The Law of Happiness

“. . . . happiness is affected more by one’s movement toward (or away from) success than by one’s position near (or far from) it. . . . So the law of happiness says happiness waxes and wanes in direct proportion to a sense of progress toward or away from a goal, a worthy cause, a creation, a companion to be loved.” — Guy Murchie, The Seven Mysteries of Life

One of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, Outliers, made the claim that successful people achieved their success more by working very hard than by native talent. In fact, their level of success could be predicted by the hours, days, weeks, and years that they kept at their craft. Those who worked hard and long did better than those who worked occasionally or half-heartedly. The “Duh factor” kicks in here, of course—you’d expect people who practiced the piano six hours every day to do much better than those who tickle the ivories once or twice a week. And while I may have forgotten the finer nuances of Gladwell’s argument, one thing I took away from the book is this: those who found enjoyment in the process of working to become the best were more likely to stick with it. And somewhere along the line other people noticed and counted them successful. 

This ability to find oneself in the practice runs against the common belief that our lives only begin in the end. “Wait until you’re older,” we say to those younger than ourselves. “You’ll find out what I mean when you get out into the real world,” we say to students, a warning to be graciously ignored since there is no reason to think that the life of a student is anything but real. “Work hard, think positively, and one day you’ll be on top,” the saying goes. As sayings go this one goes two-thirds of the way until it becomes mired in the mud of probabilities instead of certainties. 

Working hard is guaranteed only to make you adept and expert at what you do. Thinking positively begins as optimism and becomes faith in hope through adversity, never a bad thing. Inevitably reaching the top is not a foregone conclusion, no matter how hard you work. But it is a sure thing that if you don’t work hard your odds of success, much less rising to the top, will quickly diminish. Thus, behind most overnight sensations is a person who put in the time, usually a lot of time, to make it all look so easy.

I’ve been reading a biography of Bruce Springsteen, a man whose music inspires me and whose determination, even in his twenties, was formidable. Living lean, scratching out a living from day to day by playing in clubs, he worked on his music with a single-minded focus. He resisted all attempts to change his style, to use studio musicians instead of the guys he grew up with, and to practice being derivative of what was on the radio. He heard his songs in his head and he made them come out into the air in the way he wanted. 

Although his music is definitively his own he listened and learned from the rock ’n roll greats—Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, Bill Haley, and others—and he has distilled that legacy into the raw essentials of his own vision. 

Sting, another musician whose artistic range seems constantly to be expanding, has surrounded himself with people who, by his own reckoning, are better musicians than he is. Every collaboration offers him another chance to learn, to add to the collage of nuances and meanings he can draw from his own creative process. 

I am drawn to these people, not just because their music has defined and surrounded so many of the ways I experience the world, but also because of their open-hearted stance toward the dazzling, heartbreaking, searing, poignant prospect of becoming human. As artists they have pared away the distractions while remaining free to pick up what moves them from others. They have the humility to learn, the creativity to shape and produce art, and a work ethic that strives for the fullness of their imaginations. 

A. C. Grayling reminds us that “The first lesson of happiness is that the surest way to be unhappy is to think that happiness can be directly sought.” It can’t be, he says, because it is a by-product of other things. “And what it is a by-product of is those activities that are worthwhile in themselves, that bring satisfaction and achievement in the doing, that give one a sense of well-doing and well-being.”

Tonight, walking alone in the night with the wind gusting about me, heading for home and light and love and warmth, I could not help but smile, realizing by those measures, through the grace of God, family, and friends, I am a most blessed and happy man.

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