Thursday, March 21, 2013

How to Be Happy

Children can teach us a lot of things. Before they begin to second-guess the world around them, they are amazingly innocent. They laugh when they are happy, cry when they are sad, and (despite our condescending habits) really pout when they are mad.

I have had the good fortune of being able to observe this very revealing childhood laboratory of human nature for a long time. My daughter Alicia (now 21 years old) has been a child for over two decades. She suffers from a form of epilepsy that has rendered her mind aphasic in many ways. She sees the world differently than most of us, and her emotional life is very basic. She can be very happy or sad but doesn’t get overly bothered by the moods of others.

One very noticeable part of her affliction is the lack of a sense of self. Alicia doesn’t care what she looks like or how she behaves. She has never worried about what others might think of her. It is very easy for those of us that live with her, to know how she feels. She is incapable of hiding anything.

When Alicia is happy she smiles and claps her hands. This isn’t a habitual token. It comes from her heart. And the applause isn’t intended for anybody else. It is an intense and rapid staccato that is sparked by her burst of emotional contentment. And it is quite interesting to see what makes her feel this way. Over the course of two decades, I have learned a lot about what makes her happy by trying to get her out of bad moods.

The best way to make Alicia smile is to tell her she has done a good job. It doesn’t matter too much what her accomplishment has been. Often we compliment her for reading a sentence correctly in a children’s book. Sometimes we compliment her on the way she sorts the spoons. She takes great satisfaction (and seems to be constantly clapping) when working on a jigsaw puzzle that she is good at. And she loves being recognized when she sings the right words of a song.

But more interesting to me is the other major reason that Alicia smiles. It happens when she makes other people happy. Many years ago, when she was a little girl, Alicia noticed how happy I was when she handed me a wash cloth after I brushed my teeth. She had watched me enough times to memorize my little routine, including the way I washed my face afterwards. On one particular day she decided to help. When I smiled and give her a kiss, she just bubbled with happiness and began clapping with real energy. I just had to give her a big hug.

Now, however, this fun little experience has become a good deal less entertaining. Alicia tries to help me in the same way every time she sees me brush my teeth. She has mastered all kinds of variations on the theme. Sometimes she throws me a towel. At other times she sneaks up behind me to surprise me. It has become annoying – as most things are after being repeated hundreds of times. But I don’t have the heart to let her know it bothers me. I still muster a smile and tell her how polite she is.

Alicia enjoys bringing you a glass of water as long as she knows it makes you happy. She will also willingly pass you a plate of food at dinner if you make sure to seem pleased. And she will watch a basketball game on TV (even though she doesn’t understand the game) and shout hooray if your team scores – when she sees that you are celebrating too.

I have also observed something very interesting about what fails to make Alicia happy. I mean her continuous need to acquire things. She can be annoyingly fixated on gathering the oddest objects. She will try and steal cups and water bottles in order to enhance her little backyard laboratory of bubble blowing. She will refuse to leave a parking lot if there are hair bands (however small) to be found. And if she thinks there are pennies nearby, she won’t stop looking until she finds one. More frustrating is the need she has to gather more and more books from the library shelves every time she visits (which she insists on doing almost every day).

Alicia acts out an extreme that the rest of us normally experience under better self-control. We know how fun it is to get a present or a bit of spending money. And so we believe that acquiring things is a way to become happy. Alicia’s experience is noteworthy: the psychological drive to acquire does not make us happy. In excess it can only lead to frustration. Yes, a thoughtful gift can make our day. But the belief that we constantly need more things is a childish error.

Just last week I was reminded of both of these truths in sharp contrast. I am in the process of moving my office to my home. I am now working out of my house. Part of this change involves buying several fairly expensive things. I got a new printer, new phones, other new electronic devices, even a company vehicle. It was getting quite a bit more than I ever get for Christmas or for my birthday. It was all nice, but left me none the happier. I still sought out time with my family and a good book at the end of the day.

On the other hand, I was thrilled by a note Kathy received at the same time I was buying all of these things. The note was from a friend in North Carolina (where we used to live) who had attended a class wherein students were asked to name some of the people that had made a difference in their lives. Many students mentioned bishops or school teachers. And apparently one of the students mentioned my name. When I learned this, I felt a real joy. It made me happy all week (and continues to do so as I write about it). It was a very clear example to me that helping others can make us much happier than can the acquisition of things.

We, in the Western World, are surfeited with these kinds of things. In any given week, the mere packaging of the things I might buy is of more value than all of the weekly purchases of a typical individual among the millions of the World’s poor. And yet, for those of us who have been privileged to visit these developing countries, it is obvious that we are no happier than they are. Very often the opposite is truer.

Go “sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22) Such a demand from the Lord was too much for the rich young ruler. And it is certainly too much to ask of most of us today. And yet the truth has never changed. If we should spend all our days serving others – even if we only manage to help a very few - “how great shall be your joy” (Doctrine & Covenants 18:15).  

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