Gazing Into the Abyss of Happiness

excerpted from PRONOIA Is the Antidote for Paranoia

More and more creative people find they do their best work when they're feeling healthy and secure. We know writers who no longer need to be drunk or in agony in order to shed the numbness of their daily routine and tap into the full powers of their imagination. We have filmmaker friends whose best work flows not from the depths of alienated self-doubt but rather from the heights of well-earned bliss. Singer-songwriter P.J. Harvey is the patron saint of this new breed. "When I'm contented, I'm more open to receiving a lot of inspiration," she has testified. "I'm most creative when I feel safe and happy."

At the Beauty and Truth Lab, we've retired the archetype of the tormented genius. We have zero attraction to books and movies and songs by depressed jerks whose work is celebrated but whose lives are a mess. Stories about supposedly interesting creeps don't rouse our perverse fascination because we've broken our addiction to perverse fascination. When hearing about illustrious creators who brag that they feel most stimulated when they're angry or miserable, we unleash the Official Beauty and Truth Lab Histrionic Yawn.


Sadly, many storytellers and artists are still addicted to the old delusions about the risks of good mental health. Even those who don't view peace of mind as a threat to their creative power often believe that it's a rare commodity attainable only through dumb luck. "One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness," said novelist Willa Cather. "One only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world's end somewhere."

There is another obstacle to overthrowing the status quo. Oppressively nice, indiscriminately optimistic, sentimental comfort-hoarders give happiness a bad name. They seem to justify Flaubert's mean-spirited observation that "To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost."

Here's a third blotch on the reputation of happiness: that it's mostly an absence of pain. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche frames the issue well: "Would you prefer the happiness of scratching a mosquito bite over the happiness of not having a mosquito bite in the first place?"


It's possible to define a more supple variety of happiness that does not paralyze the will or sap ambition. For the first clue about how to proceed, we turn to Buddhist researchers Rick Foster and Greg Hicks.

In their book How We Choose to Be Happy: The 9 Choices of Extremely Happy People, they reveal that the number one trait of happy people is a serious determination to be happy. Bliss is a habit you can cultivate, in other words, not an accident that you stumble upon by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world's end somewhere.

For another clue about how to conjure up a kind of happiness that does not anesthetize the soul, we call on Kenneth Koch. Here's what he wrote about Nobel Prize-winning poet Saint-John Perse: "So many poets have the courage to look into the abyss. But Perse had the courage to look into happiness."