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Misanthrope's ode to joy

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2017-07-08


I like to think of myself as a pretty introspective, self-aware guy, but there's always one personal question that I receive that renders me almost incapable of coming up with any sort of reasonable answer. It's a question that I seem to hear more frequently now, as I become further embedded in middle-age, and it's usually prompted by somebody who has known me for decades. After doing some catching up, and after I've given the full report about my recent marriage, my middle-aged fatherhood, my job and my writing projects, etc, my high-school or college-era friend will look at me with warming eyes and ask me flat out if I'm happy. And I'll be stumped. Because I'll have absolutely no idea how to respond. And whatever I come up with will inevitably disappoint my friend.

And actually, the last time I heard this question — at a high-school reunion a few years back--the question came out as a statement: "You must be very happy!" my friend said, with assurance. "I must?" I replied back. With a smile, too, which I'm sure must have been disconcerting. And I swear I wasn't trying to be evasive or cryptic or difficult, but the notion of whether I'm happy or not is just something that I never wonder. And of course I didn't want to leave my friend hanging — I recognized that she didn't want any ambiguity here, that she just wanted to have the story complete and pat, after not having seen me in years — and so I capitulated and said, Yes, I'm very happy. And that seemed to ease her mind. It could even have been true, too. But I'm quite aware how those conversations go: it would have annoyed her not to hear me say it, the way a nail sticking out a quarter-inch annoys the person with the hammer. So I said it.

What I wanted to do was to tell her a story about my father, who I once heard get asked the same question from a life-long friend: "Sorry, I don't think like that," he replied brusquely, then moved the conversation onto something that was infinitely more interesting to him. And my dad wasn't a joyless man, or a thoughtless man, and he certainly wasn't insensate or incapable of experiencing profound emotions. He just never spent much time (wasted much time?) wondering if he was happy or not. And I'm my father's son, I guess. I don't think like that.

I recognize it's a discordant attitude to have, and probably sounds harsh for people to hear "Who cares?" or "How should I know?" as responses to whether you're happy or not. (Those are my "Go-To" answers.) But it doesn't seem harsh to me. I'm reminded of the only time my father really expounded on the subject — "Happiness usually happens when you're doing something else," he said, and that still sounds fair and generous to me. What he was saying was that if you shoot for happiness as your primary focus in life, not only will you never attain it, but you'll probably become an insufferable pain in the ass to everyone you encounter.

But if you're the kind of person who is constantly searching for the Keys to Happiness, or the Seven Secrets to Becoming a Joyful Person… man, is 2017 the time to be alive! The "Happiness" Industry is positively thriving in this decade, with publishers glutting the bookstores with self-help titles guaranteed to unearth the Seven (or Eleven) Secrets to living a joyous, boundless existence. Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have a book on Joy. Paula Poundstone has a book on Joy. Andrew Weil has a book on Joy. (He's dead, but apparently still happy.) Everybody has a book on Joy! Even pricks like Mark Manson have a book on Joy. (It's unreadable, but it's a big hit.) Apparently everybody else has figured all this stuff out, this happiness stuff, and all you have to do to follow them on their enlightened path is to learn their sure-fire secrets to a euphoric existence.

I've gleaned some of the books and apparently dancing like you just don't care is a big deal, as is singing while you clean the closets. You should also divorce your dead-beat husband and move to Italy, if you can, and buy a vineyard. There you'll meet a pool boy named Paolo. Oh, and don't sweat the petty stuff. And material things won't make you happy. And get out of the Rat Race, already! Do some volunteer work! Etc.

If you don't want to spend the $19.95, though, but still want to learn how people are just getting flooded by happiness, just get on Facebook and follow your friends. Your friends are positively killing it on Facebook! Everybody is posting pictures of sunsets and cocktails and sharing epiphanies about the Wonders of Life and casually mentioning that full-ride scholarship their kid just got to Yale. They're showing you photos of that hide-away restaurant in Northern Michigan where they had that life-changing meal and they're mentioning the fantastic husband or wife that's been with them every step of this incredible Journey. It's like, not only are they incredibly happy, but every moment of their life is significant and noteworthy and full of wisdom and life lessons.

Of course, some of this might seem a bit odd to you, for you'll encounter posts from that one friend who you thought was a red-hot mess and a step away from rehab or a padded cell, but somehow, on Facebook, they're living the dream. And you'll feel inadequate, because all you have to report is that wonderful third cup of coffee this morning or that the gas bill is paid or that blessed forty-minute nap you snuck in this afternoon. But don't worry; Happiness is just around the corner! Are you happy? Who cares! Have a great summer.

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