Happiness is only real when shared, or is it?

by Paul Goodchild on May 22, 2011

Happiness is only real when shared

These words:

Happiness is only real when shared

…found written by Christoper McCandless are thought to be the last words he wrote before he died.

I’ve thought about this insight for a long time, and read many differing views on it.  But I’m still not satisfied with the interpretations I’ve read.

Too much emphasis placed on deriding the whole experience Christopher McCandless had, or just jumping on top of the idea and accepting it at face value.

Some feel we can disregard the meaning because he was dying, and alone, and his thoughts had turned (understandably) inwards.

I don’t agree. It makes no sense to just disregard the implications that come from that idea that happiness is only real when shared.

Can happiness even be shared?

I believe it must be to reach certain levels. To qualify that statement, I should explain how I interpret experience of “happiness” and “shared”.

Some believe the experience of happiness is subjective and personal; that while two people together might be happy, their happiness is derived from 2 separate places and experienced in 2 separate forms.

How dull.

Sure, I understand the principal of subjectivity in experience, and subscribe to it, but I have no doubt happiness, and other emotions may be experienced in tandem – they feed off one another to create an elevated emotional experience that otherwise wouldn’t be achieved.

So yes, the experience of happiness is subjective and can be shared with other people. Perhaps not like chocolate cake; but a happy event may be shared so that the participants will have a more intense experience than otherwise possible.

What does it mean to share in happiness?

There is an assumption made from this quote that “shared” meant “with other human beings”.

Consider an alternative:

In contrast to the outsiders’ perception that Christopher McCandless was feeling alone and destitute, and probably regretful of his self-induced solitude, he was espousing the idea that even in a solitary human death, he was not alone, but happy and at peace.

At the time of his death, instead, he felt liberated after achieving a separation from so-called modern “society”. He was deeply connected with nature and life and wasn’t alone by a long way.

Another quote from him is:

You don’t need human relationships to be happy, god has placed it all around us.

Putting the definition of “god” aside for now, he was happy and capable of experiencing happiness in human solitude. Happy because he was living life fully, and sharing in the beauty of the world that surrounded him.

I feel the greatest lesson we can draw from his whole experience is that we are truly living, with the greatest propensity for happiness and love, when we are connected deeply to life that surrounds us. That is, connected with nature and/or human relationships.

In this way we share our lives and our happiness.

Consider the extreme opposite… life spent in solitude, in a dark lifeless hole. All you have to look forward to misery leading to insanity.

Why are children so happy?

I explored the idea that youth is the secret to happiness in an earlier article, and I believe that fits nicely with what I’ve outlined here.

Children are naive, and largely innocent.  They typically find fun and joy in the simplest of things in a manner forgotten by most adults.

To test this idea, place a bubble-blowing machine in a children’s playground and one in an office and observe the different responses.

As children become increasingly self-aware, they don’t need to be explicitly taught that sharing is the fastest route to a good life. They can try and eke it out alone, but they’ll soon realise it doesn’t pay.

As children we learn through observation, modelling ourselves on our peers and role-models.  Thus we grow.  We watch grown-ups all around us fight and squabble, living disconnected and unhappy lives and assume this is normal and “the way things are”.

I feel that by default we, as children, feel connected rather than separated from the world around us. We are taught to fear the unknown (people, places and things), to stop exploring because it’s “wrong” and “unsafe”.

How often do you hear parents staying to their children:

  • Stop…!
  • Don’t…!

It’s basic 21st century parenting vernacular.

What do you think of happiness and sharing?

Did I interpret “sharing” all backwards, or does the typical interpretation of Christopher McCandless have the right of it? Must we be with people, sharing lives and experiences, if we want to be truly happy? Is that even what he meant?

Please feel free to leave comments below, or share this on facebook using the floating button on the left, or even on Twitter.  Thanks for visiting!

The read the book from which the quote is taken, you can grab it on Amazon here: Into The Wild

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Michellekatics May 27, 2011 at 10:37

“We must recognise that the suffering of one person or one nation is the
suffering of humanity. That the happiness of one person or nation is the happiness
of humanity.”  — H.H. Dalai Lama

“I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the
development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of
others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted
feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It is the ultimate
source of success in life.” – H.H. The Dalia Lama

H.H. appears to agree with the children you mention — that connectedness and happiness are integral to each other.  

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Paul Goodchild May 28, 2011 at 15:30

it can only be a good thing if I’m thinking along similar lines to H.H. :)
Thanks for visiting, hope all is well with you in Maesot!

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Kerry July 20, 2011 at 22:37

I think it was just a summary of everything he learned…he acted out of revenge and towards his parents who he felt didn’t love him the right way, and he found many people along the way to share himself with (or his new found happiness throughout his journey) I’m sure he just wished he would have expressed his love more instead of hate he had towards society influenced by the books he read and past experiences. He wanted to find out for himself and so he did. I think many people find this out without being on the verge of death. I just think he needed to sum up what he learned. I’m sure he realized that all he thought was happiness was an illusion and it can only be fulfilled through love not self-loathing or hatred towards the whole. whether it be nature or people. You can find yourself at your most content when you are surrounded by nature, alone, but in reality you are not alone because you are surrounded by the beauty of the world. but you always have to come back to society and the people in it to refill your basic human needs (people). The people in his life really did care about him and I think he realized that that is what it is all about; sharing it with the ones you love and the ones that love you back. I know he planned on coming back and I think that if he didn’t die he would have realized the same.

