WHEN CHARLES de Gaulle retired, the American ambassador asked the general’s wife what she was most looking forward to in the years ahead. She thought a moment and then said firmly, “A penis.” In the shocked silence that followed, Gen. de Gaulle leaned across the table and whispered, “My dear, I believe it is pronounced happiness.”
However one wishes to pronounce it, the sad fact about happiness is that it is often deferred, something we put off, something we will get to after the other items on our to-do list have been duly checked off. This can put heavy pressure on retirement. Finally, we can be happy!
I once wrote a story about a self-help book that actually works – and destroys the world. It was titled HappinessTM, the trademark sign being a symbol of what I saw as the commodification of happiness in our modern consumer society. I was convinced that happiness was an illusion, a chimera designed to sell goods. Now I’m not so sure. My cynical certainties, like my knees, have eroded over time.
When we’re young, happiness is closely tied to pleasure: food, love, music – moments. Happiness leads to joy, joy leads to ecstasy, and ecstasy by its very definition is fleeting. It dissolves like cotton candy. Then we become all serious and career-oriented, and happiness gets tangled up with ambition. Then status. Then family. Until finally, as Leonard Cohen sang, it comes round to your soul.
As I get older, I find that the meaning of happiness has changed. It’s no longer something to be doggedly pursued, nor is it something to be pushed off to a later date. It’s quieter, a state of mind, one that comes not from clinging to false hopes but from letting go, of accepting the life one has, of taking stock and feeling content with where you are and, more importantly, who you are.