Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Whenever I wander around downtown and see people rushing from boutique to bistro, shopping bags in one hand and lattes in the other, I have to wonder, "But are you really happy? And if you aren’t happy, well, why the heck not? You have everything money can buy."

But as we all know, money can’t buy happiness – at least that’s what they’ve told us since we were kids and wanted a larger allowance. Maybe money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy everything else.

Psychologist Richard O’Connor, in his book Happy at Last, said recent research seems to prove beyond a doubt that material possessions, prestige and success aren’t the path to happiness; indeed, they are usually impediments. Despite all that we have, we are worse off than our ancestors.

"There is no reason to believe that we as individuals are any happier than our forebears three hundred years ago," he said. "In fact, ever since scientists have been measuring it reliably [about 50 years], happiness seems to be declining."

Largely for several reasons, to my thinking. We’ve squeezed God out of the picture and put mammon in his place; we devote little time to doing things that are truly important, such as spending time with family and friends, and devote more time striving to get ahead. And, we fail to realize that suffering is part of the human condition that will never entirely be eliminated.

My daughter Julie gave me a plaque for my office that has a quote by Abraham Lincoln tailor-made for me, every member of my family and every whiner I’ve worked with over the past 30 years. It says – commit this to memory – "People are just about as happy as they set their minds to be."

If that’s true, I’m setting my sights higher. Lincoln’s advice reminded me of something an old friend of mine, Bill M., always said: "You’re only as happy as you want to be." Bill, who spent the greater part of his life on the Bowery in a chronic stupor from drinking rubbing alcohol – until he got into AA – certainly knew what unhappiness was all about.

In his final years, he was blessed with true happiness even though he had little in life beyond his sobriety. But that was enough because he found his "higher power" and learned to live one day at a time, trying to do God’s will. That’s such a simple formula for contentment and one that eludes so many of us because we’re always striving to achieve more and to possess more.

For many of us, enough just isn’t enough. Julie is totally immersed in the world of fashion and frivolity and loves to spend her paycheck on clothes and superficial possessions in the endless pursuit of self-gratification. It’s a family tradition.

Last year, things changed when she went to Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa’s nuns in the home for the sick and the dying with a group from Fairfield County. Every day, she walked down a street where families lived in cardboard boxes, and she came home amazed because, she said, they were happier in their deprivation than most people she knows who drive BMWs and vacation in Nantucket.

How is that possible? Sad as it seems, some people don’t want to be happy even though they say they do.

There have been countless studies on happiness, linking it to married life, single life, upbringing, wealth and, most recently, to age and aspirations. This recent survey suggests that women start out happy but by 48 end up the sadder sex because of troubled marriages and financial hardships. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep your bearings in the emotional wasteland that middle age can become.

However, I have a theory – and I hope Lincoln would agree because I know Bill M. would – that inner peace doesn’t depend on external circumstances. Yes, you’re only as happy as you want to be, and the first step toward that goal is letting go and letting God.

J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.