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John Beck - Friday, July 11, 2014

Astonished by happiness

Today a long-lost friend from high school “friended” me on Facebook.  In response to her question about how I am doing, I wrote: “My life is not what I might have predicted it would be in high school. But I am astonished by how rich and happy it has become.” It was only after I wrote it that I began to consider what those words meant.

I admit, I sometimes write sentences which sound good as a string of words, but on reflection are not really appropriate representations of my truth.  That is not the case here.  My response to someone I have not known for almost 40 years is about as true as anything I have ever written.

I don’t consider myself “rich” in monetary terms, but I know that 95% of the world’s population would think of me as very well-to-do.  And “monetary rich” is not what I meant by that phrase anyway. I have led a very rich life—I have fathered and raised healthy and happy children; I have seen many of the wonders of the world, I have worked with and for interesting companies and governments, I have taught talented students, I have written books…. But mostly I am rich because I have the freedom to love and be loved.  That is the true source of my happiness.

The real insight in my note to my high school classmate came in the word “astonished.” I wrote it without thinking, but then in a re-read, I found myself stuck on that one word.  Why would I be astonished by my happiness?

I was raised in what I believe was a happy home.  I was twelve years younger than the closest of the rest of my siblings; the product of much older parents.  Once I got around to being a parent myself, I realized what a rare blessing I had to be raised as an “only child” by experienced parents.  I had the run of the house and they had learned when to put on pressure and when to let up. While they were raising me, my parents were in those golden years of their 50s and 60s when people usually report the highest levels of happiness in their lives.  I think they were very happy.

But I suppose I really do believe that I am much, much happier now than how I, then, perceived my parents and the other adults around them; especially when it comes to two of my Greatest Goods in life: Relationships and Individuality. 

I grew up in a very Mormon community where I was told informally and formally (over the pulpit) that “marriage is hard work.” And in my first marriage of 22 years, it was just that.  Of course, there were happy times, but when I look back on it, it was more at the level of the happiness that I saw in my parents—who remained together for over 60 years and had plenty of true joy in their lives. That level of happiness could make for a very fine life.

But now, I am married again, and this relationship of 13 years has been about as far from “hard work” as you can imagine.  Roger and I have only had a couple of arguments in all that time. Everything feels like it comes completely naturally.  But maybe this is just a by-product of meeting your mate when you are older—and maybe a little wiser.  Whatever the cause, however, the outcome has been joy beyond expectation and belief.

I have also found so much happiness in the Individuality that I’ve found in life.  Growing up Mormon, I alternated between feeling like I was one of God’s chosen and knowing that I would never experience a lot of what life had to offer.  Most of the Mormon constraints made a lot of logical sense to me then—they were there to make me a better person and keep me from possible harm.  My much older brother who had strayed from the Church’s “no drinking” imperative ended up struggling with alcoholism for the rest of his life. I felt protected from that fate by my faith.  So I didn’t drink at all until I left the Mormon Church at age 33. (To leave, I literally had to write a letter to my bishop and ask for my name to be removed from the church rosters.)  No longer officially associated with or obligated to the Church, it turned out that I really enjoy drinking with friends, and, blessedly, do not share my brother’s obsession with the devil water.

But it wasn’t just Mormon theology that I perceived as limiting happiness; more insidiously, there was a cultural imperative to achieve stability and then hold to it tenaciously.  As the product of a generation who had lived through the Great Depression, I really believed that jobs were rare and mysterious gems.  For the first five years of my professional career, I held down two full-time, completely unrelated jobs; just so I would be prepared in case one suddenly went belly up.  Now—and I’m sure my loved ones, with some chagrin,  will confirm this—I quit jobs as frequently as I get them.  And in the process, I have had so many wild, interesting, life-enhancing experiences.  And according to Professor Joaquin Fuster, the more experiences I have, the more neural choices I have at every decision point, so the more freedom I have in my life—it is a virtuous cycle of liberty. And, for me, the more individual freedom I’ve had, the more happiness I’ve found.

My life is far from the relatively donkeywork existence that I expected while growing up.  Of course, as the son of unassuming and humble folk, I fully expect that just writing an article like this will bring pestilence, strife and financial ruin.  I certainly hope not.  But I can say for now, I am wildly happy – and that is astonishing.