Friday, November 27, 2009

The three syllables of happiness

“Listen to this!” my husband exclaimed recently.

My head snapped up from my book. An exclamation from him usually signals something pretty freaking spectacular, like the sun rising in the west or an early start to ski season.

“To be happy, every human being needs love, a purpose, and something to look forward to,” he quoted from the novel in his hands.

It struck us both as one of those universal truths that you recognize right away – as soon as someone else says it.

Of all the people I know, the happiest are those who have all three things. Those with only two are restless, or worse; love alone cannot create happiness.

I know people in their 80s who are happy because they have good friends, they want to finish writing their books, and they’re looking forward to Christmas dinner with their families (or at least to Christmas dinner). I know people much younger who chafe at their lives; they don’t know what they want to do, so they can neither do it nor look forward to doing it.

In the books I read and the movies I watch – and in plays and music, too, for that matter – the stories usually exist because at least one of the three elements is missing.

The movie Revolutionary Road, set in the 1950s, perfectly illustrated for me what can happen when a couple of the puzzle pieces are missing. (Spoiler alert.)

Frank had a suburban life and a job he disliked, but no clear ambition, no dream except to go to Paris some day. His wife April had the love of her husband and children but her life’s goal – to be an actress – was shattered when she discovered on stage that she’s a terrible actor.

With that dream gone, she created a new one: the family would move to Paris, she would get a job to support them, and Frank would be free to discover his purpose. However, when Frank got a better job, he decided that loving and supporting his family were, in fact, his purpose and what he looked forward to doing. April was bereft again.

Looking at life and stories this way helped clarify a few things for me. Like that hollow feeling when our chicks fly the nest and our purpose as parents changes drastically. The fear with which we face old age, when we’ll be jobless and we’ll think more about sore joints than smoking them.

Sometimes I’m a little shaky on my purpose, but I have wonderful friends and family and even on my most Eeyore-ish days I look forward to something: there will always be another fantastic story to read; popcorn makes every movie better; and my office window faces east, so each morning that I show up for work, there’s a sunrise.

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