A week or so ago, one of the kids I used to mentor, now in college, texted me: “I need to write a paper about the happiest person I know. Do you mind if I interview you?” I was happy to help and honored, of course, to be interviewed. That video interview was this past Monday.
I found some of the questions interesting, and almost felt bad for Tristan, who would need to write a case study following the interview. Why did I feel bad? Well, a lot of my answers were anomalous, and that can make paper writing a bit more challenging.
One of first questions was this: “Were you surprised when this student asked to interview you as ‘the happiest person he knows’?” And my answer was, “Honored, but not surprised, no.” That answer doesn’t feel arrogant to me somehow. I can objectively say that, as I look around at the people I interact with each day, I’m happier than most and I maintain that happiness more consistently than most.
Other questions from Tristan regarding how I arrived at happiness:
“Do you feel that some factor or factors from your upbringing contributed to your level of happiness today?”
But, honestly, my answer was “no.” I had happy times, vacations and such; but I didn’t have a happy upbringing on the whole. Not by a long shot.
Tristan: “Were there any people in your early life who you consider to have been role models of what happiness looks like?”
Again here, my answer was “no.” In fact, I recall the day this realization hit me. It was my freshman year in college. I was 18 years old. And I couldn’t think of one single person in my life who was truly happy or peaceful, or who had what I’d call “joy.” Not one.
Tristan continued: “Would you say that you are consistently happy?”
My reply: “No one is happy all the time. No one. I would say that I maintain happiness 90% of the time or better, though.”
Tristan: “Are there any times that you feel more or less happy than others (e.g., seasons, times of the week, etc.)?”
Me: “No. My happiness is not dependent on time of day, day of the week, or season. It comes down to how well I’m focusing on the basics of happiness at any given time.”
And that got me thinking. If I am serving as the case in point, those “basics of happiness” don’t seem to hinge on having had an easy childhood. Nor do the basics seem to be contingent upon circumstance or time.
So … what then? What are “the basics of happiness”?
Some years back, Chad was all jazzed up about a book he’d started reading. He wanted me to read it, as well, so that we could talk about it together. Now I didn’t really have any personal interest in the book, but I did have an interest in Chad as my friend. So I went out and bought the book, in order to read along and be able to discuss it with him.
The book was about happiness. Here’s one snippet from the book, to give you an idea of the content:
“The philosopher and mathematician René Descartes concluded that our experience is the only thing about which we may be completely sure and that everything else we think we know is merely an inference from that. And yet, we have seen that when we say with moderate precision what we mean by words such as happiness, we still can’t be sure that two people who claim to be happy are having the same experience, or that we are having an experience of happiness at all.”
Did you get all that?
Elsewhere, the book explores other such fascinating areas as the differences between emotional happiness, moral happiness and judgmental happiness; and it includes graphs analyzing things like “experience-stretching hypotheses.”
Don’t you feel happier? Or at least like you’re on the road to understanding happiness more clearly?
Now, I did find the book interesting from a certain perspective. But I also found myself laughing quite a bit as I considered the absurdity of how complex something like “happiness” could be made out to be. And I wondered what the real-world application might be for people who … well, who just want to be happy. Should it be this difficult to absorb and apply? I mean, maybe this explains why more people aren’t happier: it’s just too darned complicated.
Note (for your amusement): I finished the book, head swimming, and called Chad to let him know, sure that he’d want to enthusiastically jump in and discuss the heck out of it. His response: “Pssht. That book is dead to me. I hated it. Stopped reading by chapter three.”
Um … thanks for telling me, buddy.
I recall visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston about a decade ago and standing in front of an enormous canvas. It had been painted entirely white and appeared to have some sort of hay or grass mixed in with the paint. Many well-dressed and erudite-looking people stood nearby, gazing contemplatively– some even jotting notes in fancy leather-bound journals. All of this was accompanied by much slow and sagacious nodding of heads and rubbing of chins. No one other than me seemed to think the price tag of more than $50,000 seemed out of place.
