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What if we can’t know what makes us happy?

Like many people, I have a period in my life I recall as unusually happy. The further I recede from it, the more definitive a glow it acquires, just as a ragged swirl of cosmic plasma transforms, from a great distance, into the single, bright point of the northern star. I wonder sometimes what made it so happy. Often it seems obvious to me: I’d just moved overseas; I was literally being paid to learn and explore rather than to produce work; I was falling in love.

But occasionally I suspect it could have been something totally different than those conspicuous answers. I close my eyes, in bed at night, and re-inhabit my body during that time. The new city where I’d moved was set amongst hills, and every day I walked inclines: these long, difficult rambles dissolved my daily cares. Perhaps it was the air itself, damp and laced with salt, drifting in from the nearby sea. Perhaps it was my sunny apartment. Perhaps it was the shades that inhabited the place, merry old seafarers who boosted the mood of the city’s living inhabitants, as a spiritual friend insisted. Perhaps it was being a stranger, loosed from the frame of the self my past years had constructed. Maybe I was eating less sugar. Maybe I was drinking more wine.

Recently, a friend of mine told me about the chart he’d made to try to comprehend his own life. It had a dozen variables: exercise, socialization, quality of sleep, interactions with co-workers, and so on. Every day he rated them all, then rated his sense of happiness, and then, after some time, mined the data for correlations. This was a particularly hard-core way of going about it, but don’t we all live the same way?

We toil perpetually in the mines of our own lives, turning backwards to tunnel into the rubble of immediate and long-past experiences, peering around, testing the rock, wondering what’s been leading to what. Recently, another friend sent me emails reminiscing about a period ten years back when he felt filled with a sense of purpose.

He attributed it to his job. From the way he spoke, I began myself to think it was the town he lived in as much as the work. But who knows?

Can we really understand what makes us happy? There are so many variables to life, infinite variables. Even science yields far fewer definite answers than we like to imagine. A few days ago, a cancer doctor quoted in the New York Times warned against the idea that cancer will ultimately yield to an easy fix when we get better at analyzing its DNA. Researchers investigating the DNA of two related bone-marrow cancers identified 10 possible causal mutations; some may not cause cancer in most patients.

It’s hard to give up the idea we can understand what makes us happy — and thus create more of it. How would we navigate life without way-stars? But maybe the stars need to be things outside of ourselves, not sparkling stones we pick up from the debris of our pasts and hold up to the sky in the vain hope they'll keep us walking a true path. Lately, in a sad phase, I did a lot of work to think about what had gone wrong. How could I do better? What was the key? How could I protect others and myself from this pain in the future? Perhaps all this thinking won’t have been in vain: only the future can answer that, if it ever will.

It was something I didn’t anticipate that gave me a more solid point of reference to stumble towards: the movie Selma. Justice, among other ideals like beauty and truth: these are things we read about these days more often in antiquated poems than in our self-help or building-your-best-life books. But justice exists outside us, or more properly between us, and paradoxically, in certain respects, that makes it easier to understand than the incredibly complex morass of our own individual proclivities and reactions. In the movie, you see its devotees suffering for it. There’s so much it seems we can endure when we find a purpose beyond ourselves, discovered in the world.

Eve Fairbanks, a writer who lives in Johannesburg and Nairobi, is at work on a book about South Africa.

Special To The Washington Post