Happiness in small doses
A review of Moments of Happiness. By: Alex Dubas. Publisher: Academic Studies Press, Brookline (United States), 2021.
What is happiness? This is a question which has baffled civilization since nearly the dawn of time. How to achieve happiness and stay happy has caused even more confusion, with self-help books and psychologists constantly trying to tell us the best ways to find and maintain our happiness. Is it money? Success? Good looks and popularity?
In Plato’s The Euthydemus, Socrates describes happiness as the desire of all men; and to achieve this, one needs to be wise. Wisdom, thus, is the path to happiness. The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, says that the purpose of life is to achieve happiness. He defines it as a sense of deep satisfaction. Nevertheless, happiness is a very personal emotion – each individual experiences it differently. While each culture, language and society views this feeling uniquely, it is still something that we can consider universal. Happiness can be seen without language, without context. We recognise it in everyday situations – a small child on the street laughing, a sport player celebrating a victory, or a couple getting married.
As a result, happiness is a small moment in time when all seems right with the world, when everything around you seems insignificant and when nothing else matters. These moments stay with us and comfort us during difficult times. It is an essential part of our humanity. These are exactly the lessons I took away from a recently published book by Cherry Orchard Books/Academic Studies Press, titled Moments of Happiness. The book is a loose compilation of real stories collected by Russian radio personality Alex Dubas and was first published in Russian as Моменты счастья in 2016. The English edition was published this year and was translated by Yvonne Howell, who also includes an introduction and important contextual commentary (to some stories).
From nothing to happiness
The background behind Moments of Happiness is as fascinating as the book itself. As we first open the book, we learn right away how the idea for it came about. Like many great achievements, the work was created entirely by accident. Dubas, who is the well-known host of an evening rush hour radio programme in Moscow, had a guest cancel on him at the last minute. With little time to come up with a new idea, Dubas improvised and made a quick (and probably random) decision to talk about happiness. How did his listeners define it? What did it mean to them? He asked his listeners to call in and tell a story about when they found happiness. There were no other rules; the callers could provide any story they wanted.
Dubas was overwhelmed with the level of engagement shown by his audience. When he chose this idea, it was really off the cuff, he had no idea that his audience would become so involved. Dubas even admits that it was the only time he was brought to tears on air. Soon after, he came to realise that in spite of our oftentimes dark reality, there are moments of brightness and happiness that people wanted to share. Hence, he decided to expand on this idea. He asked his audience to continue to share their stories. He collected them as emails, text messages and social media posts. Finally, he curated these stories and put them together in a book, which was then published in Russia in 2016. Dubas also asked various celebrities to share their own stories and these pieces are included with the others. The book quickly became a bestseller.
The fact that the book was originally published in 2016 in Russian is of little consequence. The stories that are shared span time and do not all take place during this period. However, what is unique is that Dubas asked his respondents to tell their stories in the present tense. In this way, the reader is given a sense that the event is currently taking place, while the writer is able to revisit the story as if it is happening now. In this way, each of the contributors are able to relive their moment of happiness.
Another unique aspect of the book is the fact that you do not need to read it from start to finish. Unlike the Russian original, the English edition of the book is organised into six chapters. The original just listed the stories in Dubas’s chosen order of one to 947. As the translator Yvonne Howel notes, the English edition applies a “light hand of organisation”. There are themes to the chapters, but in reality, the reader can organise or reorganise the stories as he or she wishes. You can even skip around the book and read the stories at random (I recommend doing this, especially on days when you need some cheering up).
The personal touch
Moments of Happiness is not a self-help book. It is a compilation of people’s own recollections of when they are happy. Yet, when reading these stories, one cannot help but feel a therapeutic nature to the publication. The stories bring the reader into the author’s own state of happiness, and when reading them you start to visualise yourself in the stories. In fact, you often start to relive your own moments of happiness. It is very difficult to describe the power that these stories have on the reader, but it really is a unique experience.
There is of a course a very Russian flavour to some of the stories, as many are set in specific towns or landscapes. But the details are less important. The experiences described in real time, as mentioned before, have a strong effect on the reader. Latvian pop singer Intars Busulis’s story, for example, was one that struck me: “Lightning just flashed in the distance. It’s already very, very dark. We are sitting on a blue bench near the sea, in Jurmala. It’s raining to the left of us, and to the right. My wife, my kids, and I sit there watching the lightning. There is nobody else around. We can hear the raindrops hitting the ground all around us; but right above us—none. That’s the moment: sitting with those closest to me in profound darkness, at one with the elements.”
The stories’ themes vary. There are stories about love, kids, travelling, family, reunions, friendships and even loneliness. Konstantin writes about the time he took off for two weeks, hitchhiking from Moscow to the Black Sea and back. He has nothing but a tent, sleeping bag, tea kettle and a bottle of cognac. One evening, he decides to set up camp and turn on his phone. Immediately, he receives dozens of text messages wishing him a happy birthday. Despite this, he could not have found better company to share it with than the thousands of stars above him. Olga describes the time she takes off by herself to visit Barcelona. She gets lost, but it does not matter. She watches people, smiling and feeling completely free.
One contributor writes that “happiness is an ephemeral and inexplicable thing. It can last from a few seconds to a few years. It can be felt as a quiet, even illumination, or as a sudden flash. It can come out of nowhere or out over strange circumstances. Happiness can even arise in situations that are not conducive to it at all.” In essence, this summarises the stories one can find in Dubas’s Moments of Happiness.
As mentioned earlier, the book was published originally in Russian with contributions from a Russian audience. What really strikes the non-Russian reader, however, is the book’s ability to break down cultural stereotypes. As the translator admits in the introduction, we often have the stereotype that “Russians and happy do not usually go together”. Yet, what is surprising is that dozens of stories from the book take place in Soviet times or immediately after the fall of communism during the so-called “Wild Nineties” – a time most of us would not think of as “happy”. Due to this, these stories are testament to the fact that happiness is universal. It is not dependent on or related to politics, geopolitics, or economic systems. It is a basic human emotion that spans time and space.
At the same time, and this is what Dubas admits in the beginning, the book acts as a type of “historical document” that provides insight into Russians and their feelings at certain times. Here, there is great added value for sociologists and anthropologists, who can gain a new awareness of events thanks to the sharing of these personal experiences. Nevertheless, however one approaches the book, it is certain that it will help evoke images of your own moments of happiness. This is truly the value for all readers – we are reminded how to appreciate these little moments of happiness at a time when there seems to be so much negativity in the world.
Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.