Happiness and Other Small Things of Absolute Importance (2016)
Aristotle believed that ‘Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life; the whole aim.’ In modern times, however, we have all kinds of different ideas about what happiness is. Some of us must go bungee jumping to trigger our rush of joy, while others will find their bliss staying at home. Some of us are happy in a concert hall listening to classical music; while the cacophony of children in a playground could be music to the ears of others. Some people find elation when they solve a complicated equation; for others a cancelled maths class is a happy childhood memory. Dostoevsky’s novels introduce us to characters who experience great happiness just knowing that they exist, others who enjoy being miserable, and even several whose greatest joy is to make others sad.
We do differ from one another, often greatly. But is one way of living right and another wrong?
We all want to be happy, but is happiness truly possible?
The Intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation’.
We shouldn’t confuse happiness with moments or periods of happiness. People can be happy for two hours, two days, and even a whole year … but that tends to be it: happiness never seems to sustain itself indefinitely. (By the way, Woody Allen disagrees with me. He believes that periods of happiness are much shorter, and that if anyone is happy for more than two days in a row, it’s only because someone is hiding something from him or her.)
In this chapter, we’ll see why the path to happiness is very narrow, with room for one person alone. We’ll join Heinrich Heine as he plans his day of grand happiness. We’ll familiarize ourselves with peak moments in the lives of men and women, and try to understand the reason for the huge differences between them.
Before we hit the road and start our journey to happiness, here’s a little piece of advice:
Happiness is a butterfly which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.
On Statistics and Cookbooks
If university students were surveyed on the most boring subject they’ve ever had to study, statistics would probably win first place. A student once told me that he never understood the need for anaesthetists when there’s such an abundance of books on statistics. Before going into the operating theatre, he said, patients could be asked to read two or three pages from a carefully selected textbook, and soon they’d be totally desensitized and ready for open-heart surgery.
When I suggested this to some of my physician friends, they were, at first, very enthusiastic about inducing general anaesthesia without any shots or invasive procedures. But when I showed them some of the textbooks in question, their excitement faded quickly. ‘The patients,’ they said, yawning, ‘might never awake from surgery.’
To ease the suffering of my students who must take classes in statistics, and to show them that the subject can actually be amusing and even interesting, I often send them out to conduct surveys on diverse and even bizarre subjects. Once I suggested they find out what types of books are published most prolifically. After visiting a few bookstores, the young surveyors came up with the following result:
(Wait - can you guess the result before you go on? It shouldn’t be hard.)
Hold your breath. Drumroll please. ‘And the winner is:
Not very surprising, huh? Some books present recipes for extra-tasty and easy-to-make pies, others offer extra work and tasteless pies, while some explain the ties between American pie and mathematical Pi (π). Some chefs are naked, while others wear fancy suits. There are big chefs who give little tips, and little chefs who tip big.
(Here’s my little tip for you: If you’re going out with someone who has an impressive collection of cookbooks, don’t forget to reserve a table in your favourite eatery.)
Despite this tantalizing hors d’oeuvres, however, in fact I’m not going to discuss cookbooks at all (and I certainly don’t intend to write one, since all I know how to do is boil an egg). Actually, instead of the winner, I want to discuss the runner-up in that survey I’ve just mentioned: happiness guides.
How to Be Happy Forever in Just Three Minutes
There are countless books that carry the word ‘Happiness’ in their title and promise their readers lasting bliss: the resolution of all anxiety and self-doubt and the attainment of profound tranquillity. Some of these books even go as far as claiming that a few minutes of practice a day is all we need to attain this sublime goal.
A few years back, my wife read Happiness the Feng Shui Way and subsequently reached the conclusion that I created a flow of negative energy through our house - not to mention the fact that I did not match our furniture at all. I spent an entire week pointing out mistakes in the book to her and proving that I was no source of energy at all, let alone negative energy. In the end, we bought a new set of living room furniture.
What do you think about this kind of book? More often than not, when someone poses a ‘What do you think …?’ question, they follow it with a piece of their mind. So: let me tell you what I think about them.
Attempting to maintain objectivity, I decided not to read any self-help books of this kind. After all, once you read a book there’s a chance you’ll feel a personal connection with it, which might cloud your judgment. So rather than actually read them, I decided to leaf through a few instead.
I soon reached the following conclusion: in most cases, reading howtobe-happy books will not make you happier (though it will help some of them become how-to-get-rich-fast books for their authors). Let me give you the main two of the many reasons that this is so:
There’s Empirical Proof That How-to-Be-Happy Books Are Useless
If just a shred of the promises made in many of those books came true, the world would be knee-deep in incomprehensible quantities of bliss. We all know that this is not the case.
Knowing ‘How to’ Offers No Edge in the Search for Happiness
Knowledge is a must when you try to solve a differential equation, prepare truffle pie á la Robuchon or send a rocket into space. It’s quite useless when you seek happiness. Let me explain. Leafing through one of those how-to guides, I came upon an amazingly wise piece of advice: ‘Rise every morning with a big smile and in an excellent mood.’ How lucky I was that the authors chose to share this insight with me. Before I stumbled upon this wonderful idea, I used to think that I should rise every morning with a sharp pain in my left kidney, feeling deeply depressed. Now I knew I’d been wrong all along.
The impact of such advice is equal to the impact of a ‘Have a nice day!’ bestowed upon you by a shopkeeper. Of course, this exhortation won’t really make your day nice. Knowing the right thing to do is not really helpful. Smokers know they should quit, but how does that physiologically cure their nicotine addiction?
These books are so popular, of course, not so much because of the advice they contain but because many readers identify with the lifestyle described: ‘Yes, of course, that is so true. I really should smile broadly every morning and do a good thing at least once a day.’ Strangely, though, these how-to books in fact leave us wondering: Now, how do I do that? That’s the big question.
In any event, I believe that there are no organized trips to happiness. Different people need different travel guides. I even doubt that the narrow path that leads to happiness offers enough room for one person. We are so different from each other that not even an organized trip to, say, Italy could satisfy every participant’s desires. While some visitors to Rome would want to see the Sistine Chapel and feast on a variety of local pasta dishes and red wines, others would want to link up with their fellow countrymen for a chinwag about baseball and chomp on red meat in the local hamburger joints.
Although, as we can see, organized tours by their nature are sadly lacking in promise when it comes to individual fulfilment, perhaps there are some general navigation rules that could help us find the path to happiness if we could summon enough self-reliance to travel alone? In other words, are there learnable truths that are valid for most people when it comes to finding bliss?
Here is a nice exercise. Try asking yourself: Assuming that everything is possible, what would be the shape of the happiest day of your life?
This no simple question, so I should like you to take a few moments before you reply.
While you’re thinking, let me tell you what the poet Heinrich Heine might have said about this very question.
The Happiest Day of My Life (a short essay that Heine never wrote)
The happiest day of my life would start when I slowly wake up in a wonderfully designed wooden cottage, up in the Swiss Alps. I would leisurely get out of bed, stretch, scratch, yawn, and approach the breakfast table. Following my nose, I’d find a freshly baked baguette on which I generously spread sweet butter. Gently, I bite into the crispy bread and take a long sip from the freshly made Italian coffee that my servants have brought.
Then I walk up to the window and feast my eyes on the small, glimmering, turquoise lake in the valley below. My gaze travels down the mountain trail that leads to my cabin as I take in the snow-peaked mountains and their reflection in the lake.
