When Sophie was an infant, this was common: “Wow, your baby is so serious!”
How do we respond to that?
“Right, we discourage her from pursuing all that ‘happy baby’ crap. It’s so clichéd.”
Or: “We smack her when she laughs.”
Or: “What has she got to smile about? She lies around all day in her own poop.”
Usually, Susan and I just endured insecure thoughts about our emotion-deficient baby.
~ ~ ~
Before I met Susan, I had a girlfriend named Sarah. Not a girlfriend in the normal usage of the word, but almost: She was a girl (woman), she was a friend, we went on dates, our relationship was sexually charged. She was exactly like a girlfriend, but usually she acted more like a big sister or an aunt. She planned my activities. She taught me about wine and food. She took me clothes shopping. She even tried to fix me up with ‘a better class of women.’
Sarah had a disparate and far-flung network of friends. Friends who rarely met (except on blind dates with one another), but we always heard about each other. Something horrible was always happening to one of us. Margaret got mugged. Julie had a house fire. Dave lost his job. Michael got cancer—oh, his dog got cancer, too. Jeff trashed his shoulder playing soccer (wait, that’s me).
Sarah surrounded herself with people who were destined for misfortune. She thrived on her friends’ problems. Our evenings together were alcohol-fueled gossip-fests about the latest catastrophe within her circle. Cline Zinfandel and Julie’s cheating husband. Tanqueray and tonics and Mark’s basement flood. Celebrator Doppelbocks and my abusive boss. It wasn’t luck that brought Sarah to such an unlucky crowd. And it wasn’t a curse, either—although at the time, I wondered if it was such a great idea to hang around with her. It was simply our collective bad attitude.
Everyone has a problem brewing. At some point over the next year or two, a bit of shit’s going to hit the fan. Illness, injury, job trouble, property damage, relationship woes, it’s on its way. Sometimes it’s minor, sometimes it’s huge. But always, it’s our reaction that determines if it’s a crisis. Sarah’s crowd—me and the rest of those sorry souls who had her number on speed-dial—we were just a bunch of pessimists. “Ugh! I won the lottery. Now I need to find an accountant.”
~ ~ ~
If you asked me a few months ago, I would have told you that a translated book isn’t worth reading. Language is too nuanced, too precise to be simply switched into a different language. While writing a story, the author has changed a sentence maybe four or five times to get it just right. Trying to find the perfect combination of meaning and flow. Then some bilingual hack comes along and inserts “his best approximation.” It just can’t be any good. Here is where all those literary types begin to protest: One Hundred Years of Solitude? The Odyssey? The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Pfft. I’ve read them all. Clunky, something lost in translation. I’ll limit my foreign literature to the Americanized version of Harry Potter.
The English version of Jonas Karlsson’s novel, The Invoice, has demonstrated just how little I know about this topic. The book has crawled under my skin to set up house like a colony of scabies. This beautiful story will remain with me for the rest of my life. The writing, though translated from Swedish, sets a perfectly consistent and simple tone. The book’s plot—easier to translate than a writing style—original and clever. Each citizen of the world is awarded an Experienced Happiness (E.H.) score—a measurement of how much happiness a person gets out of their life. Those who exceed the average score are invoiced and expected to pay for their extra “usage.”
The book’s protagonist, an underachiever working a dull, part-time job lives about as small a life as possible. He has few relationships. He spends most of his free time watching movies and listening to music. He rates his weekly trip to the nearby ice cream stand as his big night out. He’s also the happiest person in Sweden; he has the highest score. Therefore, he owes the most money.
The Invoice’s central theme—happiness isn’t tied to money… or career… or relationships… or looks… or any other individual thing—is something I already knew. More than a decade ago, I read about a study that proved this. This is a fact that I’ve quoted time and again. Once you have a roof over your head and food on your plate, the playing field is generally equal. Bill Gates and that ninety-three-year-old woman living downtown on her meager social security subsidy have the same chance of happiness. It all comes down to how we perceive our life.
It’s easy to confuse happiness with pleasure or fun. But just like money, possessions, and good looks, pleasure and fun are unrelated to happiness. Back when Sarah and I were bemoaning our pitiful existence, there was no shortage of fun. Parties, concerts, big nights in bars, weekend road trips to the beach. Multi-course dinners with flights of wine in the best restaurants in DC. Plenty of pleasure, gobs of fun. But everything was viewed as a hassle. “Sigh! I got invited to Clinton’s inauguration. Now I need to find a tux.”
~ ~ ~
Like Sophie as a baby, I don’t come across as a happy person. Susan brought this up recently. She’s concerned that we don’t laugh enough. Our hobbies are too serious—yoga and meditation for her; running and writing for me; we both love to read—these are not smiley, “wooo” activities. We don’t have fun, she says. I would argue that finding a miles-long uphill trail to run on a clear, crisp morning is pretty darn awesome, but still, you’re unlikely to catch me laughing about it.
I find happiness in simplicity. Much like Karlsson’s slacker, the smaller I make my life, the more rewarding it becomes. Susan feels the same way. Every month or two, we jettison another piece of furniture out of our house and into the garage. And later to the attic or the curb. We prefer our home to be a non-distracting place with ample unfurnished space and limited knickknacks. This carries over to the way I live as well. The best weekends are those without plans. A perfect morning includes nothing but coffee and crafting a story from scratch. Sparseness—in my environment and in my mind—leaves me happy. To me, complexity is akin to clutter.
Out for dinner on our wedding anniversary, Susan and I established some resolutions. Not relationship resolutions as you might expect, but personal resolutions. Susan’s is straightforward: laugh more. Mine’s a bit more vague, more external: try to be more social, spend some time with friends.
I’m sure this make us sound like miserable people. Un-laughing hermits. Lonely downers. We’re not. We’ve consciously stripped away our distractions. We’ve each made an effort to focus on the activities that raise our E.H. score (not that we think about it in those terms). Our careers have become jobs, and our hobbies became our passions.
Curiously, each of these new resolutions are about seeking pleasure—time spent with friends, time spent in joyful activities (paintball?). These may lead to happiness or they may not. But for whatever reason, this feels like the correct direction now. On the surface, these are at odds with the way we’ve achieved happiness so far. Stripping down our lives has left us simply happy. Seriously happy.
Now, it seems, we’re searching for fun.