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 worth—is 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—must—be 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.
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 two—that 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.