I'm a 38-year-old father of two. I love my wife. I love my kids. I even love my job, although it can be demanding at times. We have a lovely home, we attend church regularly, and we're blessed with many close friends and family members who live nearby. Despite all this, I scored so low on a 'Happiness Test' my wife passed along to me that I've barely been able to get out of bed in the morning. What gives? What am I doing wrong? You seem like a pretty happy guy. What's your secret?
Man Who Has Everything
Man Who Has Everything: I seem like a pretty happy guy? Are you kidding me? Who told you that? My therapist? My parole officer? Dr. Kevorkian? Actually, I do think I would qualify as happy if I could just figure out what 'happiness' means. My dictionary defines it as 'a state of well-being and contentment,' kind of like the feeling you have after finishing a really nice meal. But I often feel like crap after finishing a really nice meal. For one thing, the really nice meal is now over, kaput, finito. (Only the calories remain.) Also, my stomach hurts, because I overdid it with the lemon-curd mousse. And besides, how often do I want to enter a state of well-being and contentment? Sounds kind of, I dunno, boring. Buddhists seek nirvana, an everlasting bliss that comes from having extinguished desire. I'm sorry, but that would just depress the hell out of me.
So why do I think I qualify as happy? I don't know, maybe because I don't feel particularly unhappy, and happy is the opposite of unhappy. (Isn't it?) After a century and a half of self-help books ' the first one, Self-Help, was written by Samuel Smiles! ' we've come to expect a certain amount of well-being and contentment in our lives. But unhappiness remains our default mode, a legacy from all those years of running away from mastodons and saber-toothed tigers. In the old days, nobody talked about reaching nirvana. They talked about reaching the river before the woolly mammoth went into heat. And even more recently, happiness has been considered a goal, not a patriotic duty. The Declaration of Independence independently declared that all men ' make that all property-owning men ' are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
So, we're free to pursue happiness. Unfortunately, happiness is free to run and hide, which it often does. Where to find it? Most of us look where you've looked, Man Who Has Everything: Family, friends, meaningful work, spiritual quests and, last but not least, money. (Remember that old Lexus ad? 'Whoever said money can't buy happiness isn't spending it right.') But I wonder whether happiness, if it exists at all, isn't just a knack that some people have for looking on the bright side or at least not succumbing to the dark side. Studies show that people who, say, lose their legs usually return to their old levels of happiness after a period of adjustment. Likewise, lottery winners return to their old levels. Earlier, I neglected to mention the first definition given for 'happiness': 'good fortune.' That's from the Middle English word 'happ,' meaning 'good luck.' Despite all our efforts, happiness is haphazard. It comes to us by happenstance.
I suppose that means you're screwed, Man Who Has Everything. Born unhappy, you'll die unhappy. Or not. Maybe if you can give up the pursuit of happiness you'll wind up running into it after all, if only by accident. As for any secret I might be able to share with you, here it is: Good luck.
To join me for Happy Hour, write to: MR. RIGHT, ISTHMUS, 101 KING ST., MADISON, WI 53703. OR CALL 251-1206, EXT. 152. OR E-MAIL MRRIGHT@ISTHMUS.COM.