Road winding through yellow fields

The long and winding road to happiness

In Insight and Experience, Insight and Self Awareness by LivingNowLeave a Comment

How come I’m not happy? Sure, a lotto win wouldn’t go astray, and I could always do with a bit more recognition. Other things being equal, however, my life seems to be going well—except, that is, for the absence of happiness.

 

Others have told me that happiness and laughter are linked, and the medical benefits of laughter are pretty impressive. We’re told that regular doses of laughter help boost the immune system; lower blood pressure (eventually); help facilitate digestion; increase alertness and memory retention; elevate the mood by increasing circulation, easing muscle tension, and releasing psychological stress; and naturally help to combat depression by triggering the release of endorphins. So I thought I’d give laughter a go, and headed out to the local comedy club where there’d be someone who’d surely make me laugh—after all, that’s what they’re paid to do.

Alas! The stand-up comic must’ve had an ‘off night’. Even what she claimed to be ‘history’s funniest joke’ (a Spike Milligan golden oldie) failed to get me (or the audience) going. Her performance was so flat that a few fellows in the audience must have decided to create their own laughter. Each time she started to tell one of her jokes, this small group interjected with ‘Heard it!’ ‘Heard it!’ Never did a performer look so relieved when she left the stage at the end of her act.

Making people laugh can be serious business (no pun intended). When Bob Hope was in his prime, he had a team of nine writers. Sid Caesar’s joke writers at one time included Richard Hooker (of M*A*S*H fame), Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen.

Stand-up comics who write their own material—and make people laugh—should be awarded the Sisyphusian Medal for clawing their way to the top, knowing that they’ll have to start over again the next day.

My conclusion: people don’t laugh because they’re happy; they’re happy because they’re laughing.

While some people assume laughter brings happiness, others make their living out of making fun of happiness. Al Batt’s secret of happiness was ‘To make others believe that you are the cause of it’. For George Burns, happiness was ‘Having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family—in another city’. Oscar Wilde must’ve had similar experiences with his family and friends. He found that ‘Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go’. Ben Franklin attributed happiness to beer and God.

He reckoned that ‘Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy’.
To highlight what he considered essential for happiness, Epicurus (341-270 BC)—the first person to show us how to live off the smell of an oily rag (I think it was a cucumber sandwich)—divided our needs into three classes. He identified the desires that are natural and necessary—basic food, shelter, clothes, friends, and freedom. There are others that are natural but unnecessary—a big house, a new car, and the latest in fashion (none of these examples was Epicurus’, of course). And there are those desires that are neither natural nor necessary—power, fame, and status. Epicurus reckoned that if we want to be truly happy, we must satisfy the desires that are natural and necessary. Money was important only in so far as it provided the means to purchase things such as food, shelter and clothing. Friendship, of course, was something that could never be bought but must be vigorously pursued. According to Epicurus, without friends we will never be truly happy.

Even before Epicurus’ time, the role of money in delivering happiness was under the microscope (or its BC equivalent). Aristotle’s two-bob’s worth was, ‘… it’s difficult to do fine deeds without resources’. It’s to be hoped that the accumulated resources of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet will enable many fine deeds to be carried out. There is a growing acceptance of John Ruskin’s view that there is no wealth but life.

Money alone may not bring happiness, but there are two often-quoted sentiments that strike a chord with many people. First, there’s Mae West’s ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. And rich is better’. Then there’s Spike Milligan’s plea: ‘All I ask is a chance to prove that money can’t make you happy’.

Okay, perhaps I’ve been sidetracked in my quest for happiness by pursuing unnecessary things. If it’s any consolation, judging by the other cars and houses in my street, I’m not Robinson Crusoe. A few hundred years after Epicurus’ attempt to shed some light on happiness, Epictetus (the fellow who said that it’s not what happens to us but how we respond that counts) prescribed three things for a happy life—master your desires, perform your duties, and build and nurture relationships.

My ongoing pursuit of happiness has uncovered two ‘must do’s’. The first is to remove clutter from my life. The other is to focus more energy on appreciating what I have (as opposed to what I don’t have). The grass on the other side of the fence is greener because I keep watering it. It’s time that I accepted the hand I’ve been dealt, and move on. If all else fails, I’ll display copies of the Scottish proverb to remind me to ‘Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead’.

 

Dr Neil Flanagan’s new book BLINK! The Speed of Life (How to add years to your life and life to your years) is now in bookstores or can be ordered online.

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