Gellman: An Argument Against Happiness

A popular but false saying we hear all the time is, "All I want is that my children should be happy."

The most obvious reason this wish is wrong is that very bad people can be very happy. Sinners can be smiling and saints can be tormented. In fact, this is often the case. I learned from the comics the truth about superheroes, which is that they are hardly ever happy, while the supervillains are hardly ever sad. The Joker is always smiling, and Batman is always morose. Superman is constantly depressed about his inability to eliminate all evil while Lex Luthor exults in his every act of carnage and murder.

In the real world, happy saints are also rare. King, Gandhi and Schweitzer lived with troubled souls but were nonetheless able to achieve a level of surpassing goodness. Gangs exult after killing a rival gang member, and as the Twin Towers were smoking and people were jumping from the windows, some jihadist sympathizers were jumping up and down in delirious happiness at the deaths of infidels. Because terrible people can be happy, saying that all you want is for your children to happy is either foolish or evil. Why would your only wish for your children be their ability to posses the same pleasurable feelings that are also felt by the worst criminals and creeps of our world?

Why is it that bad people can be happy? The reason is that happiness as defined by our culture has become just a synonym for pleasure, and anyone can feel pleasure. A good meal, a winning team, a fabulous vacation can make even the biggest criminal feel just as happy as the most noble hero. The problem is the linkage between happiness and pleasure. Feeling good has no natural connection to doing good. But it does in the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as in the good and decent lives of those who do not find their life's guidance from ancient-wisdom traditions. For all these people, happiness is linked to goodness, not pleasure.

The reason we have an obesity epidemic in this country is not because we eat too much and exercise too little. It's because we eat what gives us pleasure. Sugar and fat taste better than celery and tofu. You can learn to love lettuce, and you can learn to give peas a chance, but it takes time. On the other hand, the pleasure of chocolate ice cream is instantaneous. The reason we have to force kids to exercise is because it is more pleasurable to sit on your tush and play videogames than it is to run around and sweat. True happiness, the kind of happiness we ought to wish for our children and for ourselves is almost always the result of doing hard but good things over and over.

Let me ask my married readers, "Has being married made you happier?" Studies by Ed Deiner show that after a honeymoon period, most people are no more satisfied with life after marriage than they were before. Being married is not always pleasurable, but it ought to make you happy because marriage is a hard good thing, and true happiness only comes from doing hard good things.

Let me ask parents, "Did having children make you happy?" In Judaism, having children is the fulfillment of the very first commandment from God to Adam in the Garden of Eden, "be fruitful and multiply." However, their term for raising children was, tzar gidul banim , "The agony of raising children."

You just have to decide where true happiness comes from. Does it come from pleasure or does it come from goodness? The choice you make about this is the single most important one you will ever make in your life. It will determine whether you become a creep or a mensch.

And one last thing: money will not buy you happiness. Now I know some of you with a cynical streak don't buy this theory. You may be followers of the great philosopher Spike Milligan who teaches in his Las Vegas lounge act, "Money can't buy you happiness, but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery." Or perhaps you follow the teachings of Rabbi Henny Youngman, who once said, "What's the use of happiness? It can't buy you money." Once you make enough to meet the basic needs of life, more money does not make you discernibly happier. This is why the rabbis teach, "Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot."

Happiness for our culture is pleasure, and pleasure is selfish. Happiness for Judaism is goodness, and goodness is transcending. Pleasure points us inward while goodness points us to each other and God.

I'll end with a story: David and Dana were in my office for premarital counseling, and I asked her what qualities David possessed that made her happy. She told me this story: On a blazing hot summer day they were approaching the Triborough Bridge when they saw a man selling newspapers. David opened the window, bought all the man's papers and said to him, "Go home. It's way to hot for you to be standing out here." So how about this saying: "All I wish is that on a hot day my children will buy all the papers.

Now if that is what you mean, if that is what you want for your children and for the children of your children, well, that's what I want for my children, too, and that is what God wants for all his children.