Happiness, as a metric for a successful life, is a wrong-headed choice and one that leads, ironically, to unhappiness. (Note: I don’t trust unhappiness either.) Sure, the Founding Fathers took great pains to include it in the Declaration of Independence, along with life and liberty — two gauges I can get behind. If we’re getting picky here, the phrase was inserted by one Thomas Jefferson (by way of John Locke). But I’ve long felt that the focus should be on the word “pursuit,” not the final unreachable destination.
We’ve all shared the experience of striving for a goal — a new car, a better job, a more satisfying relationship — only to be disappointed once the initial glow of attainment wears off. This was best realized onscreen in the original 1972 version of Neil Simon’s brilliant and biting satire, The Heartbreak Kid (not to be confused with the pointless Ben Stiller remake). After spending nearly the entire film fanatically pursuing all-American ice princess Cybill Shepherd, Charles Grodin’s lonely victory proves to be a hollow one indeed. The look on his face in the closing scene is one I recognize from my own mirror.
In the film, Grodin’s epiphany materializes before the ink on his marriage certificate has a chance to dry. In real life, that empty feeling can take a month, a week or a day. But make no mistake, it will happen. And the cycle continues, although with a higher ante. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Not only that, but we almost immediately start stressing over keeping the object of our desire, adding to the ever-growing list of things to worry about.
That’s why happiness is such a fleeting, unreliable concept. Over the years, I’ve decided that the magic is in the striving, not the getting. By no means an original thought, but no less true.
Over the last two decades, I’ve written three semi-successful novels in my spare time. While none have clawed their way to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, I’ve enjoyed each step from conception to delivery (even though it didn’t seem like it at the time). I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, I don’t regret a single thing, and I know if I died tomorrow, I’d die content.
It’s the same with my family. I’ve been an okay husband, a decent father, and a better grandpa, if I do say so myself. I may have even learned a few things along the way. Am I always happy? Hell no. Especially when a little family flareup develops into a five-alarm blaze (usually burning down a holiday dinner in the process). But am I content? I think you know the answer.
Of all the philosophies I’ve sampled throughout my life, I like Zen the best. Maybe it’s because my dad used to say to me, “Don’t get too attached.” Looking back, I know he was talking about places, jobs, even people. Sound heartless? Perhaps. But he also possessed the most profound sense of responsibility I’ve ever seen. Hey, everyone’s complicated.
I doubt if my dad ever heard of Zen, but he lived it every day. As an inventor, sales guy, and entrepreneur, his career choices ensured that we’d be riding high one minute, in the tank the next. But you could never tell if he was bust or flush. He’d still be the first to reach for the check.
So take a lesson from my pop. Don’t put all your eggs in the happiness basket. And always remember, “It’s just stuff.”