“There is nothing either good or bad,” I had heard in high school, from Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.” I had been lucky enough at that point to 1)stumble into the life I might have dreamed of as a boy: a great job writing on world affairs for Time magazine, an apartment on 2)Park Avenue, enough time and money to take vacations in 3)Burma, 4)Morocco, 5)El Salvador. But every time I went to one of those places, I noticed that the people I met there, 6)mired in difficulty and often warfare, seemed to have more energy and even optimism than the friends I’d grown up with in privileged, peaceful 7)Santa Barbara, Calif., many of whom were on their fourth marriages and seeing a 8)therapist every day. Though I knew that poverty certainly didn’t buy happiness, I wasn’t convinced that money did either.
So—as post-1960s cliché 9)decreed—I left my comfortable job and life to live for a year in a temple on the backstreets of 10)Kyoto. My 11)high-minded year lasted all of a week, by which time I’d noticed that the depthless contemplation of the moon and composition of 12)haiku I’d imagined from afar was really more a matter of cleaning, sweeping and then cleaning some more. But today, more than 21 years later, I still live 13)in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old 14)monastic 15)cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media—and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack.
I’m no Buddhist monk, and I can’t say I’m in love with 16)renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I’ve written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did. And it seemed quite useful to take a clear, hard look at what really led to peace of mind or absorption (the closest I’ve come to understanding happiness). Not having a car gives me 17)volumes not to think or worry about and makes walks around the neighborhood a daily adventure. Lacking a cell phone and high-speed Internet, I have time to play ping pong every evening, to write long letters to old friends and to go shopping for my sweetheart (or to track down old 18)baubles for two kids who are now out in the world).
When the phone does ring—once a week—I’m thrilled, as I never was when the phone rang in my overcrowded office in 19)Rockefeller Center. And when I return to the United States every three months or so and pick up a newspaper, I find I haven’t missed much at all. While I’ve been rereading 20)Walden, the crazily accelerating 21)roller-coaster of the 24/7 news cycle has propelled people up and down and down and up and then left them pretty much where they started.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend my life to most people—and my heart goes out to those who have recently 22)been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted. But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down. The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the 23)corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.
I even went through a 24)dress-rehearsal for our enforced 25)austerity when my family home in Santa Barbara burned to the ground some years ago, leaving me with nothing but the toothbrush I bought from an all-night supermarket that night. And yet my two-room apartment in nowhere Japan seems more abundant than the big house that burned down. I have time to read the new 26)John le Carré, while 27)nibbling at sweet 28)tangerines in the sun. When a 29)Sigur Ros album comes out, it fills my days and nights, 30)resplendent. And then it seems that happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued.
If you’re the kind of person who prefers freedom to security, who feels more comfortable in a small room than a large one and who finds that happiness comes from matching your wants to your needs, then 31)running to stand still isn’t where your joy lies. In New York, a part of me was always somewhere else, thinking of what a simple life in Japan might be like. Now I’m there, I find that I almost never think of Rockefeller Center or Park Avenue at all.