How long has it been since you felt a level of contagious, infectious, unflappable, unstoppable happiness? Maybe your answer is “I feel that way all the time.”
If so, God bless you. (And consider passing on this article to someone who needs it.) For many, perhaps most of us, the answer is “Well, it’s been a while. I used to be happy, but then life took its toll.”
“The disease took my health.”
“The economy took my job.”
“The jerk took my heart.”
And as a result something pilfered our happiness. It can seem such a fragile thing, this joy. Here one day. Tomorrow scattered by the winds of a storm.
Still we keep searching for it, longing for it, this sense of contentment and well-being. Worldwide, people profess that happiness is their most cherished goal.[i] The most popular class in the three-century history of Yale University is on happiness.[ii] Magazine covers promise everything from sexual happiness to financial contentment. I googled “happy hour,” and in one second seventy-five million options invited my click.
Marketing companies get this. Television commercials make grand promises: Want to be happy? Buy our hand cream. Want some joy? Sleep on this mattress. Desire a dose of delight? Eat at this restaurant, drive this car, wear this dress. Nearly every advertising strategy portrays the image of a joy-filled person, even the advertisement for PreparationH. Before using the product the guy scowls as he sits. Afterward he is the image of joy. Perhaps the H stands for happy?
Happiness. Everyone craves it.
And everyone benefits from it. Happy people enjoy higher odds of a strong marriage, lower odds of divorce, and superior work performance. They are also healthier, resulting from a bolstered immune system.[iii] In one study researchers found a correlation between happiness and fatter pocketbooks.[iv] An analysis of twenty-five studies indicated that happy people are more effective leaders than Debbie Downers.[v] Happiness, it turns out, helps everyone.
But fewer people are finding it. Only one-third of Americans surveyed said they were happy. In the nine-year history of the Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness, the highest index was 35 percent. This means a cloud of perpetual grayness overshadows two out of three people.[vi] Smiles are in short supply. By some estimates clinical depression is ten times more rampant now than it was a century ago.[vii] The World Health Organization forecasts that by the year 2020 “depression will become the second leading cause of disease worldwide.”[viii]
The oft-used front door to happiness is the one described by the advertising companies: acquire, retire, and aspire to drive faster, dress trendier, and drink more. Happiness depends on what you hang in your closet, park in your garage, mount on your trophy wall, deposit in your bank account, experience in your bedroom, wear on your wedding finger, or serve at your dining table. Happiness happens when you lose the weight, get the date, find the mate, or discover your fate. It’s wide, this front door to happiness.
Yet for all its promise it fails to deliver.
There is another option. It requires no credit card, monthly mortgage, or stroke of fortune. It demands no airline tickets or hotel reservations. It stipulates no PhD, MD, or blue-blood pedigree. Age, ethnicity, and gender are not factors. Balmy climates, blue skies, and Botox are not mandated. No resources for psychoanalysis, plastic surgery, or hormone therapy? No problem. You don’t have to change jobs, change cities, change looks, or change neighborhoods.
But you might need to change doors.
The motto on the front door says “Happiness happens when you get.” The sign on the lesser-used back door counters “Happiness happens when you give.”
Doing good does good for the doer.
You and I indwell a lonely planet. Broken hearts populate every office building. Discouragement mummifies countless lives. The world is desperate, yes, desperate, for a cavalry of kindness. We cannot solve every problem in society, but we can bring smiles to a few faces. And who knows? If you brighten your corner of the world and I do the same in mine, a quiet revolution of joy might break out.