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Etc.: Happiness is ...
Paula Francis
Paula Francis is walking across the U.S. asking them about happiness for the Gross National Happiness project. Read

After laying out most of two sections, conducting two interviews, covering two meetings and writing four bylined stories, the only thing I was happy about Monday was leaving the office no later than 1:50 a.m. 

(Which was actually Tuesday. I guess I confused that because rainy days and Mondays always get me down, and Monday was both.)

I wasn’t any happier upon returning to the office hours later to finish this week’s edition of your favorite weekly newspaper. For that matter, I wasn’t happy when Carolyn the front-desk gatekeeper announced Monday morning that someone wanted me to interview her.

Read page 1, if you haven’t already, and you’ll notice that the subject of that story was happiness, and the definition and measurement thereof. It’s an interesting concept, but, it seems to me, a politically motivated effort to make something that is subjective and personal objective and societal. The researchers have been asking people what matters most in life to them, which is an individual determination.

“Happiness,” for one thing, is as much an overused word as “love.” The concept of the pursuit of happiness may come from the 18th century, but societal obsession over happiness is a phenomenon that started in the late 20th century in an era of relative affluence. Our ancestors who came to this country looking for a better life are not likely to have spent time pondering whether they were happy, because survival in a land foreign to them superseded esoteric concerns. 

Economists talk about “delayed gratification,” working and saving today for benefits later instead of things today. Parenting is two decades per child worth of delayed gratification in spending money on their kids instead of themselves, making choices based on what’s good for their family instead of themselves personally, and generally placing themselves last on the priority list. The payoff for most parents is their children’s happiness.

Earlier this year I wrote about now-retired UW Band director Mike Leckrone, who sometime after I left started using the phrase “moments of happiness.” In the past several months I’ve had several, including announcing a state championship football game where the team I was announcing won (for the first time); announcing state baseball and Illinois pre-state basketball (also a personal first, made no less enjoyable from the food poisoning I apparently got at some point that day); playing at Leckrone’s last three UW Varsity Band concerts 31 years after my last concert appearance; and seeing my favorite rock group, Chicago, with my trumpet-, trombone- and guitar-playing sons. Leckrone’s point was that memories of those moments of happiness get you through the moments of unhappiness that are part of everyone’s lives. 

I can buy the researchers’ claim that to at least some people money and things don’t equate to happiness. Most readers probably know people who come across as happy despite their not having much in the way of income or wealth or possessions. (On the other hand, lack of money certainly leads to stresses that are contrary to happiness. Maybe the definition of having enough wealth is that you don’t have to worry much about finances.) For that matter, most readers probably know at least one person who comes across as happy despite having endured horrible personal tragedies in their lives or current health problems. The latter group proves the maxim that happiness (or lack thereof) is a choice one makes. 

On the other hand, to use a personal example, I have wanted a Corvette for decades. Yes, it’s a possession, and probably not an investment. (Sports announcer Lindsey Nelson once said he avoided investing in anything that required feeding or painting.) It is entirely possible that were I to ever own a Corvette, between the usual problems that afflict vehicles and seeing a better Corvette somewhere, my Corvette might not provide the same level of happiness as it did when I first owned it. (The joke is that boat buyers’ two happiest days are the day they buy their boat and the day they sell it.) Maybe I’ll find out some day if I’m correct.

What I think dooms Gross National Happiness is its veering into politics, which involves taking something away from some people to give them to other people based on the value judgments of those in power. GNH’s assertion that “on a broad systemic basis” happiness “means peace, economic and environmental justice, and wellbeing so that all people, animals, and the planet can thrive” clearly involves moving around money and individual rights (even something like being able to make our own food choices, as the “animals” reference might suggest), and people tend to resist losing either. 

I would be happier if government and other organizations would allow us to live our own lives, including letting us determine our own happiness, free from the efforts, even well-meaning efforts, of those trying to compel us to live as they believe we should live. Happiness is an individual concept.