Yes, this is bliss, but it is not yet perfect. What does a poet and a thinker like me need now? Well, if God wants to make me really happy, here is the little extra something I’d need to make this day absolutely exquisite: between the cottage and the lake I’d like to see a tree with my enemies dangling from the branches. Yes! The cottage, lake view, sweet butter spread over the fresh baguette, and my haters hanging in the treetops. Nothing could beat that!’
God will forgive me. That’s His business.
I quite sympathized with Heine, up to the point about the hanging tree. I don’t want to see anyone hanging from anything, let alone trees. It doesn’t make me happy, not in the slightest. During one of my lectures, however, a member of the audience loved the idea. In fact, he said, a small country such as Israel doesn’t have enough trees to carry everyone he’d like to hang. Now, try telling this man that he should rise every morning with a smile.
As I pointed out before, people are quite different from one another, and have very different dreams and wishes. I once conducted a workshop on ‘positive thinking’’ for the employees of a large hi-tech firm, and discovered three interesting facts:
People don’t really know what they want. It took some of the participants as long as 15 minutes just to start writing.
The best person to spend your happiest day with is not necessarily your partner.
We Don’t Know What Will Make Us Happy.
Leafing through those guides to happiness, I stumbled on a truly excellent book by Daniel Gilbert: Stumbling on Happiness (Random House, 2006). It doesn’t presume to guide us to happiness, but rather explains - based on a huge amount of up-to-date psychological studies - why we cannot know what will make us happy (not even if we crave a state-of-the-art 3D plasma TV, a fancy car or a new kitchen). If you don’t know where you’re going, Gilbert goes on to assert, how will you ever get there? What if you’re headed the wrong way?
You can’t always get what you want.
Sir Michael Philip (Mick) Jagger and Keith Richards (co-writers)
That’s not the problem, I think. The problem is, you can’t always know what you want.
Daniel Gilbert (as he might have said)
There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
Well, it seems clear that you won’t find the key to happiness in standard self-help books and, unfortunately, not in this book either. As already stated in the Overture, the little book you’re holding now has a different function. It’s meant to change your perspective on almost everything in your life - and primarily the concept of happiness.
We cannot teach people anything: we can only help them discover it within themselves.
Three Philosophical Principles
Vasily Rozanov, sometimes known as ‘Rasputin of the Intellectuals’, is one of the most controversial writers and philosophers of pre-revolution Mother Russia. Rozanov believed that life teaches us many things every day, but regrettably we, the students, are inattentive and absent-minded.
In the following pages, I’d like to introduce you to three very basic and really important philosophical principles, but before you start reading, here’s some travel advice.
As we’ve already seen, knowing what to do and actually doing it are two very different things. Many who have found the path soon discovered that, as hard as it was to find, it’s even harder to follow.
A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
It’s OK to Do Nothing While Munching on a Little Something
We’re all familiar with this feeling: you wake up in the morning, and the first thought that comes to your mind is that the best thing to do now is to get right back between the sheets, for just two more hours … or five, or ten. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer even believed this tendency to be proof that life is no picnic. If our lives were such a great celebration, we’d be jumping out of bed even before we completely opened our eyes.
I wake up every morning at nine and grab for the morning paper. Then I look at the obituary page. If my name is not on it, I get up.
A man may awake in the morning, but morning does not awake in him.
When I awake in the morning and feel no morning awake in me, I call my faculty secretary and tell her to cancel everything planned for the day because my back is killing me. (I have to lie a little, because every eyebrow would be raised in my academic circle if I called in to say that today I won’t be showing up for work because no morning awoke in me.)
It is awfully hard work doing nothing.
I totally agree with wise and witty Oscar. Doing nothing is both awfully hard and a truly wonderful adventure. Let me explain this better with a short story.
One day I was invited to give a lecture on game theory at a conference that was held in a seaside resort town. Since I was supposed to give my lecture on a Thursday, I felt I would need to recover from it over the weekend, and so I stayed in the hotel. On Friday morning, after a huge breakfast (that Pooh would have relished), I went down to the swimming pool to bask in the sun and do nothing. Amazingly enough, I failed miserably.
Here’s what my brain said: ‘Nu, Haim? What’s with this sitting and doing nothing? Why don’t you at least grab a book? Read an article on differential topology or the Mandelbrot fractal. Is this not a great time finally to start reading Joyce’s Ulysses all the way through, or some other classic? Why don’t you write another PhD thesis? Oh, I know - go listen to Mahler’s Eighth or Ravel’s G major piano concerto. Perhaps really you should take this opportunity to decide what you want to be when you grow up? Why are you wasting time lying here by the pool when your basement back home is such a mess? OK, you should at least exercise a little. Swim a little. Swimming is good for you. You really must lose those love handles …’
And so my brain would not let me enjoy even a minute of idleness. After all, it isn’t really hard to do nothing. Many of us can. The hard part is doing nothing without feeling guilty about it.
When I realized that my guilt pangs wouldn’t leave me alone, I decided to work out, and engaged in agonizing exercises for quite a while. Let me tell you: I’m proud to say that today I can do nothing for a week and enjoy every moment of it! So perhaps our happiest moments are those mornings when we wake up but stay in bed a little longer, spoiling ourselves with doing nothing and daydreaming under a warm blanket? I recommend you try this the first chance you have.
Quite a few people, however, just don’t get this idea and put forward the bizarre argument:
‘Haim, doing nothing is silly. You’re wasting time.’
Time, I always reply, is wasting anyway. No matter what I do or don’t, time is wasting. That is the very nature of time.
Winnie-the-Pooh, for example, is never in a hurry and simply does what he wants to do. Paradoxically, although Pooh never exerts himself particularly hard, he does manage to make his wishes come true, and he has many adventures: he finds the North Pole, helps Eeyore find his tail, makes up poems, and flies with the help of a balloon.
The Chinese call this principle Wu Wei. Wu means ‘without’ and Wei means ‘effort’ - the main idea of this Taoist principle is that we need to know when to act and when to let things just happen. And even when we act, we should go about this effortlessly, the way trees grow or waves roll. The best rendition of this principle I’ve found in English is ‘creative quietude’.
In our day and age, most of us spend most of our time ‘doing’ and devote little time to just ‘being’. Pooh exemplifies the essential quality of ‘being’, and clearly enjoys himself greatly.
Of course, I’m not advocating absolute inaction. I’m speaking about the fundamental balancing act: while we work and create, which is our very essence and the purpose of our existence in this world, we must find time to enjoy our mere presence, our ‘being’ here, and relish it.
And now to something not entirely different: four new versions of the Tale of the Ant and the Grasshopper. If you’re too curious and already dying to know what my second principle is, you are welcome to skip the following passages and come back to visit Ant and Grasshopper when you feel like it.
The Ant and the Grasshopper, Version 1
(a fable by Aesop, with four different morals)
The Grasshopper spent all summer and autumn singing, dancing and drinking with friends, while the Ant worked hard and stored up food for the winter.
When winter came, the starving Grasshopper went to the Ant and asked for something to eat. The Ant not only gave him nothing, but even reprimanded him for his laziness.
Here is the moral of the story, according to several wise men:
Aesop: Go to the ant, you sluggard, consider her ways, and learn wisdom.
La Fontaine: Good planning is half the job.
Krilov, the Russian storyteller: Think before you act.
Dani Kerman, the Israeli cartoonist: If you enjoy singing and dancing, you should pick better friends than such uncivilized ants.
The Ant and the Grasshopper, Version 2
(an alternative account inspired by Positive Psychology)
The Grasshopper spent all summer and autumn singing, dancing and drinking with friends, while the Ant worked hard and stored up food for the winter.
