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Finding Happiness

Published by "The Toastmaster" Magazine, August, 2001

An article in this morning’s NY Times says that even economists are beginning to study the meaning and quantity of ‘happiness.’ In the tradition of the dismal science they are trying to determine if money plays a role in people’s happiness. They find it does -- no surprise there -- but not as much as it should. "Money does buy happiness," said an economist at Dartmouth, "It just hasn't bought enough.” If anyone is interested it reading this article, which goes into considerable depth on the many and various studies undertaken by these economists along with the usual assortment of sociologists, psychologists and politicians, I will be happy to forward it to you. Personally, I found it depressing.

“The pursuit of happiness” -- Jefferson had the right idea. Or did he? In Man’s Search forMeaning, Viktor Frankl wrote: “It is a characteristic of American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to “be happy.” But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” Frankel's insight is almost a zen koan. Happiness cannot be sought, it must be found indirectly. Happiness chased is an ever-receding horizon.

This reminds me of something my astronomer/brother told me once. When looking through a telescope at a very dim object, experienced astronomers will intentionally look away from the object and observe it with their peripheral vision. It takes great training and discipline, I suppose, to avert your gaze from the object you seek, but it is necessary because the arrangement of rods and cones on the human retina are capable of a much finer resolution in one’s peripheral field of view.

If we look at the etymology of the word ‘happy,’ we find that it derives from the Middle English ‘hap’ which meant ‘chance.’ The word ‘happen’ has just the chancy absence of intention we need when making an excuse. "It just happened." This puts happiness in the realm of luck, which fits since the economists aren’t able to lay claim to it. The question remains: if we find a shortage of happiness in our lives, how are we to get more? Can’t buy it. Can’t even pursue it. No wonder so few people in this cockamamie world are happy.

When we focus on happiness itself, we put ourselves into a state of heightened awareness that bliss is absent. Happiness is bliss? Perhaps the movies have jacked up our expectations of happiness to the point that we think we should be living in a constant state of bliss. Perhaps (Per – Haps? Hmm.) it is this childish delusion that’s responsible for the tremendous consumption of Prozak in this country.

At this point in my life, my happiness is mainly centered in the person of our seven-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. She is a remarkable person. It is not only my parental prejudice that makes me say so. I have known sour, negative, unpleasant children – even infants -- and I am glad to report that she is none of these. From early in her life she displayed an optimism, joy, and capacity for caring that gladdens the hearts of those who meet her. When she was only a few months old, sitting on a couch with several other infants, one of whom was bawling in distress, Elizabeth reached over and comforted the crying child with gentle strokes.

Her fondest activity seems to be to make a present for someone. She will work for hours to create a treasure hunt for Peggy and me to find in the morning. There is no need for a special occasion – it can be any common sort of Tuesday morning as we go around the living room to search out little folded scraps of paper with hearts drawn on them, crayon x’s and o’s for hugs and kisses. There will be pictures of gardens and sunshine and crudely cut and stapled crowns for us to wear as we eat our breakfast. Through it all, she is the very image of joy, laughing and clapping and jumping around with boundless energy, delighted that she has indeed surprised and pleased us.

I trouble you with these descriptions not to only brag on my child and my good fortune in having her, though I readily admit the pleasure it gives me to do so. But also to underline the point made by Viktor Frankl and so many others, that happiness ensues from a reason. Here, the reason is love and generosity. Elizabeth is a happy person because she has tried to make others happy. She loves wholeheartedly and has expressed herself well.

There is a great happiness to be found in expression. To speak authentically, to express yourself for the audience's benefit, is a worthy effort. The payoff comes when you leave the platform satisfied that you have made your audience happy.