Happiness and Intensity

“Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony.” ~ Thomas Merton

“If you want to be happy, be.” ~ Tolstoy

Happiness and intensity are not the same thing.

I enjoy browsing Gretchen Rubin’s blog The Happiness Project, especially if I’m feeling emotionally stuck or apathetic. Her lively writing, blog design, and practical suggestions are like the promise of the first warm breeze of spring.

At the same time, I’m one of those people who, the more I try to be happy, the less I succeed. I’m not anti-happiness by any means, and I certainly don’t consider myself to be—to borrow a phrase from Amy Bloom’s essay “The Rap on Happiness“—a fashionable scowler. But I do know that it doesn’t work for me to make happiness a life’s project. If I spent every day thinking about being happy, I’d be, well, not very happy.

Bloom describes how the transient nature of happiness is part of its elusiveness:

“To hold happiness is to hold the understanding that the world passes away from us, that the petals fall and the beloved dies. No amount of mockery, no amount of fashionable scowling will keep any of us from knowing and savoring the pleasure of the sun on our faces or save us from the adult understanding that it cannot last forever.”

My son and daughter-in-law, Todd County, South Dakota

It is the combination of the “pleasure of the sun on our faces” with understanding and self-reflection that can lead to intensity of experience beyond happiness.

Intensity: Exceptionally great concentration, power, or force.

Like happiness, intensity is hard to describe, but we know it when we see or feel it. Unlike happiness, it is not something most people strive to feel all the time.

For some people, however, intensity is an everyday experience.

The editors of Living with Intensity explain how the work of Polish psychiatrist and psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski has helped us to understand the role of intensity in everyday life, especially as it pertains to gifted young people:

“Dabrowski had a strong interest in the emotional development of intellectually and artistically gifted youth. He was struck by their intensity, sensitivity, and tendency toward emotional extremes. He didn’t see these traits as abnormal but as part and parcel of their talented, creative selves. In their intensified experiencing, feeling, thinking, and imagining, he perceived potential for further growth (Dabrowski, 1967, 1972). He saw inner forces at work that on the one hand generated overstimulation, conflict, and pain, but on the other hand, these factors provoked individuals to search for a way through the pain, strife, and disharmony. Dabrowski’s life work embraced the heightened excitability of individuals, their drive, curiosity, and their urge to challenge conformity, complacency, and smug self-satisfaction.”

[References: Dabrowski, K. (1967). Personality-Shaping through Positive Disintegration. Boston: Little, Brown; and Dabrowski, K. (1972). Psychoneurosis Is Not an Illness. London: Gryf]

Note there is no mention of happiness. Drive, yes. Curiosity. Challenge. Intensified experience. But not happiness.

Does this mean that intense people cannot be happy? Or is it rather that the kind of happiness we strive so hard for may not always be in everyone’s best interest in the long run?

Could it be that by relentlessly pursing a happy life, we shut the door on a different kind of experience or intensity that could, as Dabrowski theorized, lead to personal growth and a different kind of happiness?

Thomas Merton’s description of “balance and order and rhythm and harmony” is close to my own understanding and experience of happiness. However, is that really the ultimate end, the “supreme good,” as Aristotle believed?

T. S. Eliot in the Four Quartets wrote of the difference between “moments of happiness” that are, on the one hand, a mere “sense of well-being,/Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,/Or even a very good dinner” and, on the other, “the sudden illumination—”:

We had the experience but missed the meaning,

And approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form, beyond any meaning

We can assign to happiness.

~ T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, “The Dry Salvages”

To be continued…

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