Three essentials to happiness in this life are:
Something to do,
Something to love,
Something to hope for.
— Joseph Addison (1672–1719)
Back in high school, reading about the days of the Robber Barons, I remember encountering a recurring theme: John Q. Mogul, child of a poor family, eventually acquired millions and controlled the destiny of thousands. But he himself never seemed to enjoy his wealth. His wife threw the grandest parties of the Gilded Age, but to the end of his life he wore cheap suits, used pencils until they were worn to a nub, and refused have more than one light on at a time.
I can recall how sad I thought it was that these captains of industry could never seem to escape the poverty of their youths. How they seemed to be trapped in the furious drives and constraints that made them millionaires, condemned to labor on the treadmills they had made for themselves.
Lately, though, I have begun to wonder about that judgement.
If you have made your entire life a drive to acquire wealth and power, who is to say that you are unhappy if you keep it up? If you have created a world where it is essential that you never waste a penny and stay unswervingly focused on making money, who is to say you must be a pathetic scrooge, discontented with your lot.
For that matter, how do we know that good old Ebenezer Scrooge, with his “Bah, Humbug!” to the rest of the world, was not crabbily contented, sure in his values and his virtues? Maybe he looked around his frigid, dim office and positively glowed with smug gratification at the absence of waste within his scope.
And maybe those gloomy Puritans we imagine were nothing of the sort. Perhaps, in between worries about predestination, they spent the day basking in their austere righteousness. We know that those black clothes they wore were often made from the richest materials obtainable. To me, that does not suggest a secret love of ostentation, but instead a certain preening mind set.
Hardly what one would expect of unhappy people.
Point is, we have certain ideas of what happiness is and how you can detect it. Happy people, we say, have smiles on their faces. Happy people are cheerful and outgoing, meeting others with open, friendly faces.
Sad people, if not actually crying, wear sad or dour expressions on their faces. Unhappy people are dark and gloomy, showing to all the world that there is something wrong with them that ought to be fixed.
I suppose it is arguable that such simplistic indicators are accurate enough — for one’s own time and culture. But to reflect it onto another time or another set of mores seems to me the very worst sort of cultural chauvinism. Terms like “reserved” British or the “inscrutable” Orientals is shorthand for, “They are not like me and it would be better if they were.”
All of which directs the attention to certain core confusion: We talk a lot about “Happiness.” But exactly what is happiness? Is it a constant thing? Is it consistent from person to person? Is it stable with time?
For instance, when the Declaration Of Independence refers to, “…the pursuit of Happiness,”, did it mean the same thing then as it does now?
When we look at all those portraits of our forefathers, how many are smiling? To our eyes it does not look as if they were having a good time. They mostly range from the solemn, through the grouchy, to the downright woeful. These people were engaged in the “pursuit of Happiness?” To our eyes, it looks like the prey eluded them.
We believe that if a person is happy, it should be reflected in their face. If possible, with a smile.
They believed (insofar as we can judge) that the sort of happiness that expressed itself so easily was essentially frivolous and inconsequential. Real contentment, which came from right living, expressed itself in an inner fulfillment that gave an outward air of respectability. Just as we try to look pleasant, they tried to look dignified.
Can we really judge when people are happy?
I suspect that all of us have known some deeply, persistently, actively miserable people who seemed to be flat out in love with being deeply, persistently, actively miserable. They may be a bit twisted, but it seems clear that they are thoroughly caught up in their wretchedness and mulishly resistant to any proposed amelioration.
In some science fiction stories, machines are made happy by being well designed to do a specific task and being allowed to do it. They whirr along, delighted in being able to express their inner nature in the work they do.
Which brings us to the great Type A debate. When we see some nice, hyper, obsessive-compulsive person, we are inclined (so long as the person is not our boss or spouse) to feel something like pity. “Poor devil,” we say, “doesn’t seem to get much enjoyment out of life.”
Maybe so. But being a fairly unregenerate Type A myself, I can tell you that there have been wonderful, hyper times in my life where I was going full tilt, adrenelated to the gills and juggling ten things at once, when I felt more vital and complete than at any other times in my life.
I probably did not look happy. I probably looked harried, stressed and what we would usually call unhappy. That is, I probably wore a frown of intensity on my tense face.
But, My God! I was ALIVE.
In our time, we have a habit of deciding that certain human traits are good (like being Type B) and ought to be reinforced while others are bad (like being Type A) and ought to be corrected.
Maybe. But maybe not.
Maybe the happiest human beings are those who are fulfilling both their beliefs and their natures. Maybe the route to contentment, fulfillment, call it what you like, gut level happiness for sane people lies in accepting who and what you are and going on from there.
[Of course, the problem of defining sanity presents similar problems — which we will skip for now. Just let me say that if your basic nature is that of a mass-murderer, I’d prefer you express yourself some distance away from me and mine.]
According to that formula, those Robber Barons, those Puritans, and those Founding Fathers could have been both fulfilled and happy behind their dark expressions.
Perhaps it we, wrestling to impress rigid models of what we ought to be onto our recalcitrant natures, that may be getting it all wrong.
I began this more than usually digressive piece with a quote from Joseph Addison. Let me end it with a bit of wisdom from a Sports Figure (who must remain anonymous as I heard it on the radio and missed exactly who said it).
Success is doing something you love
…And getting paid for it.