Didn’t I say that Lent is all about attention? Last night when I went in to get ready for bed, I had this pointed out to me. I was headed for the shower, and stopped to turn on the lamp by my bed.
Now, I had ashes on my face, I hadn’t eaten in nine hours, I had just been discussing my Lenten sacrifice, then attending Ash Wednesday service (we were given specific prayer concerns in addition to the usual penitence and grace: the tornado victims from Tuesday night and the millions of little girls globally who do not have the opportunity to go to school), then singing in choir practice about death and pain which you know we never do outside of Lent. You would think that Lent would have been right at the top of my mind.
But I looked over to my nightstand to see what I would be reading after my shower. My mind, for the second or two while my eyes traveled that way, searched around — what had I been reading? had a murder occurred yet? were the hero and heroine still sparring? was there a wonderful setting?–
In the time it took to come home and greet my family, I had forgotten. It is Lent. I am not reading John Grisham or Ellen Byerrum or Terry Pratchett. I am reading C.S. Lewis on pain. No one I’d rather read on the subject, actually.
Lewis has presented the idea that the existence of pain and disharmony of all kinds is evidence for an objective rightness. That is, if there were nothing that was good and right, except what our culture arbitrarily defines in that way, we would not recognize pain and wrongness. In the face of nearly overwhelming evidence of pain and wrong in our daily experience of the world, our continued ability to think of pain as abnormal affirms the objective existence of good and evil.
The Chief Happiness Officer cited an article from Newsweek, “Happiness: Enough Already.” It’s about the “happiness backlash.” It makes a similar point, if less philosophically. It talks about unhappiness as a reasonable and appropriate response to some things, a reaction that causes others to offer us comfort and causes us to seek positive change. It suggests that we as a culture have decided not to tolerate unhappiness, and defined appropriate sadness as an illness.
You could say the same for pain. Do you have a headache? Don’t use that information to recognize that you need a quieter space or a different job or a dustcloth — take a pill! Are you sad? Don’t use that information to recognize that you need to make changes in your behavior or grieve that things are not turning out for you as you had hoped they would — take a pill!
I think that most of us would say that pain has that purpose: to say, “Don’t touch that hot thing or you will damage your tissues!”
But Newsweek goes on to suggest that people who are not that happy — say an 8 on a scale of 10 rather than a 9 or a 10 — are more successful than those who are really happy.
Now, I’d be inclined to say that an 8 was pretty happy. But the idea that people who are slightly less happy are more successful caught my eye, because I would also be inclined to say that people who are happy are successful. By definition. Aristotle, the framers of the constitution, lots of folks would say that being happy is success.
Newsweek is talking about money and education. People who are a bit less happy than they could be are motivated to take steps. They end up making more money.
Now, this was interesting to me because the research about money and happiness is pretty consistent. Every year, The Wall Street Journal reports the latest findings on this, and they never give up. I figure it’s because they keep hoping it will turn out that money buys happiness. But no. Americans living in poverty are less happy than those who have enough. And people who “poor mouth” — who talk a lot about how they can’t afford things or don’t have enough, regardless of their actual circumstances — are less happy. But beyond that, more money doesn’t make you happier.
The thing is, it’s always framed in that way. Look at how much money people have, and see how happy they are. Doesn’t matter.
The report in Newsweek takes the opposite approach: look at how happy people are, and see how much money they make. Again, there is a limit: people who are deeply depressed don’t get out there and make millions. But reasonably cheerful people make more than those who are really joyful?
How can we reconcile these two sets of data?
I bet you could get a grant for this.