Now you may think me uncultured, uncouth or even outright barbarous for what I’m about to say here; but all I could think of was Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In fact, it is only due to elemental good breeding that I kept myself from snort-laughing. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for art and self-expression and subjective value and whatnot. But don’t cover a giant canvas in grass-paint and expect me to just accept that it has a value in excess of $50,000 no matter how many other people have swallowed the Kool-Aid. It’s just not that complicated.
Even a few years before that, a musician-friend of mine invited me to see two jazz greats play at Carnegie Hall. And when I say “greats,” I mean greats: a pianist and a trumpet player. But despite the dazzling experience of being in the iconic venue, and the undeniable talent of these two musicians – there just was no rhyme or reason to what they were playing that night (nor rhythm, for that matter). Yet, after each “number,” the crowd applauded, almost robotically – Pavlov’s dogs drooling at the bell.
Somewhere in the second half, the duo ventured from the mind-numbing abstraction to a broken few bars of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and the crowd went wild. I mean, you’d have thought they’d shot large bills out of cannons into the audience, so uproarious was their response … to the only thing close to a recognizable melody in the set.
Afterward, my friend and his buddies were discussing the brilliance of it all over some snobbish microbrew or other. I listened for a while, hoping to avoid being put on the spot. But inevitably, my friend asked me, “And what did you think?” So I told him the truth: “It was crap. There was no musicality to it whatsoever, and they knew it.” Well, let me tell you – the conversation quickly shifted to about an hour of exclaiming how ignorant I was, what a country bumpkin, how I just didn’t get the complexity of the rhythmical layers and such.
The next day, The New York Times critics reviewed the concert, stating outright that the two artists had “pulled one over on the audience” and calling it “some sort of practical joke from two greats who were clearly bored in their careers after having done it all, and who merely wanted to see just how much they could get away with on account of their good names.”
Like that “fine art” painting and that Carnegie concert, I think modern motivational culture has tried to sell us the Emperor’s new clothes with regard to happiness, adding more and more explanations and jargon and seminars and presentations about how to achieve it. But all the while, happiness hasn’t changed. It hasn’t gotten more complex or complicated. We may have allowed ourselves or our lives to become more complicated, but I think happiness is still as simple as it ever was.
Toward the end of our video interview, Tristan asked, “To what do you attribute your level of happiness?” And that got to the heart of it. It wasn’t my past. It wasn’t dependent on role models or other people. It wasn’t circumstantial. It wasn’t seasonal. No, what I told Tristan was just about as basic as it gets.
“It all comes down to choice. And you always have a choice.”
In each circumstance, I remind myself of this simple fact. I am not a victim. Life isn’t happening to me. I may not choose everything that happens in life, but I always get the choice of what I will do next.
And I believe that.
I practice it. (And practice and practice …)
In fact, it’s why I wrote the book, The Best Advice So Far. I’m careful to say at the very beginning of the book, in the Preface, that I didn’t invent any of the advice in the book and that if something is true, then it’s always been true. “Truth just is. The best any of us can do is to discover it, to better understand it, and to explain it in such a way that others can make some sense of it with us.”
I didn’t try to invent any slick new jargon or catch-phrases to use in the book, in order to up the marketability. I didn’t include any charts or graphs or scientific studies. My intention was that The Best Advice So Far be simple; that it be about the basics of happiness, things like:
“You always have a choice.”
“Misery is a choice.”
“You have to start where you are, not where you wish you were.”
“Treat people as people, not as problems.”
“Kindness still works.”
My writer-friend Sean and I got into a short exchange in the comments section of a recent post here on this blog:
Sean: “Some lessons just need to be learned again and again, practiced day after day; they never become rote.”
Me: “Yes … [h]appiness or success in any area isn’t a state at which one arrives. It’s a daily and consistent practice of the little things.”
Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated. See, I don’t think we need more information in order to find happiness.
We just need to be intentional and consistent in practicing the basics.
In fact, we don’t need to find it at all.
Happiness isn’t hiding from us.
We just need to choose it.
For more on the basics of choosing happiness for your life, check out the book: The Best Advice So Far.