When winter came, the Ant sat in her food-packed house and was getting really bored. One day she heard a car pulling into her driveway. The eager Ant opened the door and was amazed to see the Grasshopper stepping out of a bright-red Ferrari, wearing a designer suit and smoking a Cuban cigar.
‘Where did you get all that?’ the hard-working but simple Ant asked.
‘Well, Ma’am, I sang and danced and played my fiddle until my agent got me a winter job with the Paris Opera for a large fistful of dollars. I’m going there now. Want to come?’
‘Sure,’ said the Ant.‘I’ll go to the Paris Opera with you, and I’ll look up that La Fontaine dude, then I’ll give him a piece of my mind: hard work only pays in fables he copied from Aesop.’
‘Done deal. We’ll meet him at Angelina’s. They serve an amazing chestnut tart.’ Saying this, Grasshopper opened the door of his Ferrari door for her.
The Ant and the Grasshopper, Version 3
(the Walt Disney version)
The Grasshopper spent all summer and autumn singing, dancing and drinking with friends, while the Ant worked hard and stored up food for the winter.
When winter came, Grasshopper went to Ant to ask for some food.
Ant said,‘I have to consult the Ant Queen. Come back tomorrow.’
On the next day, when Grasshopper showed up, Ant told him it had been decided he would be given some food, provided he moved into the ants’ winter quarters. At 7.30 every night he would have to sing and dance and play his fiddle for them all. Too hungry even to consider whether he had an alternative, Grasshopper accepted the Queen’s terms.
Soon the ants became very fond of Grasshopper. Every night his shows would turn into a huge ball, with the ants feasting and dancing to his tunes. And every night, when the concert ended, Grasshopper would retire to his chambers with two beautiful ants, one on each arm.
The Ant and the Grasshopper, Version 4
When winter came, the Grasshopper went to the Ant and begged for some food. The Ant reprimanded him for his lazy ways, but before she could say everything she had to say, a man who was walking through the forest accidentally stepped on both the Ant and the Grasshopper, squashing them. C’est la vie.
At this point, I’ll leave the ant and grasshopper to rest in peace and move on to discuss the second principle of Pooh’s life philosophy.
Anger Is Punishing Yourself for the Stupidity of Others; or Anger is Punishing Yourself for Your Own Stupidity
It takes me a long time to lose my temper, but once lost, I could not find it with a dog.
Very few people know this, but one of the world’s greatest experts on anger management is Baruch Spinoza, the great Jewish philosopher. The following sentence is a summary of Spinoza’s philosophy of anger:
Never get angry, or never forgive.
Let me explain. According to the great Jewish philosopher, before you get angry with someone, you should consider whether you intend to forgive this person sometime in the future. That person may be a fine candidate for your anger right now, but if you feel you could ever forgive them - in a week, a month, six months, or a year - it’s best to forgive them right now and avoid the unnecessary rage and agony.
Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.
Spinoza, therefore, treated time in a very special way in his version of philosophy - in fact, he tried to see everything from the point of view of eternity. One of his conclusions was that if you’re ever going to forgive anyone, your anger today is illogical. It’s totally unnecessary and even absurd.
This view received unexpected support:
One should not lose one’s temper unless one is certain of getting more and more angry to the end.
William Butler Yeats
Spinoza, however, was not naïve. He knew that certain things can never be forgiven, and so he stated that if you do decide to be angry and bear a grudge for the rest of your life, then fine, go right ahead. You must be careful, though, because there’s a little-big catch here. If you happened to become angry with someone and then chose to forgive them after 30 minutes (if you were just a little angry) or 30 years (if you were terribly angry), you would have made a mistake and should not have been angry to begin with.
It is critical for us to adopt Spinoza’s attitude in our closest relationships. After all, what are the chances that a parent would be mad at his offspring for the rest of his life? Can siblings be angry with each other forever? What is the point of being angry with someone for a day, a week or even a year if you will eventually forgive them?
As always, all this is easier said than done.
One of the reasons why Spinoza was so greatly appreciated - even by his philosopher colleagues, who called him a ‘philosopher’s philosopher’ was the fact that he walked his talk and lived according to his teachings.
Good for him, but we are not Spinoza. It’s much harder for us.
The Dalai Lama teaches a method that should help us not to lose our temper. He says that we must distinguish between people and their deeds. We have no reason to be angry with people, because no one’s life on Earth is easy. We may, however, be upset about people’s actions. I tried the Dalai Lama method, but my achievements were unimpressive. When someone makes me mad (which happens rarely, but does happen), I find it impossible to forget that person and focus my anger on his or her actions alone. I find the two inseparably intertwined.
So here’s a human piece of advice:
If you are angry ... count to ten.
If you are really angry ... swear.
The Straight Story
Directed by David Lynch, The Straight Story is a film that tells the story of Alvin Straight (consider the numerous meanings of this name), an elderly World War II veteran who lives with his daughter Rose, a kind-hearted woman with a mental disability. He has an estranged brother, Lyle, whom he has not seen for many years because they have had a falling out of sorts.
One day Alvin learns that his brother has suffered a stroke and decides to visit him before it’s too late for both of them. Alvin’s legs and eyes are too weak for him to receive a driving licence for any conventional vehicle, so he decides to make the trip on his John Deere lawn tractor. The 240-mile voyage from Laurens, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wisconsin, takes him six weeks.
When the brothers finally meet, you can see that they’ve missed each other (actually, you can see that in the eyes of Richard Farnsworth and Harry Dean Stanton, the wonderful actors). The two deeply regret their years of alienation and anger (and, absurdly enough, they can’t even remember what drove them apart in the first place).
Nothing is straight in this story.
In every minute of anger, you lose 60 seconds of peace.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Admittedly, I still have a lot to learn about anger management (and I’m trying), but as is often the case I learned quite a lot from the following incident, in which I tried to teach someone else about the harm of getting angry.
Taxi Driver 1 (not Martin Scorsese’s)
One day I hailed a taxi (with its driver). As we were coasting down the highway, another car cut us up wildly, seriously risking the lives of the taxi’s occupants - not to mention, the maverick driver himself and his car. The taxi driver became really angry and started cursing and screaming. After a while, as I realized that he wasn’t about to stop, I tried to explain that what he was doing was completely illogical. I said that the crazy driver was probably already home, sitting in his warm bathtub, playing with his rubber duckie. I went on to say that the only people who were really being punished at this time were the two of us: me, because I had to listen to his loud rant, and him, because the tantrum might cause him real physical harm. He was convinced. ‘I will never lose my temper again,’ he declared. ‘I will never give them the satisfaction! They will see me get mad over my dead body!’ His voice nearly shattered the windows.
Anger is punishing yourself for the stupidity of others.
(Of course, common knowledge and common sense are so not commonly found.)
A physician once told me that recent scientific studies clearly show that people who are easily irritated and lose their temper simply live shorter lives. How surprising is that?
I make a habit of getting angry only when there’s a chance that my rage will change something.
So, let us pray:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
Reinhold Niebuhr, ‘The Serenity Prayer’ (1943)
Taxi Driver 2 (again, unrelated to Scorsese’s work)
One day I was in a Tel Aviv taxi again (I used to be a serial passenger), and this time we hit heavy traffic. As we were crawling to our destination, the driver noticed a car that passed us (and everyone else) from the right, driving on the hard shoulder. The furious taxi driver unleashed a few sentences that this book can do without. After he calmed down a little, he said: ‘What disgusting people Israelis are, every last one of them. They violate the law as if they were in a rush to save their grandma whose house was on fire. Tell me,’ he turned to me, ‘why are all Israelis so rude?’ (He used another word too.)
