature of human life. We always want at least some things that cannot be had; we always lose things we wish we could keep.

The natural course of life leads to suffering and loss.

Our bodies don’t do all we want them to do; we suffer ills and pains.

There is no such thing as a satisfying career, because careers by their nature can never satisfy us for more than a moment at a time. When you achieve the pinnacle of your ambition, the thrill lasts about 14 seconds, and then you cast about wondering what to try for next.

Either we don’t have all the children we wanted, our children make choices that we wish they hadn’t, or they do everything perfectly — and then move away to start their own families, leaving us comparatively lonely and purposeless.

And yet people going through all these natural woes may be living in a genuinely happy family.

The world gets confused and thinks that joy or happiness are identical to pleasure or amusement. Wicked, miserable, cynical, lonely people can smile and laugh; happy, generous, hopeful, loving people can weep.

Single people often feel that getting married is the going to make them happy. The truth is, even if you marry someone you’re in love with, you’ll be happy for a while and then your happiness levels levels will drop back to where they were. You will get on with the business of being married: Taking care of your spouse and children, dealing with disappointments, laughing at jokes you’ve heard 100 times before, and so on. Marriage means a life of service (tho not slavery) and not a life of pleasure and amusement.

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December 12, 2011 · 11:21

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