A Private History of Happiness: The Art of Living with Presence, from Ptolemy to George Eliot to William Blake
By Maria Popova
“Be fully awake to everything about you … the more you can appreciate & get a full measure of joy & happiness out of life,” Jackson Pollock’s dad once wisely advised his 16-year-old son.
Provided my documented soft spot for timeless letters and diaries, and my voracious curiosity for the art and science of happiness, I was instantly smitten with A Private History of Happiness: Ninety-Nine Moments of Joy from Around the World (public library) by George Myerson — a remarkable compendium of seemingly unremarkable yet powerful moments of everyday bliss culled from several millennia of personal correspondence and journals by famous poets, artists, scientists, philosophers, novelists, and other thinkers, aiming to “show the enduring value and beauty of ordinary human happiness as we find it in passing moments.” What emerges is a refreshing celebration of happiness encrusted not in the bombastic language of our self-help pop psychology culture, but in the quiet humility of the real, the lived, the timeless human experience.
Myerson writes in the introduction, echoing pioneering behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman’s famous distinction between the remembering self and the experiencing self:
Public history tends to turn the flow of time into a staccato rhythm of ‘big’ dates: the coronations and resignations, coups and treaties, battles and conquests that supposedly changed the world. By contrast, private history introduces us to the ‘little’ days that were important because of what one unique person felt.
It is extraordinary how powerful real, remembered happiness is, how deep and true its source. Our happiest lived experiences have the power to help us face the real world with all its difficulties. They exercise a power that the advertised, virtual images and phrases of perfection do not possess. Celebrity and consumption melt away at the merest hint of trouble, but real happiness carries us onward toward the next dawn.
The entries, covering subjects like love, creativity, family, leisure, nature, and friendship, and spanning personalities as varied as Sappho, Leo Tolstoy, and Benjamin Franklin, are each paired with a short biographical note on the respective author, along with relevant context for the specific circumstances of his or her life at the time of the writing.
In the second century CE, near Alexandria, ur-astronomer Ptolemy made the following note in the margins of a book, remarking on the same awe-inducing poetry of the cosmos that Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson celebrated millennia later:
I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemeral, but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.
Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius writes in his book of reflections whilst with the Roman legions in Central Europe between 170 and 180 CE:
When you are drowsy in a morning, and find a reluctance to getting out of your bed, make this reflection with yourself: ‘I must rise to discharge the duties incumbent on me as a man. And shall I do with reluctance what I was born to do, and what I came into the world to do?’ What! was I formed for no other purpose than to lie sunk in down, and indulge myself in a warm bed?’ — ‘But a warm bed is comfortable and pleasant,’ you will say. — Were you born then only to please yourself; and not for action, and the exertion of your faculties? Do you not see the very shrubs, the sparrows, the ants, the spiders, and the bees, all busied, and in their several stations cooperating to adorn the system of the universe?
And do you alone refuse to discharge the duties of man, instead of performing with alacrity the part allotted you by nature? ‘But some rest and relaxation,’ you will urge, ‘is necessary.’ — Very true; yet nature has prescribed bounds to this indulgence, as she also has to our eating and drinking. But you exceed the bounds of moderation, and what is sufficient, in this instance. Though I must confess, where business is concerned, you consult your ease, and keep within moderate limits.
In a letter of invitation to his friend Manilus Torquatus dated September 22 circa 20 BCE, poet and philosopher Horace sings the praises of the humble dinner party:
If you can sit upon a humble seat,
My friend Torquatus, and endure to eat
A homely dish, a salad all the treat:
Sir, I shall make a feast, my friends invite,
And beg that you wou’d sup with me tonight.
My liquor flow’d from the Minturnian vine,
In Taurus’ Consulship, ’tis common wine;
If you have better, let your flasks be sent;
Or let what I, the lord, provide, content.
My servants sweep and furnish ev’ry room,
My dishes all are cleans’d against you come:
Forbear thy wanton hopes, and toil for gain,
And Moschus’ cause; ’tis all but idle pain.
Tomorrow Caesar’s Birthday comes, to give
Release to cares, and a small time to live.
Then we may sleep ’till Noon, and gay delight
And merry talk prolong the summer’s night.
In a diary entry from August 17, 1791, curate and naturalist Gilbert White takes delight in an amusing owl:
A fern-owl this evening showed-off in a very unusual and entertaining manner, by hawking round and round the circumference of my great spreading oak for twenty times following, keeping mostly close to the grass but occasionally glancing up amidst the boughs of the tree. This amusing bird was then in pursuit of a brood of some particular Phalaena [moths] belonging to the oak, of which there are several sorts; and exhibited on the occasion a command of wing superior, I think, to that of the swallow itself.
When a person approaches the haunt of fern-owls in an evening, they continue flying round the head of the obtruder, and by striking their wings together above their backs, in the manner that the pigeons called smiters are known to do, make a smart snap: perhaps at that time they are jealous for their young; and this noise and gesture are intended by way of menace.
Fern-owls have attachment to oaks, no doubt on account of food: for the next evening we saw one again several times among the boughs of the same tree; but it did not skim round it’s stem over the grass, as on the evening before. In May these birds find the Scarabaeus Melolontha [scarab beetle] on the oak; and the Scarabaeus Solstitialis [scarab beetle] at Midsummer. These peculiar birds can only be watched & observed for two hours in the twenty-four, & then in dubious twilight, an hour after sun-set & an hour before sun-rise.