It was a great opportunity for me to give the man a lesson in statistical deduction.
‘Is it possible that your conclusion is a little off the mark?’ I asked.
‘What do you mean? Why am I wrong?’ he countered.
‘Well, are you driving on the hard shoulder?’ I started, presenting my case.
‘No, I’m not.’
‘And is the car in front of us doing anything illegal?’ I went on. ‘No,’ he said, sounding very suspicious.
‘I hope you noticed that the car on our left is doing fine too. The truth is that only one car violated the law. We saw no one else driving on the hard shoulder, did we?’ I started closing my argument.
‘What are you trying to say?’ he asked, less angry now.
‘What funny people we are,’ I said. ‘We easily notice anything bad orirritating, but ignore the good things. Dozens of drivers around us did not cross that yellow line, but you never said that it’s nice to have so many patient and polite motorists around us. You saw only one (one!) driver who violated the law, and immediately concluded that not only are all Israeli motorists evil, but that all Israelis are wrongdoers. Isn’t it amazing?’ I rested my solid case.
Thus end my taxi tales.
Now try this.
Please check how many TV shows you can think of that present us with good people. And why is it that every newscast carries so many reports about negative things that take place, while a little show about people who do good, which was aired on one of the commercial channels, was soon axed on account of low ratings? (I believe that the viewers switched to other channels in search of ‘nicer’ things to watch, such as stories of a wife-killing husband, a young man who beat an old one, and an abusive mother.) What does that say about us?
In some of his finest short stories the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy implicitly posed the following question:
Why do people so easily, without a second thought, believe everything bad they hear about others, but cannot believe the good things they hear?
If you were honest, you’d admit that good old Count Leo was right. This is indeed a regular thinking pattern of ours.
If you still doubt it, here’s proof. Suppose a newspaper or Internet site should report tomorrow that Haim Shapira, author of the book in your hands, was arrested on suspicion of spying for Russia. I know exactly what the reactions would be.
People would say things like:
‘I knew there was something suspicious about him the minute I saw him.’
‘It does not surprise me at all.’
‘He has a Russian accent and he keeps quoting Russian writers. How come he knows Tolstoy, Nabokov and Visotzky so well?’
‘He’s also good at maths and plays piano, which is typically Russian. Besides, all Russians are spies.’
Here’s a partial answer to Tolstoy’s question:
If we had no faults of our own, we would not take so much pleasure in noticing those of others.
François de La Rochefoucauld
I want to translate this wise saying by the French aristocrat from English to simple English:
The more flaws one sees in others, the more flaws one possesses.
Many believe that a man is as big as the things that make him angry. A nice saying, I say, but not entirely right. I believe that Heraclitus was right when he said that character is fate. A wise person should not get angry, but that’s just a theory. I’ve heard that Spinoza and a few other wise men did manage to avoid anger by drawing upon their wisdom, but they are a negligible minority. We ordinary mortals cannot do that. As Emerson said, people boil at different temperatures that were determined without consulting them.
Before we move on to the third principle, I’d like to give you an insight that is based on decades of observing others and, mainly, myself. Soon after I turned 40, I fully realized that we should not delude ourselves into believing that we can easily discard unwanted emotions. Believing we can is hubris par excellence - not everything follows man’s will and desire.
Once, surfing the Internet, I came across an ad whose banner read: ‘Anger Management - Getting Rid of Anger Is Easy’. Though this was nicely phrased, I did not buy the product. Learning to manage one’s emotions is a lifelong endeavour. Only very young people, or older ones who didn’t grow wiser with time, can believe that they can fill their hearts with anger and animosity at will, or may make peace with everything should they so desire.
Wise people know that in the battle between emotions and thoughts, the former will almost always prevail. Either way, being one of the greatest obstacles on people’s paths to better and proper lives, anger is too important to be set aside. And so let us decide that we will analyse our spells of rage later (when we’re more tranquil).
Unstoppable Minds Can Be Stopped
My grandmother died peacefully aged 101. She was blessed with some charming qualities. She had many friends, was very generous, never green-eyed and knew how to cheer others up and help them get rid of unfounded worries and false anxieties.
She had a bright sense of humour. I must tell you one of her quips. One day, my mother caught grandma, who was almost 100 at the time, talking to herself. At first, granny was embarrassed, but when she recovered, she said:“Yes, I talk to myself. That’s true. It’s not because I’m crazy, but because no one in your house is as wise as me. There’s no one else to talk to here.”
Perhaps therein lies the secret of her longevity. Either way, her philosophy of life closely resembles that of a Greek philosopher who lived fewer years than she, but many years before her.
On Epicureanism: ‘Let Us Assume that the Earth Will Quake’
The main portion of the philosophy of Epicurus (who lived in the third century bc) deals with the teachings of contentment. Epicurus wrote quite extensively (more than 300 scrolls, according to Diogenes Laertius), but very few of his writings survived. The most complete work we have is Principal Doctrines - a collection of some 40 aphorisms on ethics. Only segments remain of his other works, but they all reflect unique philosophical courage, humanity and nobility (Epicurus apparently walked his talk).
The proponents of Judaism and Christianity did not appreciate his works. Christians fought against him because he did not believe in divine intervention or the idea that the human soul is eternal (Dante placed Epicurus and his disciples in his Inferno, canto 10, circle 6), while Jews use the name Epicurus as an adjective, referring to persons who defy faith and God, or sometimes just to free spirits in general.
These are Epicurus’ four principles - his Tetrapharmakos - for healing the mind:
1. We need not fear God.
2. We need not fear death.
3. Evil can be tolerated.
4. Good can be acquired.
Below, I shall briefly discuss the first three and then elaborate on the fourth.
We Need Not Fear God
There is no reason to fear God because, even though God exists, Epicurus maintains that there is no divine intervention. Humans are not important enough for God to bother punishing or rewarding us. After all, is thinking that God is involved in our personal affairs not committing the sin of vanity at the highest level?
When we talk to God, we’re praying.
When God talks to us, we’re schizophrenic.
Jane Wagner (Lily Tomlin’s comedy writer and life partner)
God exists, but I am an atheist.
I should like mercy, not justice, to guide God.
Miguel de Cervantes
I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.
Whether or not God is dead, it is impossible to keep silent about him who was there for so long.
We Need Not Fear Death
For most humans, our greatest fear is probably death. Epicurus cannot understand this.
While we are here, death is not; once death arrives, we are no longer here. We never meet death, so what’s to fear?
Inspired by Epicurus
Evil Can Be Tolerated
Speaking with great mercy and compassion, Epicurus urges miserable people who suffer from deformities, diseases, old age and agonizing fatal illnesses to summon their courage when dealing with pain and the circumstances they cannot escape. As I noted above, Epicurus was true to his own word. He was very ill most of his life, but he wouldn’t let his pain break his spirit.
The feeling of pain does not linger continuously in the flesh; rather, the sharpest pain is present for the shortest time.
Epicurus even agreed with the following saying of the great philosopher of the night:
That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.
Epicurus didn’t say that life without sorrow is possible, but he aspired to deserve everything that happened to him in life.
My wounds existed before me, I was born to embody them.
One last thing I’d like to mention about this third principle is that Epicurus did not really fear bodily pain, arguing that mental pain is greater. Physical pain exists only in the present, he claimed, while mental pain is mostly associated with the present but also with the past, and even the future.
