Back in December 2012, Philip Seymour Hoffman sat down with philosopher Simon Critchley at the Rubin Museum to talk about happiness. Days after reeling from the actor’s death, much has been made of the singular pain of addiction and the lonely descent into acting in a difficult role. But the interview touches on something universal, a base human inability to simply be happy. Within the first two minutes of the interview, Hoffman declares, “I really don’t know what it means to be happy.”
As this video makes clear, Hoffman’s struggle is “how to just be.” Pleasure is transient or a dangerous booby trap that you’ll simply make a mess of. When you start to examine whether you’re really happy, it seems to slip away.
Yet we still blindly pursue it. A December 2013 global study found that people rate happiness as more important than being rich or having meaning. And perhaps even more desperately as the economy begins to recover yet our satisfaction hasn’t buoyed. Since 2005, Google Trends shows that search for “how to be happy” has increased by nearly 180%.
The interview was taped just three days after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. This was something Hoffman referenced after stating: “I have three children and I think I’m happy with them and they’re OK.”
Toward the end of the interview, Hoffman references one of Critchley’s lectures “To philosophize is to learn how to die“—Critchley is a disciple of so-called continental philosophy—by offering his own take: “Learning how to die is learning how to live.”
Yet Hoffman certainly seemed to get it. “Meditation is actually coming right up to the lip of death, and saying, ‘I’m here and I’m scared and I’m here and I’m scared’…That’s life, that if you can actually live in that place, that that’s happiness.”
In other words, the tension between denying life and embracing it might be the closest we can get to being happy. And perhaps Philip Seymour Hoffman spent his whole life coming “right up to the lip” before he went.