Happiness is underrated. It’s a feeling everyone enjoys, certainly, and one that we are wont to spend our lives pursuing — but not one that we often think much of when we have it, especially when it’s triggered by something small in the fleeting moments that we know will quickly pass, as if we’re afraid to get too attached to it in that short amount of time. We so seldom take time just to be happy; we always tell ourselves we have something better to do, something more productive, more useful. To dwell on an emotion is a waste of time, especially such a simple, positive one that can just as easily continue in the background while we make better use of our already busy lives. We seem to take for granted how nice it is to be happy, not taking chances to enjoy the things that make us happy for their own sake, even if these things are very simple — especially if these things are very simple.
The Serbians may be able to offer the rest of us a mindset shift, a call to stop and smell the roses. And they can do it with just one word.
Merak, to my understanding of its more widespread definition, is the word for when some small thing brings you back to your natural state of being, and suddenly you feel intimately, acutely connected to the world around you and aware of your place in it. It sounds existential, but merak is a pleasant feeling: a small reminder of the natural order of things, something that puts things back into perspective. A moment you can enjoy for the sake of it, a moment where you can just be. It can come from any simple pleasure: stopping for ice cream on a hot summer day, taking time out to pause, enjoy a sweet refreshing treat, and remember what summer is all about. Spending time with a loved one, perhaps talking or partaking in some activity together but invested in each other’s company first and foremost, savoring the shared feelings of warmth and camaraderie that you’ve built over years of trust and mutual admiration. Sitting on your new apartment’s quiet balcony and watching the birds come and go, both you and them aware that you share this little slice of the world, and both you and them content to do so.
But there were two vastly different interpretations of merak that I came across in my research. Though the majority of sources cited the serene-sounding definition of simplicity and bliss, one — interestingly, the only one that seemed to have been written by someone with any knowledge of Serbian — made it out to be something much more wild and uncontrollable. This interpretation, the way I understand it, can be thought of more like a person’s wildest dream: the ultimate desire of their heart and soul, the thing that they simply must do, have, see, or otherwise experience, regardless of considerations like money or practicality. This type of merak isn’t passive — it’s something that happens to you, almost as if it’s a rite of passage. It splits your life distinctly into a Before and After, diverging at the moment when you first knew, with intense and passionate certainty, that you wouldn’t be content until this desire was satisfied. It’s a feeling all Serbians know and understand; no matter what your merak is, how outlandish or extreme, as long as you label it merak you don’t need any other explanation. That’s the power it has.
How did two such dramatically different feelings emerge from the same word? It may be a simple linguistic mystery, or maybe something got lost in translation. But perhaps there’s a connection between them. Certainly, both interpretations at their core are about happiness and fulfillment, and the pursuit thereof, even if one treats that pursuit more aggressively than the other. Maybe, if you manage to satisfy the more passionate form of merak, you achieve the other: you find your bliss and oneness. And nowhere is there any indication that your merak has to be something extreme. For some it may be skydiving, but for others it could be simply watching the birds. At the end of the day, what brings you the greatest joy is highly personal, something unique to you. And if it’s truly, genuinely what makes you happiest, as long as it doesn’t come at anyone else’s expense, then it’s fantastic. The Serbians understand this. I think it’s a philosophy we should all learn from; it’s certainly a refreshing take on happiness. Whatever your merak is, take the time to enjoy it when you get the chance. It won’t wait for you, after all — the pursuit of happiness is still a pursuit. And that’s what makes even the smallest moments when we achieve it so thrilling.