Good Can Be Acquired
This principle is where Epicurus presents his recipe for happiness. As my intelligent readers may have already gathered, I’m not a great believer in ‘happiness recipes’; but if we must have one, Epicurus’ is my favourite.
First, Epicurus recommends friendship. He maintained that one cannot be wise without understanding that friendship is the greatest of values (I will discuss this later in the book).
Next, Epicurus speaks of two types of pain that hinder our happiness: physical and mental. Physical pain is expressed through bodily damage, hunger, thirst and cold, while mental pain comprises anxieties and fears. Tranquillity will come to us when we no longer feel pain, and that (according to him, of course) will put us on the road to happiness. Epicurus urges tranquillity of body and mind. He doesn’t renounce pleasures, but suggests that we engage in them cautiously, because the pain that might follow them could be greater than the joy they bring.
Epicurus further warns us against the kinds of damage inflicted by greed, pursuit of honour and glory, lust, gluttony, envy, presumptuousness, and hubris or vanity.
As noted above, Epicurus was not naïve, which is why he also pointed out that people cannot acquire many possessions through honesty (what else is new?), and that acquisitiveness is not worth the effort because all possessions bring is mental unrest.
Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.
Who is rich? He who rejoices in his portion.
Ethics of the Fathers
The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.
Tyler Durden’s insight from the movie Fight Club
As far as mental pain (that is, anxiety) is concerned, Epicurus believed that we mostly worry for no reason at all. I believe he would gladly endorse this:
No enemy can even come close to man’s worst enemy: his thoughts. Something my grandmother taught me.
I believe that both Epicurus and my grandma are correct. Just consider the strange things that trouble our minds. What is the universe made of? Is it finite or infinite? Is it expanding or shrinking? Are there parallel universes? Is there intelligent life on Mars? (Of course, many people have more earthly concerns, such as paying the bills, the state of the economy, their struggling children, sickness within the family, and the like.)
In fact, all that Epicurus wants is to live in tranquillity and try to be happy; and if that’s not possible, at the very least he wants to suffer as little as possible.
Wouldn’t you like to suffer as little as possible? According to this wise Greek sage, one of the most important things we can do in life is to assume that ‘that tree will not fall on us’. After all, we worry the most about things that never happen.
Let me explain with an example.
Imagine you’re on a plane, flying to a vacation on an island in Thailand. How enjoyable it is to spend your time in the air engaged in pleasant thoughts such as: what if the plane crashes? and if we don’t crash, what if a tsunami turns our hotel into a floating guest house? Oh, I just know I’ll eat something bad and get sick, or have a heart attack, or go numb from a massage. I’m sure my boss will seize the opportunity to fire me while I’m on leave. What if my daughter runs off with an Eskimo modelling agent? And what if the food they serve on the plane doesn’t agree with me and I have to run to the bathroom throughout my whole vacation?
I can only hope that none of you entertains thoughts that even slightly resemble these. Epicurus argues that there’s no logical or probabilistic reason to think this way, simply because almost none of those troubling things will actually happen.
Let’s think this through:
First, I’m sure we can agree that if, while airborne, the pilot were suddenly to announce that we were about to crash-land in the ocean, it would be stupid to worry about a tsunami. Let it come, for all we care. See? We worried for nothing.
Second, if a tsunami should hit our resort, who cares if our boss decides to fire us? Let him have a ball. We couldn’t care less.
Third, there’s absolutely no way that the following scenario could possibly happen. Flying over the ocean, the pilot announces we’re crashing (that is, heading for a drowning), and that we’re about to fall right into a colossal tsunami. Terror makes our heart beat erratically, and now we’re having a massive coronary. As we reach our hand to our chest, we feel a lump and just know this is a malignant tumour. We tremble with horror - but wait! It’s our mobile vibrating. The boss is calling to let us know we’re fired. Then there’s a call waiting, and it’s our daughter letting us know she’ll be spending the rest of her life in an igloo. Now we feel nauseous - dreadful airline food is upsetting our stomach.
Not even Eeyore the gloomy donkey could believe in such a scenario.
There is zero probability those things could happen all together, and so … there’s no reason to worry about them.
Epicurus says that whatever is meant to happen will happen, one way or another. This too, he feels, is no reason to worry, because the trouble that will hit us will be mostly of the unexpected kind - namely, things we never even considered. For example, I don’t know where you are right now, but if you’re sitting under a huge chandelier, I would suggest you find a better spot. Who knows what might happen?
(I hope you didn’t panic and are now reading under a blanket holding a flashlight.)
The main problem with Epicurus’ theory is that it’s very hard to tell ourselves not to worry without a reason, and it’s even harder to put the idea into practice. We often give ourselves excellent advice, but we very rarely listen.
Man’s greatest tragedy is the fact that he has no brake that could stop, when necessary, a thought or even the entire thinking process.
Valéry is absolutely right. Our thinking minds really do run like cars without brakes. We cannot stop our thoughts at will, not even for a moment. We cannot stop thinking, but maybe we can have better thoughts? Keep on reading.
Some Thoughts about Happiness, Pessimism and Childhood
As we know all too well, people in this world don’t really ‘live happily ever after’. As we’ve seen, our old friend Sigmund Freud took the view that happiness was not part of the world creation plan. And if there’s a person somewhere who is happy each and every moment of his life, I could refer them to places where the best doctors treat this strange mental condition.
A lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth.
George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman
No one can be happy 24/7/365 - that much is clear. We should understand, however, that each of us is entitled to minutes of happiness, short moments of grace, and glimpses of tranquillity. Sometimes we may even feel at peace and satisfied with our life’s course.
The simplistic idea, therefore, would be to recommend that everyone make every possible and impossible effort to collect as many such moments throughout their lives, because these are the things that matter. The problem is that we cannot order such moments online and have them custom-made. In fact, it’s even possible that the very pursuit of happiness might be the greatest obstacle on the road to happiness itself.
If one were to build the house of happiness, the largest space would be the waiting room.
To sum up, I’d say that there’s an abyss between happiness and misery, and we all live in it most of the time.
Thinking about how rare the happy moments of our lives are, I was sad to realize that so many people don’t even notice them when they actually happen. It’s often the case that we realize we had a happy moment only after it’s over, and time has provided us with a fresh perspective.
The great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that what gets us through the most difficult moments is neither our upbringing nor the things we learned later in life. Our childhood memories keep us strong and help us go on. A particularly good childhood memory is the best medication against all the nasty things that await each and every one of us on the path of life.
My finest childhood memory includes my father. Where I grew up, come winter, the neighbourhood children used to speed down a snowy hill using all sorts of skis, sledges and even plastic bags. Most of the time, that hill was covered with a slippery mixture of snow and ice.
At the age of seven or eight, I was a chubby boy. My father had just bought me a wooden sledge and took me to that hill to try it.
When we reached the top, my dad positioned me on the sledge, gave me a few quick instructions, and cautioned me at length about the perils of sledging. When he was satisfied that I’d understood everything, he let go of my arm and I started happily sliding down the hill. But then I realized that my dad was running alongside me, trying to make sure nothing happened to me, and yelling instructions and words of caution. Now, I reached the bottom safe and sound. But my father slipped and fell a couple of times along the way. I mean, how could anyone even think of running down such a slippery, icy hill?
Everyone around us laughed at the spectacle, but I was deeply shamed. What could be more embarrassing for a child than having your father making a fool of himself and overprotecting you? I just wanted to disappear. Of course, I wanted to slide down that hill all over again as soon as I reached the bottom, but having my dad running awkwardly next to me did not seem like fun. I tried once again, created a similar scene, and gave it up for a while.
