Last Thursday I interviewed Gretchen Rubin, the author of Happier at Home, a bestselling book which mentions Samuel Johnson in the subtitle. I had seen one of the epigraphs she uses in the book — “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which all enterprise and labour tends” — but I was interested to know more about how she had come across Sam and what other aspects of his life and work have had an influence on her. It turned into a really great and lively back and forth discussion about Sam and his writing and his life — and how difficult it can be sometimes to penetrate his writing.

Happiness. It’s a huge topic, of course, with many people offering advice on it. I’ve heard that you shouldn’t (and cannot, really) pursue happiness itself, that the thing to do is to dedicate yourself to something or someone(s), and that will take you there. Happiness is the result of living your life in an authentic way.

There’s a lot in the circuitous path that Sam took, and which became his biography in the same way it does for the rest of us — there’s a lot of talk and writing about happiness and, frankly, about its opposite. Sam was both a brilliant and a practical man. “Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.” Some might say that that is going beyond practicality to downright pessimism. I guess it depends on your standards, your ideals, what you expect, and maybe what you’ve already experienced.

We know there were times and episodes in his life during which he was happy. He was thrilled to get married. He revelled in all those discussions and talks and arguments that he had with others at the numerous “clubs” he was part of. He was generally happy during the last 20 years or so of his life after he’d fostered a friendship with his generous friend Hester Thrale, who had him as a guest in her sumptuous mansion many times, to the extent that he was for long periods effectively living there.

In a way Sam’s life is no different from any other. Some of the things that made him happy ended because of something stupid that he did. Some ended because he got older and couldn’t engage socially so much any more. Some ended because a person died. And some just ended in the way things often do in life — they are there for a while and you are caressed by them, but gradually the arms pull free and you realize after a while that things are very different than they used to be.

What happened?

We’re often attracted or drawn to people who have the same preoccupations and obsessions as we do. Poor Boswell expended much energy trying to be happy, but I’m not sure he ever was. He always had a plan for this and a plan for that, and he often tried to “be like Johnson” in order to wrest himself onto the right path, but success was fitfull at best. His father constantly berated him. His wife was a good wife, a good woman, but Boswell betrayed her many times with prostitutes whom he could never quite sate his appetite for. And he never managed the family finances very well either.

Illness can accost you and wring the life out of you, literally and figuratively. That was Sam’s situation for at least the last year and a half of his life. Ailment upon ailment afflicting him, keeping him at home, relegating him to simply having visitors, and of course not to mention many times keeping him in physical discomfort and pain.

Sam believed, as I do frankly, in the present. He was critical of the human tendency to dwell on a past that could never be revived or to look forward to a future that couldn’t be guaranteed. As he put it:

At our entrance into the world, when health and vigour give us fair promises of time sufficient for the regular maturation of our schemes, and a long enjoyment of our acquisitions, we are eager to seize the present moment; we pluck every gratification within our reach, without suffering it to ripen into perfection, and crowd all the varieties of delight into a narrow compass; but age seldom fails to change our conduct; we grow negligent of time in proportion as we have less remaining, and suffer the last part of life to steal from us in languid preparations for future undertakings, or slow approaches to remote advantages, in weak hopes of some fortuitous occurrence, or drowsy equilibrations of undetermined counsel: whether it be that the aged, having tasted the pleasures of man’s condition, and found them delusive, become less anxious for their attainment; or that frequent miscarriages have depressed them to despair, and frozen them to inactivity; or that death shocks them more as it advances upon them, and they are afraid to remind themselves of their decay, or to discover to their own hearts that the time of trifling is past.

Rambler 111 (April 9, 1751)

Have a listen to my chat with Gretchen Rubin. It’ll make you happy …

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