Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The joy of the burger: a few thoughts on happiness.

Inasmuch as we've been discussing themes related to happiness of late, I thought I'd give you my two cents on same. Maybe that's precisely what these thoughts are worth. Here they are regardless.

Notwithstanding the general position of this blog in matters of realism and common sense, happiness may be the one area of human endeavor where some degree of detachment from reality is essential. Idealism and a PMA, no matter how P, won't help you in basketball, where you have to be tall and/or remarkably athletic, or in baseball, where you have to be able to judge the strike zone lest the decent pitchers make you look like a bozo, or on Jeopardy, where it helps to know a little something about life and the human condition. In the workplace, abundant positivity may even hurt you, for it tends to delude you into thinking you're doing a better job than you're really doing and/or may blind you to the Machiavellian ploys or mean-spirited plots of rivals and enemies. But a degree of positive detachment from reality
a sense that things are better than they are, as well as an ability to get more out of a given experience than that experience is objectively worthis integral to the pursuit of happiness.

In fact, you're pretty much lost without it. This may sound like a terrible thing to say, but I'm fairly confident in proposing that a realist, a literalist, unless he or she is phenomenally lucky, cannot be happy. Not in this lifetime.

See, you can't look at the pain/pleasure scale as an algebraic equation in which 1:1, with all events, positive or negative, perceived and measured out in their real-time values only. What I mean by that is that you must
mustbe able to get more out of the pleasure than a commensurate amount of pain: e.g., one hour of pleasure has to equal eight or 10 hours of pain.* The very infrastructure of life makes it so. Most of you, if you still have jobs, work (at least) five days a week at a job you basically hate, for a boss you regard as a certified A-hole; you eat lunch daily with a coterie of people you would never socialize with if you hadn't all been thrown together by virtue of having your paychecks issued by the same company. To offset all this, you count on your two weekend days, when most folks don't really do anything all that special or exciting anyway. Maybe you see a movie, if you're lucky you get laid, probably by someone who wasn't your first/ideal choice for the assignment; on rare weekends you'll have a getaway that's within budget, which is to say, it's far less ambitious and glamorous than the getaway you'd plan if you had your druthers (or the A-hole's paycheck). Still, you have to be able to wring enough joy out of those weekend days to sustain you through the next workweek. The cycle repeats.

I happen to be extraordinarily fortunate in that way. I can "live" off the joy of a good hamburger for three days. Most of us enjoy the hamburger only while we're actually eating it (if that: How many people do you know who are worrying about something, actively complaining about it, even as they eat a wonderful meal, a meal that's a lot more expensive and elaborate than my $5 burger? Maybe one of them lives under the same roof with you). Not so, me. While I am eating that hamburger, there is nothing else in life. There is only that moment. Only the joy of the burger.

There are dozens of things in life that I can feel that way about, or that have that effect on me. Too many to list in this post. Here are a few:

  • a base hit in a ballgame I play.
  • a ball game I play.
  • a ball game I watch.
  • a crispy chocolate-chip cookie with a chewy center.
  • a well-done rendition of Night in Tunisia.
  • any well-done jazz solo.
  • any nice, innovative sequence of chords.**
  • a colorful sunrise.
  • a colorful sunset.
  • a baby. Any baby, anywhere.
  • my grandson. Anytime, anywhere.
  • ditto my granddaughters.
  • seeing my byline in a respected publication. Yes, still, after all these years.
I could go on and on. As you can see, I don't need major rewards from life, possibly because I've seldom been able to afford them. But really, I've always been like this, as far back as I can recall. (When I was a boy, reading in TV Guide that Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein was going to be on would leave me giddy with excitement from that moment till the moment it ran, then for many days after I watched it. But I was a screwy kid anyway, always laughing. I laughed so much in school, for no discernible reason, that my parents would be regularly summoned to the principal's office to explain their son's odd behavior. My father, bless his soul, would say, "Well, I guess he must think something's funny...") When major rewards do happen, I can live off those for literally months at a time. Sometimes longer. Much longer. My movie deal in 1991 basically kept me smiling through 1994, despite the chaos that was taking place around me by the latter year. As you might imagine, my wifewho is very unlike me in this regardwas not pleased with her husband's general good cheer in the face of the adversity that was descending upon us.

Do not mistake any of this as a simplistic, Tollean call for Living in the Now; sometimes Now sucks. You don't want to be pointedly living in a Now in which the phone company is threatening to shut off your service or your son just had his car repossessed or, God forbid, you learn that your beloved granddaughter isn't really your granddaughter after all. (Been there, done that. For all of the above.) What I'm really saying is what I said a few paragraphs ago: You need to be the kind of person who is made happy by little things, and who is sustained by that happiness through the crap that follows.*** So if you're someone who enjoys what you're enjoying only while it's happening, I feel for you; makes me want to buy you a good burger and a crispy cookie with a chewy center.

One other thing. Most of the people I've known in my lifetime have gone to profound lengths to defend their unhappiness. Often, they don't realize that that's what they're doing, but it is, and they are. After listening to their whining for maybe half an hour, almost any casual bystander could point out a dozen ways, readily apparent, in which their thoughts and behaviors are counterproductive, holding them back from a shot at far greater satisfaction. If the time is right, and they show some degree of receptivity, maybe you share your thoughts on new ways of looking at life
even a new behavior or twothat might be more fruitful for them. And what do they do? They fight you. Tooth and nail. They rock back in the chair and give you a dozen reasons that, in effect, chain them to their malaise. Even, sometimes, while conceding that they should change, they'll give reason after reason why they can't or won't change. They defend their unhappiness. They're extremely invested in it.