I would never have expected this back then, but every time I remember that day, my heart is filled with great joy, because the memory assures me that my dad cared about me and loved me dearly.
And now we make a giant leap, from my childhood memories to an intriguing logical inconsistency of some of the pessimistic philosophers: while many of them maintain that life is full of vanities and generally intolerable, they complain about it being too short and ending too fast. Isn’t that weird? Incidentally, many of the pessimistic philosophers believe that pessimism is a mark of a superior intellect. It makes me wonder.
Years ago, I studied evolution and discovered that pessimism may be the result of evolution (amygdala is to blame). In the early days of humanity, when survival was paramount, we chose to believe that a rattling bush meant an approaching tiger, not that another tooth fairy got lost. So perhaps the pessimistic approach to life is our not-very-interesting thought default?
For the sake of full disclosure, I should say that I used to be an ardent believer in all kinds of pessimistic philosophers - from the Buddha to Arthur Schopenhauer. One I valued was Oswald Spengler, who simply said: ‘Optimism is cowardice.’ I admired the pessimistic and cynical witticisms of Gorgias, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Anton Chekhov, and many others. With time I grew wiser, I believe, and today I hold that:
Pessimism is usually an expression of intellectual laziness.
Inspired by Colin Wilson
Consider for a moment how simple and yet true this short phrase is. Bear in mind how easy it is to be pessimistic and disappointed and angry all the time; to say that everyone is corrupt and things will always be bad; to declare that the world was corrupted and evil and silly when we were born, and that it will be just the same when we depart. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said that any idiot who spreads doomsday forecasts around may be glorified as a prophet. I, too, believe that one doesn’t need an IQ of more than 17 to let the world know that things are bad and will get worse, and that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train, and that there’s nowhere to run.
Anyone who has lived on this planet long enough knows that pessimism is the natural way to think. It requires no effort, like a rock rolling downhill. It’s much harder to push the rock up the hill, to think positively. Just see the effort it takes to think like Pooh, to find a bit of magic and grace in everything. That is a mission worthy of the wise.
I believe that although in the long run the pessimist is always right, the optimist enjoys the ride.
You are where your thoughts are.
Make sure your thoughts are where you want to be.
The above aphorism may sound like it was taken from The Secret, but is attributed to Rabbi Nahman of Breslev, and mildly different versions of it were offered by the Buddha, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Leo Tolstoy. I guess it was no great secret after all.
‘We are where our thoughts are’ is so true that it’s no surprise that so many wise men reached the same insight independently of each other. The five I mentioned must be a drop in the ocean.
(The following paragraphs are an addendum, written especially for philosophy buffs or admirers of the Marquis de Sade. You can skip them if you wish, and resume your reading overleaf.)
The Marquis de Sade and the Stoics
The Stoic philosophers distinguished between ‘situations’ and ‘events’. Situations are not up to us. They just happen and there is nothing we can do about them. A tsunami may wash you away; a meteorite could hit you while you’re reading a book; a person who commits suicide jumping from a tall building might fall right on your head on the day you put on your best suit. You get the drift (optimistic situations can also happen, but we’re less interested in them at the moment).
While a situation happens independently of us and we cannot control it, an ‘event’ is created by what we think about what is happening to us and how we react to various situations. In other words, we turn situations into events. According to the Stoics, a person is the sum total of his chosen reactions to situations that come his way - on the mental and on the practical level. Hence the Stoics’ most important moral slogan: Be worthy of anything that happens to you.
Two novels by Sade, Justine and Juliette, which tell the stories of two sisters - one who is good and one who is not so good - brilliantly demonstrate the difference between a situation and an event. These two novels are not recommended reading for people who prize their sanity. I read them when my mind was boring me, so I decided to get out of it for a while. When I returned, I brought back many interesting ideas, but ever since then I’ve spent my time in my newly expanded mind and never ventured out.
An initial, superficial reading creates the impression that Justine is the good sister and so, following Sade’s twisted logic, every possible and impossible disaster shall befall her. With the Marquis, no good deed goes unpunished. At the same time, the evil sister Juliette does extremely well and is highly successful. Nevertheless, a second reading of the two novels (which is even less recommended than the first) reveals a very surprising fact. The two sisters encounter almost the same set of situations, and while good sister Justine suffers greatly from the situations that Sade drops on her head, bad sister Juliette chooses to enjoy very similar situations, and does so, big time.
Back to our business. Some people think that the fact that they complain all the time about everything they see or hear makes them appear extremely wise. However:
It’s bad taste to be wise all the time, like being at a perpetual funeral.
D H Lawrence, ‘Peace and War’ (a poem)
Last Tango in Venice
A few years back, my wife and I went on a trip to Italy with a couple of our friends. I love touring Italy and do it as often as I can. It has a good influence on my psyche. Early on in our trip, while on our way from Rome to the Dolomites, we had a chance to spend two days in Venice. On our second day there, I realized that our tour companion was a very ‘wise’ man. While we were cruising the Venice waterways, our friend decided to share his great wisdom with us. First, he let us know that the city was crumbling and will disappear under water in 30 to 40 years, tops. After he’d finished smashing Venice to smithereens, he called our attention to the fact that the sewage system of the city of palaces was badly built (I can only hope that none of my readers ever trouble their minds too much with Venice’s sewage planning and construction). After he’d crumbled Venice and flooded it with waste water, he pointed out that the Montepulciano wine we were served at dinner the night before was not a 1997, as we requested, but a 2001, or even - Lord have mercy! - a 2003. We were cheated, he said.
And so this friend of ours kept pumping facts into my head as if he were determined slowly but surely to ruin my Italian vacation. Alas, the man who knew it all did not know one thing: that I knew almost everything he knew. The difference between us was that I - following in the footsteps of my great teacher Winnie-the-Pooh - chose to look at everything through softer, lighter, rosier glasses. I know that Venice is slowly crumbling, but that’s part of its magic. (After all, they have built Venice replicas in Vegas and Macau, and they do not crumble, but do they have the magic? Of course not.)
Even if the sewage system was built badly, it’s been working for hundreds of years. I mean, give them a break! When was the last time you bought a product with even a 100-year warranty?
Yes, they cheated us with the wine (I also noticed), but so what? At least our waiter gave us some thought, which is nice too. Although I would have loved him to think of us beyond ‘How do I trick these suckers?’ and it’s a shame that he chose that thought to include us in, I refuse to let such small things ruin the few beautiful moments that, as we’ve seen, are so hard to come by and collect. After all, these are the moments that will stay in our memory’s scrapbook. As a wise man once said: ‘Good memories create the Heaven from which no one can deport us.’
Ever since that trip, our friend has called me occasionally, trying to find out where and when I’ll be traveling next, and every time he hears the same answer: ‘Sorry, I just got back.’ That was our last tango.
Time for a break.
Tea and biscuits and honey would be welcome.
Surveys, Lies and Moments of Happiness
Reporter: ‘Are you happy, Sir?’
Charles De Gaulle: ‘What do you take me for, an idiot?’
The Big (False) Happiness Survey
One of the most fascinating, and even perhaps one of the most important surveys I ever conducted, was questioning people about their happiest moments. The people being surveyed were given a blank sheet of paper and asked to describe their happiest moment ever. I gave them five minutes to do that, which is plenty, and told them that if more than one such moment knocked at their memory door, they should write them all down and rate the moments by their intensity.
Before I share my findings with you, I’d like to ask you, dear reader, to take five minutes and consider: What was your happiest moment? Which moment came in second? Do you have a third? How many could you jot down in five minutes?
