The most amazing thing about the entry is not how useful or detailed it is, however, but how it came to be. This Wikipedia definition is the result of nearly 6,000 edits by over 3,000 users (including some bots) to the page. In this way, Wikipedia understands something that most philosophers after Socrates didn’t—definitions are not static, and cannot be perfected and finalized. They must be constantly challenged, updated, reverted, and discussed. Wikipedia is like a Socratic dialogue on a massive scale.
To understand how the definition of an essential but abstract concept went from a throwaway truism to a carefully worded introduction, I downloaded, read, and analyzed all of the Wikipedia revisions on “happiness” over the course of 14 years. The journey is not pretty—the page endures a continuous barrage of hate speech, vandalism, assertions that happiness is not real, or more sorrowfully, that it is unknown to the person making the edit. This reveals that the process of defining something like “happiness” is even more important than the definition itself.
Emily King and Corey Smith had been dating for five months when they took a trip to Central America, in February, 2012. At a surf resort in Nicaragua, Smith helped a lanky American named Foster Huntington repair the dings in his board. When the waves were choppy, the three congregated in the resort’s hammock zone, where the Wi-Fi signal was strongest. One afternoon, Huntington listened to the couple have a small argument. Something about their fond irritation made him think that they’d be suited to spending long periods of time together in a confined space. “You guys would be great in a van,” he told them.
The year before, Huntington had given up his apartment in New York and his job as a designer at Ralph Lauren, and moved into a 1987 Volkswagen Syncro. He spent his days surfing, exploring, and taking pictures of his van parked in picturesque locations along the California coast. It was the early days of Instagram, and, over time, Huntington accumulated more than a million followers. He represented a new kind of social-media celebrity, someone famous not for starring in movies or recording hit songs but for documenting an enviable life. “My inspiration,” went a typical comment on one of his posts. “God I wish my life was that free and easy and amazing.” Huntington tagged his posts with phrases like #homeiswhereyouparkit and #livesimply, but the tag he used most often was #vanlife.
King and Smith left Nicaragua for Costa Rica, but the idea of the van stuck with them. King, a telegenic former business student, had quit her job at a Sotheby’s branch when she realized that she was unhappy. Smith, a competitive mountain biker and the manager of a kayak store, had never had a traditional office job. They figured they could live cheaply in a van while placing what they loved—travelling, surfing, mountain biking—at the center of their lives. When King found out that she’d been hired for a Web-development job that didn’t require her presence in an office, it suddenly seemed feasible.
Mr. Ahmed, 46, is in the business of chicken and rice. He immigrated from Bangladesh 23 years ago, and is now one of two partners in a halal food cart that sets up on Greenwich Street close to the World Trade Center, all year long, rain or shine. He is also one of more than 5,000 people, most of them immigrants, who make a living selling food on the city’s sidewalks: pork tamales, hot dogs, rolled rice noodles, jerk chicken.
These vendors are a fixture of New York’s streets and New Yorkers’ routines, vital to the culture of the city. But day to day, they struggle to do business against a host of challenges: byzantine city codes and regulations on street vending, exorbitant fines for small violations (like setting up an inch too close to the curb) and the occasional rage of brick-and-mortar businesses or residents. Not to mention the weather, the whims of transit and foot traffic, and the trials of standing for hours, often alone, with no real shelter or private space.
The jungle, though, does not take naturally to cultural preservation. The obscuring overgrowth never stops; the landscape digests all. Excavating a 5-year-old site, let alone a 500-year-old one, can be like sifting through a well-advanced compost pile in search of something edible. And yet, we try—especially when inspired by a figure as captivating as Colonel Percy Fawcett.
Fawcett was an intrepid British explorer who disappeared in the Brazilian Amazon in 1925, presumably killed by Indians. He’s the subject of a new biopic, The Lost City of Z, an adaptation of David Grann’s 2009 book of the same name. The Amazon’s greatest cover-up, Fawcett believed, was an utterly forgotten civilization named Z. He aimed, in his quasi-invincible, slightly nutty way, to find it.
The secret is to not think of reading as a precious thing. If you’re only going to open a book on the off chance you have several hours to kill in a comfy chair with a glass of scotch, it’s only ever going to happen when you have several hours to kill in a comfy chair with a glass of scotch.
Being well read means making it a part of your daily life—not treating it as a luxury. And it’s not that hard. Like all things, it just takes a little bit of discipline and a little bit of trickery.