Uppermost House: Joy, the happier alternative

PeterLewisTreehouseCMYKBy S. Peter Lewis

BN Columnist

I haven’t been happy since 1987.  And I wouldn’t wish happiness on my best friend. Perhaps, I should explain myself.

One of my work colleagues told me the other day that she had read my column about my delight in brushing my wife’s hair, and then she stuck her finger down her throat and did one of those fake gag things, as if trying to dislodge an invisible gob of chicken gristle or hunk of undercooked SPAM.

She was (accurately) ratting me out as a hopeless romantic. An overly sentimental sap. A biweekly peddler (in this newspaper, anyway) of effusive nostalgia and vapid schmaltz. My wife calls me a mush bucket.

So, to try to reverse the trend I’ve decided to get burly and agitated. I’ve picked something nice (the institution of happiness) and am about to drive rusty nails into it. Sling a little gravel into the pudding, as they say, just to prove to certain people that I can do it. Perhaps even to prove it to myself — like balancing a spatula on my left ear.

Two Thursdays ago, March 20, was the second year of the United Nations-sanctioned event called International Happiness Day. According to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the world, “needs a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental wellbeing are indivisible. Together, they define gross global happiness.” Gross indeed. Too bad he didn’t say that in English.

As if happiness can be declared, typed into Google Calendar, waited for with great anticipation (like spring), and announced at the dawn of the chosen day via a cute little warble on your smartphone. Twittering sparrows, perhaps. As if happiness has anything to do with group-think, consensus and multi-ethnic hands raised around a big table in a unanimous vote. As if happiness is anything any of us would even want.

The problem with the type of happiness that the U.N. people ratified (all while smiling from ear to ear, no doubt) is that it’s erected on a foundation of sand, built with shoddy materials, stands leaning way out of plumb, and topples over in a scant 24 hours. It would have made as much sense for them to announce International Prosperity Day — we pretend, therefore it is.

Happiness in the developed world is almost inexorably linked to security, ease, comfort, health, and the accumulation of stuff: it’s the He who dies with the most toys wins mentality. But put a hole in a man’s fence, drain his portfolio, sink his speedboat, and give him the gout and his happiness disappears.

And don’t be fooled into thinking the pursuit of happiness will do the trick, because there isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be happy during the chase, and at the end things can still go south. Imagine this sequence: six years of expensive college followed by 50 hours a week for 40 years (with scant vacations), with onerous car payments and maxed-out credit cards, but finally comes the gold watch and the trophy house, and then the brain tumor. This kind of happiness is unpredictable, uncertain, and always (in the end) fleeting.

You see, life isn’t about effort and accumulation, it’s about trust and contentment and giving away. It’s not about the pursuit of happiness as mandated by the U.N., but rather the possession of joy as gifted by the Creator and then chosen each moment by a grateful heart. It’s about wanting what you have, not having what you want.

Common happiness is derived from pleasant circumstances, while true joy is applied to any circumstance, pleasant or dire. Happiness makes linear, rational sense. Joy often appears unlikely, even preposterous. Happiness isn’t worth having; joy is worth everything.

Maybe you missed International Happiness Day last Thursday, or didn’t even know about it. Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much. And then it was all over and Friday came anyway. A regular old Friday filled with the usual happy troubles. On that Friday, as I waited during one of the inevitable re-boots of my computer at work (I may have a virus), I took a tally of my life as an exercise to see how happy I should be. And so I added up all the things that I have that money can’t buy and that death can’t take away. And found joy from ear to ear.

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