Novelist Mary Ann Evans, better-known as George Eliot, marvels at winter sunshine on a warm wall in a letter to a friend on February 21, 1867, while on winter vacation in Spain, writing to her friend and editor John Blackwood in rainy London:
We have had perfect weather ever since the 27th of January — magnificent skies and a summer sun. At Alicante, walking among the palm-trees, with the bare brown rocks and brown houses in the background, we fancied ourselves in the Tropics; and a gentleman who travelled with us, assured us that the aspect of the country closely resembled Aden on the Red Sea. Here, at Granada, of course it is much colder; but the sun shines uninterruptedly; and in the middle of the day, to stand in the sunshine against a wall, reminds me of my sensations at Florence in the beginning of June. The aspect of Granada as we first approached it was a slight disappointment to me, but the beauty of its position can hardly be surpassed. To stand on one of the towers of the Alhambra and see the sun set behind the dark mountains of Loja, and send its after-glow on the white summits of the Sierra Nevada, while the lovely Vega [fertile plain] spreads below, ready to yield all things pleasant to the eye and good for food, is worth a very long, long journey. We shall start tomorrow evening for Cordova — then we shall go to Seville, back to Cordova, and on to Madrid.
Poet and artist William Blake relishes in a letter to his friend Thomas Butts dated September 23, 1800:
We [Blake and his wife, Catherine] are safe arrived at our cottage without accident or hindrance, though it was between eleven and twelve o’clock at night before we could get home, owing to the necessary shifting of our boxes and portfolios from one chaise to another. […] We travelled through a most beautiful country on a most glorious day. Our cottage is more beautiful than I thought it, and also more convenient, for though small it is well proportioned, and if I should ever build a palace it would only be my cottage enlarged. Please to tell Mrs. Butts that we have dedicated a chamber for her service, and that it has a very fine view of the sea […] The sweet air and the voices of winds, trees, and birds, and the odours of the happy ground, make it a dwelling for immortals. Work will go on here with Godspeed.
In a letter to his friend, abbot Peter of St. Benigno in Italy, poet and scholar Francesco Petrarca celebrates the relentless rewards of writing:
Strangely enough I long to write, but do not know what or to whom. This inexorable passion has such a hold upon me that pen, ink, and paper, and work prolonged far into the night, are more to my liking than repose and sleep. In short, I find myself always in a sad and languishing state when I am not writing, and, anomalous though it seems, I labour when I rest, and find my rest in labour. My mind is hard as rock, and you might well think that it really sprang from one of Deucalion’s stones.
Let this tireless spirit pore eagerly over the parchment, until it has exhausted both fingers and eyes by the long strain, yet it feels neither heat nor cold, but would seem to be reclining upon the softest down. It is only fearful that it may be dragged away, and holds fast the mutinous members. Only when sheer necessity has compelled it to quit does it begin to flag. It takes a recess as a lazy ass takes his pack when he is ordered up a sharp hill, and comes back again to its task as a tired ass to his well-filled manger. My mind finds itself refreshed by prolonged exercise, as the beast of burden by his food and rest. What then am I to do, since I cannot stop writing, or bear even the thought of rest? I write to you, not because what I have to say touches you nearly, but because there is no one so accessible just now who is at the same time so eager for news, especially about me, and so intelligently interested in strange and mysterious phenomena, and ready to investigate them.
In his short memoir circa 1212, Japanese poet and former courier Kamo no Chomei notes the joy of shared serenity in climbing to the top of a hill:
At the foot of the hill stands a wooden hut, which is where the hill’s care-taker resides. With him lives a young child who sometimes comes to visit me. When he has nothing else to do, he joins me for a stroll. he is sixteen and I am sixty; but although our ages are far apart, we take pleasure in the same things. Sometimes we pick grass and berries, or gather yams and parsley. Other times, we go down to the rice paddies at the foot of the hill, and make sheaves of the leftover ears.
On fine days we climb up to the peak; gazing at the distant sky over my old home, we see Mt. Kohata, Fushimi village, Toba and Hatsukashi. Nobody owns this view, and nothing will stop us from enjoying it […] Depending on the season, on the way home we gather cherry blossoms, or look for maple leaves, or snap off bracken, or pick fruit and nuts; some of these I offer to the Buddha, and some I take home with me.
In April of 1837, poet and translator Edward FitzGerald extolled the vitality of spring:
Ah! I wish you were here to walk with me now that the warm weather is come at last. Things have been delayed but to be more welcome, and to burst forth twice as thick and beautiful. This is boasting however, and counting of the chickens before they are hatched: the East winds may again plunge us back into winter: but the sunshine of this morning fills one’s pores with jollity, as if one had taken laughing gas. Then my house is getting on: the books are up in the bookshelves and do my heart good: then Stothard’s Canterbury Pilgrims are over the fireplace: Shakespeare in a recess: how I wish you were here for a day or two!
Novelist Honoré de Balzac, whose love-letter mastery we’ve already admired, captured the harmony of souls in a letter to his beloved, the Polish countess Evelina Hanska, in October of 1833:
Was at [a Quaker] meeting […] This was to me a peculiarly good meeting. I waited in it for a sense whether it would be suitable for me to renew my visits to
dear Hannah Logan; and in my waiting my mind was filled with sweetness, and enlarged in pure Love and a particular openness and freedom, so that I determined in the affirmative […]
In the evening I rode to Stenton. Hannah and her mother were not at home, but soon came, and my dearest Creature received me with a decent agreeable freedom, and we conversed together with solid delight and pleasure […]
Had my dear Hannah’s company several hours, and received the fullest assurances of a reciprocal love and tenderness. Our conversation was in boundless confidence, and with the most perfect Harmony our souls seem’d entirely knit and united together, and we jointly breathed that the Eternal One might bless us in a sacred and indissoluble tie, and might make us one another’s Joy in him.
A Private History of Happiness is part New York Diaries, in its wide-spanning timeline of sentiments, part The Geography of Bliss, with its colorful atlas of cultures represented, and part something entirely new yet, in a the most human way possible, entirely and reassuringly familiar.
Published October 10, 2012