I’d like to add that happy moments change shade over time. We’ve all had moments of joy that later turned out to be less than happy, but we’ve also had moments we realized were happy only years later.
One must be a God to tell successes from failures without making a mistake.
Take your time and write.
Joy? What Joy?
It saddened me to discover that quite a few grown-ups turned in a blank sheet - that is, they couldn’t think of a single happy moment in their lives, or they chose not to respond to the question, which is also sad. Some of my students were unable to remember one moment of joy in their past, but thankfully they are young and there’s still hope for them.
Happiness clearly doesn’t exist; still, one day you wake up and find it’s gone.
We are never as happy or as unhappy as we imagine.
François de La Rochefoucauld
I wondered about the people who couldn’t find a single moment of happiness. What had they been doing with their lives? Today, I know I was wrong to wonder. As noted earlier, our ability to experience moments of joy (and many other things) is to a large extent genetic (it’s our parent’s fault again). Eeyore knows that.
Men and Women
I further discovered from the surveys that men and women often experience such different moments of joy that I began to wonder if they even live on the same planet and breathe the same air. This reminded me of a friend who is a gender studies professor and a fighting feminist. Her car is decorated with a bumper sticker that reads: ‘I think, therefore I am single.’ (Did you ever consider that, Descartes?)
If you want to sacrifice the admiration of a million men forthe criticism of one, go ahead, get married.
In any event, this friend of mine totally disagreed and was even a little angry with me when I told her about the huge differences I found between men and women. She argued that there are no substantial differences at all, except perhaps for the fact that men like women while women like men (at least for the most part).
I insisted that there are actually thousands of large and small differences between the genders. One of those differences is based on this simple fact: women want many things from one man; men want one thing from many women.
This is where things start getting complicated, which is why I always ask the people I survey to note their gender.
Let us begin reviewing the findings of my survey. Being a gentleman, I’ll chivalrously declare: ladies first.
What Makes Women Happy?
I’ve pondered what women want all my life. Yet, even now that I’m old and wise, I don’t have the slightest idea.
Inspired by Sigmund Freud
I reviewed responses supplied by female students who took various courses I gave - from Psychology and Genetics to Game Theory - and came upon no particularly fascinating findings. Here’s a rather accidental collection of answers to the question, What has made you happiest? (I’ve picked randomly from my notes and typed these snippets in):
Skydiving with a cute instructor
Qualifying for studies here (I can only hope said studies justified that)
My cat recovered
I got to know myself
Watching the sunset on Ko Phi Phi
Taking a trip to South America (Don’t people just love to travel?)
I met my boyfriend
I realized that my mythological ex still loved me! (Exclamation mark in the original)
A Vipassana retreat I attended
A trip I took to Costa Rica (People really seem to like to travel)
My first kiss (Finally that!)
A trip to New Zealand (OK, I got it, people love to travel)
Graduating in officers’ school
Ménage à trois
The day I was proposed to
My trip to India (Enough already)
OK, this is getting old fast. I’m sure you get the drift.
Things became a little more interesting when I surveyed women who were a bit older. No breathtaking moments there either, mind you, but the interesting thing about slightly older women was the fact that there was almost no distribution of data at all. The majority of women spoke of the same experience as their happiest moment. Can you guess what it was?
I bet the girls did. I’m pretty sure the guys didn’t.
The vast majority of women chose the moment they brought life into this world - the moment of giving birth - as their happiest.
I’m afraid that some of the men who read this are already beginning to realize the dreadful message this piece of data carries. The first time my wife saw meYes, sirs, that’s the truth. None of you, my dear brothers, featured in the happiest moment of your wife’s life! (To cheer you up a bit, let me tell you that you do feature in the happiest moment of your mother’s life. Feeling better?)
Man is for woman a means: the purpose is always the child.
A Bad Guess
After conducting that survey, I conducted another, supportive survey in which I asked men to guess what their wives’ happiest moment might be. This survey revealed that men are very wise and know many things, but are quite the idiots when it comes to their leading ladies. Here’s a typical selection of answers:
The first time my wife saw me
The first time I hugged my wife
The moment I proposed (In fact, this incident did feature as first choice here and there in the women’s answers, but it was nowhere near the moment of giving birth. The actual wedding was very often ranked at number 3, 4 or 5.)
The first time we kissed
The moment my wife realized she wanted to spend the rest of her life with me
Whenever I lecture about the things that men think women choose as their peak moments in life, the women in the audience react with loud and uncontrollable laughter, while the men don’t even get the joke.
Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.
An Unrepresentative but Important Sample
After reading the results of my survey, I decided to ask my wife about her happiest moment. Driving home, I thought deeply about the method I should use. How could I pop the question so that the answer wouldn’t disappoint me? Sitting at the kitchen table, I turned to my wife and said: ‘My dear, I’ve been conducting a survey recently on people’s moments of greatest happiness, and it has produced the oddest and most illogical result. Many of the surveyed women made no sense at all and merely wrote that their happiest moment was when they gave birth to a child. I very much hope that this is not what you would say. Thank you in advance for your candid reply.’
My wife answered boldly, filling my heart with pride. ‘The moment of giving birth?’ she said. ‘Not at all.’ I almost grew taller with pride. After giving it another moment’s thought, my wife added, ‘It is not the moment of birth. Giving birth is messy and painful. It is … the moment right after giving birth.’
Men, Women and Insurance Policies
Here’s another, somewhat related story. Many years ago I spoke before the chief executives of a major insurance company, and told them what women had chosen as their moments of ultimate joy. One of the managers raised his hand, looking very excited, and before he was even given permission to speak said that he had to tell us something. ‘Go ahead, if you have to,’ I responded.
He then explained that, according to surveys his insurance company had conducted, when men buy life insurance they almost always make the beneficiary their wife (I myself had in fact done the same thing); but when women take out a life insurance policy, they very often name their children as beneficiaries (this will come as no surprise to my female readers, but as a typical male I know that this fact took us all completely by surprise).
The insurance company, deciding to study this dry fact a little further, asked their female clients to explain why they decided to leave everything to their children.
The common answer (which I’ve modified slightly for reading purposes) was this: ‘Of course, my children should get the money when I die. Of course, I’ll leave nothing to my husband. He will most certainly remarry, and I wouldn’t have my insurance benefits land in the hands of his second wife, not even by accident.’
This argument gave rise to two interesting questions. The first has to do with the fact that most women outlive their husbands - so why are they worrying about the substitute wife?
The second question is associated with the fact that very few men even considered the possibility of their wife’s second husband. Why is that? My guess is that it has to do with the aforementioned male idiocy. So many men believe they are so wonderful, so special, so impossible to imitate (not to mention exceed), that they don’t even consider that their widows might remarry.
How can they marry someone else after living with me?
What many men wonder
I married a man who was quite inferior. Most women do.
Confession of a married woman
Well, now the time has come to introduce you to the happiest moments of men. I believe that once we’ve learned what makes the stronger and less fair gender happy, we’ll understand why women are right to leave their insurance money to their children. It’s simply because children are not as infantile as some grown men.
What Makes Men Happy? (Male Psychology, or ‘Joe Meets Penélope Cruz’)
Freud may have been unable to uncover women’s deepest and most secret desires, but he clearly knew a lot about the desires of men. Others did too. Czech novelist Milan Kundera, for example, feels that a course in male psychology shouldn’t take more than two minutes. He believes men have two major desires. The desire you think is first actually comes second; while their first, truest, deepest, most sincere desire is (Kundera thinks) to be viewed as great sinners.