It puzzles me. But you know what? It's not my problem; not at the moment. Because in the background, Joe Henderson is getting in some great licks on Beautiful Love, with Tyner comping prettily behind him, and right now that's all that matters.

* I'm not advancing that 8- or 10-1 ratio as a scientific formula. I'm just making a general point.
** Give me a new set of "changes" in a familiar song and I'll replay it over and over again for hours, deriving that same initial satisfaction each time. I used to drive my parents insane doing this: "Stephen, if you don't stop putting the needle back on that same spot in the record I'm going to kill something!"
*** And by the way, none of this is to be confused with success. Happiness and success, especially the financial kind, are two very different things. In fact, a productive outlook on happiness may to some degree stymie one's efforts at success in the traditional senses, as I've noted in several pieces on the subject for The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.


Debbie said...

"You need to be the kind of person who is made happy by little things"

Because more pleasurable little things are going to happen in life than big ones. And you need to focus and draw on that.

I don't know all the scientific background, but aren't people who allow themselves to take pleasure in those small things generally healthier, better BP, less, stress, that sort of thing? It makes sense to me when you start looking at the hormones involved in happy.

I have to say food, music and books are my big happiness triggers. I can talk about a meal I've enjoyed (or a loaf of bread I made) for months later, much to the chagrin of my friends.

And my boys. Included in this category are my husband, father and brother. I take such pleasure in our moments together, even the tough ones have a fond place in my heart.

I think people who go through life not noticing and appreciating things like the subtle nuances of really good chocolate, the ebb and swell of the string section in an orchestra and the laughter of children miss out on so much.

Anonymous said...

There are really two types of happiness: instant gratification and long term contentment. Instant gratification is an orgasm, ice cream, getting a promotion, etc. The "happy" feeling is fleeting, but can be captured if one needs a quick boost. Long term contentment is reading a difficult book, grasping a new skill, helping someone else, teaching others, and there is a challenging aspect to that contentment. That sense of connection and accomplishment lasts and becomes a good memory or inspires one to do more. One has to go out of his or her comfort zone to attain those "happy" moments. My belief is American society is depressed because our society has become lazy on every level. The road less traveled has become overgrown and unappealing to most. That is a big shame.

Chad Hogg said...

I would not pick out a burger as my example, but I too find a good meal to be one of the most satisfying experiences in the world. I could look forward to some good lasagna for days, and a glazed doughnut can ease even the greatest frustrations, at least temporarily. Fortunately, I have at least some sense of moderation and self-control ...

So what would you pay for a good reharmonization of "Night In Tunisia"? I am sensing a lucrative business opportunity here.

Steve Salerno said...

Debbie: I particularly liked your closing graph. Very evocative.

Anon: Not sure I agree with the dichotomy you set up. In a sense, I do agree that lasting contentment is more important than the quick, reckless jolt of pleasure; but if you can set your life up such that you're getting lasting contentment out of the quick jolts--as long as they're not quite so reckless, and you're not hurting anyone--so much the better, I think. Because true lasting contentment is so much harder to find.

Chad: The ad says it best: "Priceless."

Yekaterina said...

I've been on a high since watching the Steelers win the Superbowl, although to tell you the truth, that was such a good game they could have lost and I'd still be grinning away. Ahhh... the little joys in life.

Anonymous said...

"Because true lasting contentment is so much harder to find."

That is the point of my post. It's not about "finding" it, but about creating it. Few people want to go in the direction of contentment and lasting happiness. They would rather take the "quick jolts" than go any deeper. That's fine, but they can't be surprised if they are still left wanting more after the "quick jolt."

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 12:41 & 3:45: Look, I don't necessarily disagree with you. In fact, back in December 2007 I wrote a much-quoted piece for the Wall Street Journal that focused on that precise distinction: between happiness and fun. Here's the (tinied) link:

I'm talking about a slightly different phenomenon today, however.

Also, though I think you're landing a bit heavily on my use of the word "finding" instead of "creating," your point is taken. I'm not arguing for a totally passive approach to the attainment of happiness.

Anonymous said...


In college, my beer-drinking buddy and I sat on a beach and figured out that happiness centered around maximizing the fun-to-hassle ratio. (Hey - he's an engineer with three degrees).

I've always been a rather happy guy - even though I have a sarcastic streak a mile wide. Ill-informed people confuse sarcasm and irony for bitterness. Think of Sponge Bob Square Pants fused with Sam Kineson, and that's me.
I made a lot of money in the 90s when a company I joined very early, went public. We had a lot of computer programmers in India making us bags of money.

On a business trip to Calcutta in 1998, I met Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and in less than 40 minutes, my life changed. I never did buy the Ferrari I always wanted just to show everybody "I made it" (but 7 years later, I did get a Bentley GT), I kept my old beater - which annoyed everyone who knew I made it. Material goods stopped being important to me just when I could afford the really good stuff.

Since that muggy day in August, my happiness has come from little things: coaching t-ball; finding comfortable shoes; tuning up my 1959 Eldorado (I'm still a car freak); giving to charity and all sorts of things which are not centered around me. Teaching my young kids to read "Walter the Farting Dog" has brought me more joy than you can imagine. So too has been the ability to pick up the bar tab for a table full of U.S. Marines just back from Afghanistan.

But don't think that I'm some sort of pious saint - I still know how to have fun. And I have enough money bagged so that I will never work for an a-hole boss again; my time is my own, and I enjoy truly helping others. I know I have received more blessings than I deserve.

If anybody should be happy, it's me. And I am. And I hope other people find happiness, too.

Cal said...

I wish someone had given me this post at graduation in high school, especially the part about working (and who you are working with).