The Washington Post

Secrets of happiness

Sometimes when I’m sitting in my cubicle at work, under the fluorescent lights, I realize that it’s been a long time since anyone called me “swashbuckling.”

No matter. This is the life I have chosen, happily, freely, without regret, because the world needs the laborers and functionaries who keep the machinery going so that other people can be hip-hop artists or astronauts or astronautical hip-hop artists who “rap” from orbit and go to the Paris Fashion Week and then dive in a customized submersible to the bottom of the Marianas Trench before heading off to race in the Monaco Grand Prix. I pity those people, imprisoned by glamor, forced to stay up to ungodly hours, sometimes even past 11 p.m., to cavort in nightclubs with tycoons and movie stars.

These are the pitiful people who do not know the joy of having a Favorite Chair.

There have been several fine pieces of writing recently about happiness, including one this weekend in the Times, by Arthur C. Brooks, headlined “Love People, Not Pleasure.” He argues that the pursuit of fame, money, sexual conquests, etc., will more likely produced unhappiness than happiness, and he makes a pretty compelling case for giving stuff away, even the things you hold dear. There’s a whiff of New Testament here, though he frames this as a secular argument. Happiness, he says:

… requires a deep skepticism of our own basic desires. Of course you are driven to seek admiration, splendor and physical license. But giving in to these impulses will bring unhappiness. You have a responsibility to yourself to stay in the battle. The day you declare a truce is the day you become unhappier. Declaring war on these destructive impulses is not about asceticism or Puritanism. It is about being a prudent person who seeks to avoid unnecessary suffering.

A somewhat less demanding recipe for happiness ran in The Post a while back, from “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams. He argues that the recipe for happiness is Health + Freedom.

Adams puts in a good word for money, saying you need to have some of it if you want to enjoy your freedom:

Money can’t directly buy happiness, but it can give you more options, and that’s an important part of freedom. So don’t give up too much income potential just to get a flexible schedule. There’s no point in having a flexible schedule if you can’t afford to do anything.

I would note here that freedom doesn’t necessarily mean that your life has to be full of novelty. Maybe you want the freedom to follow a routine. Some of us do the same thing over and over again almost ritually, because it keeps us grounded, centered, whatever you want to call it. (I don’t grow tomatoes in the summer because I crave the actual tomatoes, though that’s a nice bonus. My whole life, I’ve grown things. This is what I do. Am a man of the soil, of the Earth, not just grounded but literally with my hands in the dirt. When people say I’m “grubby,” that’s a huge compliment.)

A happy life is a succession of happy days. Some of us are born, like my Mom, with a sunny disposition, and we tend to greet the morning with optimism.

One of these days I’m going to write a “This I Believe” spot, and it’s going to be called “I believe in the dawn.”

There are other, obvious recipes for a happy life, which I won’t belabor other than to point you in the direction of the fabulous column by Sally Jenkins about watching the British Open with her father, the legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."



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Joel Achenbach · July 18, 2014

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