The Key to Happiness

One thing I didn’t say in my last post about the simple life is how we might achieve it. After all, how is such a thing possible when we live in a complex and fast-paced world where the never-ending accumulation of certain tokens is the measure of our success? What do you mean, simple life? You’ve got to be kidding, right?

Among the many things I learned in Japan was the lesson of the cherry blossoms, and if you’ll take a moment to hear me out, maybe I can describe how I put so much faith in writing about the simple life.

One of the best experiences you’ll have in Japan is participating in O-hanami, roughly translated as “honorable flower-viewing.” We call it the cherry blossom festival. Simply put, in April the many millions of cherry trees begin blossoming around Japan and everyone makes a plan to go to the nearest park for a day to sit under them.

To the more jaded among us, this may sound like a silly and even pointless pastime, but I can’t begin to tell you what it’s like, sprawled on a blanket, savory rice balls and plenty of sake at hand, tiny pink petals all around you on the ground and fluttering down from above, and when you look up, to see the sunlight streaming through heavenly clouds of pink—well, I just can’t describe it. Entire extended families go, and low-level clerks from Japan’s myriad companies big and small arrive early to spread a complement of blankets in choice positions so that whole departments can show up and enjoy this veritable Eden together.

My first spring there, the blossoms started to come out on a Friday, and by Monday they were just about in full bloom. I could see them every day from the train and planned to go to a nearby park that coming Saturday. Imagine my surprise when I finally got there and saw a trampled pink carpet and nearly bare trees. Since my Japanese colleagues to a person had talked it up so much, I was bitterly disappointed and complained to them: why is the blossoming so short? You can imagine my surprise when they said, “That’s what makes it so beautiful.”

From an American’s point of view, this was absurd. More is better, not less. It took me a couple of years to understand that limiting one’s experience of something makes it better. At first this seemed counterintuitive to me. If you really liked something, then having more of it was obviously preferable. That’s what I grew up with. Yet there were always signs that the opposite was true. I remember a conversation I’d had with a friend in college who got a part-time job at a local pizza hangout. “Do they let you eat there?” I asked. “Sure; they give us dinner.” I was in awe because I loved pizza, especially theirs. “You’re lucky,” I said; “pizza every night!” “Not really,” he replied; “you get tired of pizza.” Tired of pizza? Was such a thing possible?

Let’s go back to the cherry blossom festival. What made the experience all the more emotionally powerful was that the Japanese talked endlessly about O-hanami—both before, during and after, most often with starry eyes. Maybe because it was so short, it meant so much more to them. And I quickly found that such a thing wasn’t limited to cherry blossoms. I remember my first time having sushi. It was so delicious, but when the meal was finished, I wanted more and wistfully said so. I was looked at askance by my Japanese hosts, like the barbarian that I was—everybody knew that you heighten your appreciation of something by limiting it. Like they explained to me at the time: when you leave the table, you should be feeling, “That was so good; I can’t wait to have it again.” Aha! Heightened anticipation! I replied that when we have delicious food—especially around the holidays, at barbecues, dinner parties, etc but other times as well—we often leave the table thinking, “I couldn’t eat another bite!” A totally different experience. Afterward, there’s no anticipation whatsoever. And anticipation, like foreplay, can be very exciting. Imagine stretching it out for a week or so, in the case of sushi, or even a year, in the case of O-hanami.

How does this relate to the simple life? Isn’t it obvious? One doesn’t need more, more, more at all to be happy. If having less enhances the anticipation and heightens the enjoyment, might not that be preferable?

I was a university student when I first heard the expression, “A woman’s most sensitive sex organ is her brain.” That really got me thinking. Frankly, I believe that’s true of all of us—the imagination can hold just as much delight, if not more, than actuality. This is why the Japanese so hallow the cherry blossom festival. Because it’s so short, they must live part of it in the imagination, where it gets magnified in each person’s own way, taking on almost exalted status.

Do you know what people say about Lamborghinis? They’re an incredible car to drive—thrilling and totally involving—but you’d get tired of driving one every day. Aren’t we talking about much the same thing here? You can tire of even incredible stimulation. Or to take another example: would you really want to have a mansion? Do you fancy living in that twenty-room house filled with art and Edwardian (or Danish modern) furniture? Or would you get so accustomed to it that eventually it “wouldn’t be anything special”? I tend to believe this is the case, because of the simple fact that people who do live in mansions don’t seem entirely satisfied to stay there, sometimes having a string of houses all over the place—Aspen, Provence, London, Tuscany. Live in one mansion all the time, day after day? Ho hum.

In The Meanings of Love, I talk about the ease with which the human nervous system gets jaded. That is, it becomes accustomed to a certain level of excitation and can’t be satisfied with lower levels. (Drug users hate to come down, for example, and Harley Davidson owners would find it difficult to be content with a Honda 250.) Nor can it be free of the urge to seek ever higher levels of stimulation. This is how the American Dream became a treadmill—more begets the desire for more, and as Buddhism teaches, desire is the cause of discontent (because it’s endless and can never be fulfilled). If we can replace desire with enjoyment of small things and anticipation of more to come, we have the means within our grasp to get off the treadmill, salvage the environment and release ourselves from much of our present status anxiety. We wouldn’t be such a nation of “winners” and “losers,” either. We could all win, in our own way.

Imagine if the cherry trees blossomed all year round in Japan. Before you think, “Hey, that would be great,” think what it would mean. It would destroy O-hanami completely, as well as that beautiful image of it that lives in the Japanese imagination. More is not better.

I never appreciated water so much as when I was thirsty in the desert. I never knew the value of a hot shower as much as when I was on the road, and I never enjoyed the arms of a woman so much until I’d done without. I knew that if I learned to translate this principle into daily life (which Japan finally helped me to do), I could be more satisfied with the life of a writer and (what we think of as) its deprivations. I haven’t actually been deprived. In spite of all the trials and disappointments, my life has been rich and full in intangibles (and the occasional brief tangible—I did, for example, have a Harley for a while). But to surround myself constantly with comforts and articles so that I might feel I’ve attained at least part of the American Dream? Not likely!

The simple life may not be easy for us to attain—after all, old habits are hard to break—but if one can learn to appreciate life more purposefully by rediscovering the sacred, moderating excitation and letting imagination join in the fun, the beauty of a more cherry-blossom kind of life may just be within  reach. But to make it work fully and satisfyingly, it’s a game that all really ought to play. After all, if only some do and are compelled to live as outsiders, where’s the justice in that?

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