When I first read about Kundera’s views, I doubted their validity, but with time I’ve become increasingly convinced that he’s right. Let me prove this thesis with an example of your average Joe.
Suppose Joe is presented with two options to choose from. In the first, he can spend a night with Penélope Cruz, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter and Adriana Lima. In this option, he would have no proof of that night and no one will ever believe him (except for his favourite shrink, who might prescribe some pills). In the second option, Joe will stay home alone all night, but receive a notary-authenticated document that reads:
Thank you for a wonderful night.
We’ve never met a man like you, and probably never will.
Forever your lovers and admirers,
Penélope, Beyoncé and Adriana
If you know Joe, you know exactly what he would choose.
Kundera’s insight became even more evidently accurate in my survey. Many men, whose answers were unsigned, could not let go of their desire to make an impression and be viewed as great sinners. Many of those wonderful moments that men described - incidentally, men of all ages - could not get past the censorship bureau of this book. Their moments comprised: sex, sex and more sex.
What about the moments of birth? How many men feel that the births of their children were their happiest moments?
The answer from my survey is: 14 per cent. That’s the ratio of men who said that the birth of their child was the happiest moment of their lives.
When I mentioned this figure in one of my lectures, a man rose from the audience and said it didn’t sound right because that figure was much larger than he’d expected. He argued that most men actually referred to their own appearance on Earth, and asked me to review the answers again to see if he was right.
The truth is that I never anticipated that option in the first place, and thus my survey was incomplete. I double-checked the answers the men had given me and discovered that while some men explicitly referred to ‘my son’s birth’, ‘when my daughter was born’ or ‘the first time I saw my twins’, others wrote ‘the moment of birth’ - and I’ll never know what they meant.
Of course, men mentioned all the regular moments of joy: ‘I graduated with honours’, ‘the moment I first met my wife’, ‘skydiving’, ‘riding my bike on the Dead Sea slopes’, ‘the first time I saw a woman naked’, ‘the day I made peace with my dad after years of silence’, ‘the day I became a CEO’, and so on. You must have noticed that these moments of happiness are quite similar to the moments that younger women mentioned, those who hadn’t yet had children, but still it seems that men’s moments of joy are often strange (or is it just me?).
Instead of listing all of those moments, let me tell you about one that explains and clarifies them all.
The Great Scorer
One day I was invited to speak at a gathering held in honour of an important person. Since it was a special occasion, I did something I never do and brought props with me - in this case the (censored) notes describing the happiest moments of men. When I reached the point in which I usually tell my audience about these moments, I decided to pull out a few notes and read each one out loud.
I pulled out the first note.
‘The happiest moment of my life,’ one of my male respondents wrote, ‘was when Uri Malmilian of Beitar Jerusalem scored the second goal in the cup final of 1974, and Beitar beat Maccabi Tel Aviv 2:1 and won the cup!’
I was about to tell everyone how sad and pathetic this happy moment was (I mean, has this really been the happiest moment of his life? He didn’t even score the goal - Malmilian did!) when the strangest thing happened.
The guest of honour jumped up from his chair and yelled: ‘The man is wrong! That goal was scored in 1976, not 1974, and it’s the happiest moment of my life too! Oh, it was simply amazing,’ he fervently exclaimed.
‘A few minutes earlier,’ he continued, ‘when the game was tied, that same Malmilian had missed a penalty kick. He paid his debt with interest when he scored that goal from an impossible angle. Malmilian was elected “player of the season” that year and Beitar finished second in the league.’ (He went on and on about that wondrous occasion, but I don’t want to bore my readers who are not football, or Beitar, fans.)
Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.
Bill Shankly, former manager of Liverpool
That’s just wonderful, I thought. What exactly was I supposed to do now? Generally speaking, I prefer to get paid for lectures I give, and I knew that downplaying the happiest moment of the guest of honour would not close the deal. I therefore decided that this was an opportune moment for me to try out my improvisation skills. In other words, I lied.
But nothing is that simple on our complicated planet. What ended up happening was that the lie I came up with then is one of my firmest beliefs today.
The Happiest Moment
‘Look how wonderful it is,’ I told the celebrants, ‘that we men can find such moments of joy in such small things’ (though I’m not sure football qualified in their minds as such a ‘small thing’).
‘This means that we’re closer than women to Pooh’s philosophy of life. Pooh is happy with anything that happens to him. He comes up with silly poems and loves them. He uses a balloon to fly, which is great fun too. The ability to categorize small things as moments of joy is an art form.’
When I reviewed the answers women gave in this survey I realized that, with very few exceptions (notably the student who said that her greatest moment of joy was when her cat recovered), women do not play small when it comes to their private happiness. They need grand things as raw material which they can process into joyous moments: a birth, a symphony orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, a trip around the world that includes a cruise through icebergs, or a huge wedding.
Personal and Sacred
One day, as I finished lecturing about the issues this book is dealing with, a lady came up to me and said she was my student several years back, took a course in statistics, and that as an expert in statistics I should be aware of the fact that very often the answers both men and women give pollsters are not necessarily the truth. She has two children and a career that is not less important, she said, adding that she does not need great and mighty things to feel happy. Yet, she confessed, she believed that if she were polled on this, she would probably give the ordinary answers people give. That was a very interesting point. As an expert on statistical issues, I am fully aware of the fact that sometimes people answer pollsters as they believe they are expected to: men state that their football teams thrill them the most, while women speak of giving birth or getting married as the happiest moments of their lives. This does not mean it is the absolute truth.
When I came home that evening, I shared my thoughts with my wife and asked about her view of this. Instead of answering, Daniela (we’ve been married more than a quarter of a century and been together since the beginning of time) asked me about my happiest moment. I said I needed to think about it a little. After giving it much thought (a little wasn’t enough), I told her that if I ignored all the dramatic events, my happiest moments take place almost every morning, when we sip our coffees, read the paper, and chat. Then I added that mornings in which we drink our coffees in silence are not less happy.
And would you tell that to an unknown pollster? Daniela asked.
Probably not, I said. For many people, it would seem, their happiest moments are personal and sacred. They would not easily confide it to some strange pollster who conducts strange polls.
In the Beginning
The only joy in the world is to begin.
I believe that a beginning, as lame as it may be, is better than the happiest ending. But we should also remember this:
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
Indeed, we must remember that an ending is also an opportunity for a new beginning.
Before we move on to something really important, I suggest we all take a break, rest a little, do nothing for an hour or two, and munch on a little something.
A Page that Really Matters
Here’s an idea that can help settle many conflicts and contradictions in our lives and minds. To the best of my knowledge the originator of this idea is the German writer Thomas Mann, and physicist Niels Bohr expanded on it, arguing that it was one of the wisest and deepest ideas he ever heard:
There are trivial truths and profound truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a profound truth is a profound truth.
Here’s a small example to help us grasp this concept. When we state that ‘two and two make four’, we’re expressing a ‘trivial’ truth, because if we’d argued the opposite and claimed that two and two did not make four, we’d be talking nonsense.
Referring to the second part of the idea above, I would say: ‘Life is a miracle, the most wonderful thing imaginable.’ Now, this is profound truth, but it is just as true as ‘Life is misery: a futile interruption of the blessed peace of nothingness’ (paraphrasing pessimist German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer).
We’ll explore this topic later.
I have a little confession to make. If I were to go back to academic research, I would perhaps undertake the study of emotions. While everyone agrees that emotions are central in our lives, they remain a fascinating subject about which very little is known.