From Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education, published by New Star Books in 2007.
Sometimes I teach myself something. One day we were talking about happiness. We were far enough along in the semester that they had noticed I was invariably cheerful. By the way, this is one of those things that I don’t think you can fake. Although contemporary students may have been rendered ignorant about their culture, they strike me as psychologically acute about attitudes, self-presentation, and the like. It’s true—and they can tell—that I like being with them, having the conversations we have, figuring out the answers to the questions, even though most of the questions in metaphysics don’t have answers.
“How come you’re always so happy?” one of them asked. Often when I’m asked that (which is, in fact, a tough question to answer satisfactorily), I try to fob them off with an account of my father, from whom I acquired my happy temperament. I have a large repertoire of anecdotes about what a wonderful guy my father was. But when that doesn’t work, I have to admit, “Because I’ve discovered the secret of happiness.”
“What is it?” they ask, at last “interested.”
“You don’t think I’m going to come right out and tell you, do you?” I tease. “I mean, tuition fees haven’t gone up so high that we have to reveal the secret of happiness, have they?” I like to fool around a lot, especially when tough questions are on the table.
Eventually I get around to admitting that although it seems I have discovered the secret of happiness, and they have some available evidence—namely, my persistent if sometimes insufferable cheerfulness—that would give them good reason to believe this is the case, it’s a “secret” that’s hard to put into words. Still, I try. I point out that part of the secret of happiness is to recognize that happiness isn’t as important as they thought it was, but they don’t believe that. What it usually comes to, I finally concede, is a recognition that unless life is imperative, it’s not very interesting. I don’t try to explain that all at once, but I’m usually willing to provide an example or two.
The example I gave them was about what I do in the morning. For some reason, students seem infinitely fascinated by the autobiographical details of the lives of their teachers, even though they tend to judge those lives to be fairly dopey and definitely boring. Anyway, after I wake up, go to the bathroom, and make some coffee, I settle in at my desk and read a few pages of philosophy. I like to read philosophy first because it’s the most difficult thing and my mind is clearest at the beginning of the day, before the travails of the world have demanded and received my attention. The students usually make a sound of mild disgust upon hearing this—a kind of “ugh, why would anyone want to do that?” sound—but they’re sort of interested. There’s a slight bias in favour of “weirdness,” and this counts as definitely “different,” as they currently say.
I also explain that I don’t like any electronics sounds in the morning while I’m reading my philosophy—radios, TVs, music players, and the like. I tell them about that bit of personal bias as part of my general campaign against consuming all that junk. I don’t even like newspapers first thing in the morning. Their stories feel like little hands clutching at me, each one demanding that I sympathize with their idea of the world.
I say, This is something I like doing, reading a few pages of philosophy in the morning. It’s part of what makes me happy, and I’ve been doing it just about every morning for years and years.
As I was telling them this, I was a little surprised to realize that it was true and that I had never really thought about it in terms of happiness before. To a degree (a limited degree, naturally), and under certain conditions, we can do pretty much what we want, especially if we’re middle-class academics in wealthy societies. To a degree, and this is the more important factor, nobody cares what I do at 6:11 a.m. To a degree, nobody gives a shit about anything we do, and nobody’ll give a shit after we’re dead whether or not we read a couple of pages of philosophy first thing in the morning for years and years.
“Of course, people not caring about each other is usually bad,” I caution. “But there’s also a good side to nobody giving a shit. The only one who has to care, at least about certain things I do, is me.” The sense of exhilarating freedom and terrifying loneliness contained in the recognition that nobody gives a shit is part of the secret of happiness.