Elusive Happiness

When my first child was born, more years ago than I would like at this moment to confess, my wife gazed down lovingly at him and murmured dreamily, "I hope he's a happy baby."

Really? I thought. What's that about?

Curiously, during the preceding nine months of continuous worry, Dostoevskian in intensity and Biblical in scope (what if he's … an albino?), the question of happiness for the creature under gestation had never really entered my mind. If the Web had been in existence then I would have Googled "birth defects" and not gotten up from the computer until I had read all 6.5 million page hits. But happy? Healthy, yes; I wished that for my son. Smart, industrious, handsome, strong and honest—a whole Boy Scout troop's worth of virtues. I could see the value of all of them. And though back then the word monetized didn't exist outside of economics departments, I see now that what unites all these qualities is precisely that: the ability to be leveraged for advantage in the great middle-class scramble for status. That was to be his fate, whether he sought it or not. But what can you do with happiness? Admittedly, once we brought him home I understood that my wife's wish for a "happy" baby actually meant "one who will sleep through the night." But, after all, why should he? There are plenty of good reasons to wake up crying in the middle of the night. I still do, myself, at times.

What is this happiness of which the poets speak? Beats me. I have glimpsed it fleetingly in the shreds and scraps of dreams that slip away with the dawn—evanescent, like life itself. The better life is, the sooner it will seem to be over, and the greater the regret at leaving it behind. In his 80s, William S. Paley, the immensely wealthy and powerful head of CBS, would wail to friends, "Why do I have to die?" I've never actually had cause to wonder about that, but I have to admit, if I had Paley's life I wouldn't want to die either.

At other times happiness steals over me in the stillness of a Sunday afternoon in springtime, with the warmth of the sun soaking me down to my bones, making me feel … well, that's the problem right there: it makes me feel awful about climate change. Unhappiness is the natural outcome of fine-tuning one's sensibilities to the awful truths about the world. With every breath I draw I am mentally counting carbon dioxide molecules. I feel the hunger of the polar bears as acutely as if I were stranded myself on an ice floe drifting out to sea. I pine for extinct species of salamanders on the other side of the globe as if they were my own kids.

And that's before I get going on the Middle East, or Darfur, or the child soldiers of—somewhere in West Africa. (Sierra Leone? Ivory Coast? It's hard to keep this stuff straight, but that's no excuse to slack off worrying about it.) There's no end of misery in the world, and if by some miracle there were to be, there's 5,000 years of human history behind it, bloody with warfare, reeking of early death from disease and starvation. You want a happy baby? Go back in time and keep the Holocaust from happening, prevent slavery and retroactively abolish child sacrifice. Also you might want to edit out a good chunk of Shakespeare and Dickens, and pass a law against country music.

I am not one of those who believes that unhappiness is the mark of a morally superior individual. OK, I sort of am. But it also strikes me as a perfectly rational response to a world that is, fundamentally and in every particular, indifferent to human suffering and pain. My first-born son, who is now 26, understands this, I think. And I am glad that he has most all the virtues I wished for him, and a few I didn't think of, such as a sense of social justice. I haven't thought to ask if he's happy. I know it's wrong of me, but I secretly hope he is.