What should it take to make you happy in this world?
As I went into the Grace the other day for lunch, I found the store empty except for one customer enjoying his solitude and the wood fire but most of all, enjoying his meal. He had a two-hand sandwich in front of his face, both hands wrapped pleasurably and protectively around the freshly baked bread.A two-hand sandwich is one you eat with real focus, either because you’re really hungry, or because the sandwich is just that good.Instead of the usual exchange of pleasantries, he looked up at me, with a mixture of guilt and satisfaction on his face, and asked semi- seriously, “Shouldn’t it take more than a good sandwich to make me happy?”Caught flat-footed by the question, I answered to the effect of, “Well, why shouldn’t that be enough to make you happy? But maybe that’s not the important question; maybe the question is shouldn’t it take a lot to make you unhappy?”
What had sprung to mind was an acquaintance who lives under a cloud, seemingly all the time, unhappy because of the election, unhappy because of Iraq, unhappy because of too many tourists and not enough snow, but not only unhappy, but willing to let every day be colored and ruined. She’s not wrong to worry about the state of the nation, the future of the economy and traffic hassles; more people should take an interest in the world around them. But should she be so unhappy that even a two-hand sandwich would be tasteless?Surprisingly, she’s not alone in having mostly gray days, interspersed with the occasional black day for color.Dating back to the 1950s, pollsters have regularly asked Americans, “Are you happy?” Only 30 percent of the population then, and 30 percent today, claims to be happy, while the proportion of the population that describes itself as not very happy has remained constant.You’d think that over the past 50 years, the happy proportion of the population would have risen. Schools no longer teach “duck and cover” to grade school children. Those same schools, while not perfectly integrated, now house students with equal facility, and despite efforts to introduce a voucher system, the rich kids generally receive the same quality and level of education as those less well off.
The air is cleaner, the water more pristine, the general population safer than 50 years ago, and violent crime has fallen dramatically across the country, even as the gulf between the very rich and the poor has widened. And average incomes and wealth have risen in this country to a point where, at least statistically, America is as good as it gets.So why aren’t more people happy? The mass media have something to do with it. From those 57 channels of television that Americans watch on average at least five hours a day, it seems that everywhere you look, there are people who are better-looking, who are better educated and more articulate, as well as people who are more motivated and successful, to say nothing of richer and better off financially.And you don’t have to watch television to find fault with your situation, if you think that driving an 8,400-pound Ford Excursion and owning a second, third, or fourth home would make you happy.Both seem to be everywhere in Summit County, summer and winter; there’s no escaping visible signs of apparent success.
But even those people, folks with lots of money as a result of luck or hard work, aren’t any happier now than 50 years ago. The other statistical constant in happiness surveys is that the less well off you are, the happier you tend to be, and the better off financially, the more likely you are to be not very happy.Certainly, there’s a lot to be said for accepting a minimalist existence, because a big bank account hasn’t made the rich any happier. It is entirely possible to be happy without wealth, Hollywood looks, an 8,400-pound car or an impressive resume of accomplishments. Everyone would be better off if they spent less time in pursuit of someone else’s definition of happiness, and worked instead to find their own.When it comes down to it, the hard part is not finding happiness, the hard part if finding a two-hand sandwich.Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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