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Kerry July 20, 2011 at 22:50

good point on children…have you ever tried swinging on a swing for about ten minutes…you feel like a kid again and all is right in the world…I think it is the key. When society gets me down that works for me. (beats going to Alaska for now lol) And that’s why when you fall in love, you feel like a kid again. but what’s funny is that re-emerging guilt that sometimes accompanies you when you catch yourself having the same feelings you did as a kid when you are an adult. i.e. having too much fun. I think a big key to happiness is keeping that glimpse of childhood with you, and never letting it go. also I wonder if maybe he meant it isn’t real unless someone else hears the story at least. like when a kid does something and then has to tell the adult just to make it real because in a world of imagination and wonder, adults are the reality to children.
—–so GOOD POINT. I am going to ponder that one for a while thanks!

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Jo Iversen September 9, 2012 at 23:41

I think that one should consider in what book McCandless wrote this quote in, “Family Happiness” by Tolstoy. This indicates that McCandless probably meant happiness is only real when shared with other people, in particular ones family and the people you love (in Tolstoy’s case his servants as well as his family). However, I disagree with McCandless and have always found this quote to be a bit of a disappointment. He might not have felt happy in his last month when he found he could not get back to civilization, but did he not feel happy during all his other solitary adventures? My impression was that he most certainly did, and although he is trapped in the Alaskan wilderness that shouldn’t reverse all the happiness he did experience. I personally feel my strongest emotions when I am alone, whether in nature or other places, and of course happiness is included in these. I agree with you and believe that in order to feel happiness, one has to embrace ones surroundings and appreciate the beauty of them.

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Tim October 10, 2012 at 02:16

I subscribe to Viktor Frankl’s ideas on logotherapy – that happiness is found through meaning. He was a psychologist who was brought into the concentration camps of the holocaust. While in the camps, he studied why some people fell into despair and others did not. He also recognized how some could be truly happy in the roughest of conditions.

You mentioned in your blog that happiness can be obtained without sharing it with others. As much as the story of Christopher McCandless pulls at my heart strings and I empathize with the decedent, I agree with you that happiness can come about without the experience of another. Dr. Frankl recognized that those who had meaning were more happy and therefore more likely to survive.

He assumes the equation D=S-M (despair is suffering without meaning). Christopher McCandless was happy, even at those moments when his feelings of happiness were not shared with others, because his actions (whether traveling to Alaska or running free) held meaning.

The issue of relationships is one I find to be perplexing. Empirically speaking, humans value other humans and their relationships with other humans a great deal. Therefore, a high level of meaning is placed on the procurement and maintenance of those relationships. Of course other values often conflict, which can give meaning to liberty from those relationships.

Four months ago, I left my family, friends, and relationships in Illinois. I packed all of my belongings and traveled to the outskirts of Delaware. I swore off all relationships – friends, girlfriends, family (anything that could give rise to a meaningful connection). I have to say that I felt liberated the first month on the road and living alone, etc. I enrolled in law school – which has brought a bit of meaning to my life. But I cannot escape the desire to want to form a relationship with someone, and I cannot escape my value of human relationships. All other things seem meaningless at times because that which I have such a high value of is being ignored. Of course, it might be easier for someone who finds relationships less meaningful.

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Scott December 15, 2012 at 17:46

Tim: I like the way you think but you seem to forget that people, no matter how intelligent, still have outdated hardwiring. No matter how civilized we become, genetically we have the tendencies of herd animals. Pack instincts. Survival instincts, but most of which we don’t really need anymore. The need for human connection is simply a result of “strength in numbers” and natural selection. We are bred to require human connection. Good luck fighting human nature. It’s possicle. Priests do it with celibacy. But it’s a concious sacrifice. I think mccandless just realized this in his final days. Yes there is freedom in being detached. I’ve done it. And yes you can be perfectly happy alone. But if you don’t fulfill the basic human need of at least sharing your life with someone before you die, even written in a book, you might as well have never existed. Your happiness is real but no one else knows about it. Or maybe he was just dying and lonely and wished he had planned better. Instead of reading books, maybe he went hunting or fishing more. The movie gave this impression so it was a pretty poor ending. Anyway, yes there is freedom and discovery on the road. I’ve done it. But there is always the homecoming afterward, to share the tales. Life is about experiencing things you can tell as stories later. If you never tell the stories, what was the point? This is the part McCandless missed out on. Lesson: never underestimate mother nature, especially in Alaska. Invest in sat phone.

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Big Bird Johnson January 9, 2013 at 10:28

Throughout the whole movie Chris was clearly acting upon the idea that true happiness came from new experiences and not human relationships. This theme comes up multiple times. At the end of the movie, when he writes that happiness is only real when shared, he is admitting that he was wrong or at least partially wrong.

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