Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The science of happiness?

Is Kemal happy? Can he be happy? What is happiness anyway?

I'm about a third of the way through Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence. Pamuk is the Nobel-prizewinning Turkish writer you met here once before when I was writing about his novel My Name is Red. Museum is his latest.

Happiness seems to be the theme. The first chapter is called "The Happiest Moment of My Life." The last chapter (not yet read) is called "Happiness." Happiness is very much on Kemal's mind.

Kemal is the thirty-ish son of a wealthy Westernized Istanbul family. He is engaged to the beautiful and aristocratic Sibel, a mature woman of an old and respectable family. It is a match made in heaven -- or so everyone says. Trouble is, Kemal has fallen head-over–heels with Füsun, an even more beautiful 18-year-old shop girl, with whom he is having a passionate affair.

He dreams of having it all. Marriage and children with Sibel, with all the perks of respectable society. Füsun as compliant mistress. In his mind, perfect happiness.

Well, we'll see. "Any intelligent person knows that life is a beautiful thing and that the purpose of life is to be happy," says Kemal's father, as he and his son watch Sibel with two of her pretty friends. "But it seems only idiots are ever happy. How can we explain this?"

"Why are you spouting such thoughts?" says Kemal's mother. To her son she says: "Go to Sibel, share her joy."

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Every intelligent person knows that the purpose of life is to be happy. But what is happiness? How do we know it when we see it? In recent years there have been a number of books on the science of happiness. I checked them out. Clearly, brain chemistry and even genetics can influence happiness or depression. But on the evidence of literature, the very nature of happiness is elusive. Is happiness innate? Can it be nurtured? Are health and wealth sources of happiness? Can a flower in a crannied wall make one happy? A sunny day? A pill? Are only idiots happy, as Kemal's father says? Some people have everything to be happy about and yet are miserable. Others have nothing and are happy? Who can explain it? When we try to analyze happiness it slips through our fingers like water.

Will Kemal find happiness? I have another 500 pages to go. I'll let you know.