Emory Report
August 25, 2008
Volume 61, Number 1



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August 25, 2008
The challenge of happiness

Ozzie Harris is senior vice provost for community and diversity.

I have never been sure if I have the right to be happy. The concept wasn’t clear to me at 12 and even now as I hone in on 50, I’m not sure I relate to the idea, emotion or phenomena of happiness. I am a product of my environment and by nature a person searching for explanations. Like some of you who search for “fair trade coffee,” I search for “fair trade happiness.”

Generally, when I do visualize happiness it emerges as two conflicting emotions: guilt and pleasure. Happiness for me is a guilty pleasure.

For example, last year, I purchased a new car which I love to drive with the windows down and the music up. I enjoy blasting my soundtrack all over the road and wobbling my head like a backup dancer for Beyonce. Is this happiness?

Internally, I know my drives are expressions of pure contradiction. I see the countryside, listen to great music, feel the engine roaring and know my “fleeting bliss” is completely at odds with my politics. I’m polluting, contributing to a growing global disaster, maybe a war, and acquiring a sense of freedom described by some Madison Avenue ad agent and smiling through my hypocrisy all at the same time. The truth is I don’t trust happiness. Happiness is too … too pleasurable.

Why don’t I trust the notion of happiness? It seems to me the idea has always been associated with selfishness, and no matter how hard I resist it, I am caught in this dichotomy. If I am happy it is because someone else is being nailed. I think about the inequity of everything. Blame it on my mother. She still reminds me of “shortages and rationing” she experienced growing up in Scotland during WWII. Or my father who, like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, told stories of withering segregation and how his uncle died “because they wouldn’t take him at the white hospital.” He was seated beside him when he passed.

One period I associate with happiness occurred the summer before and the summer after eighth grade. It was the age of bell bottoms, tie-dye shirts, and etched leather wrist bands that proclaimed “Peace” or “Love.” It was before I was saturated by the toxins of high school and adult life.

I have a clear memory of going to pick plums in an orchard not far from our house with friends. I received my first kiss in that flowering, ordered grove. Was this happiness?

Needless to say, the farmer was not happy. I ran from his property, my pants pockets stuffed with plums. The ones I placed in my shirttail, folded in half like a kangaroo pouch, popped out with each stride. We never actually saw the farmer, just his truck. There was a rumor that the grove keeper had a shotgun loaded with salt.

If happiness is a guilty pleasure it is also a curse, a moment to reflect on everything in my life and to think about others. I have always tamped down my happiness, maybe out of guilt or maybe because I read too much as a child. My wife tells me I do not know how to enjoy life. I tell her a display of happiness is a conceit, total hubris.

I don’t really believe I have to be sad or unhappy, but sometimes it feels that way. And I don’t think I’m alone. Every time I hear a student, athlete or politician play down their accomplishments, it crosses my mind that they are scared to tell their stories. They are afraid they will inspire jealousy. Why should we be modest about our happiness? I am not entirely sure, but I think a number of us fear our bold tales of deep satisfaction will only anger the fates, or others unable to catch a break. Dare we be happy in such a troubled world?

I worry that my happiness will jinx me. And I fear if I clarify my understanding of what makes me happy I will only jinx myself. I am sure that others worry that being happy makes them vulnerable to the influence of petty tyrants, but maybe we should lead by example rather than follow in fear. Are you willing to lead?

Emory legal scholar Martha Fineman asserts “we are all dependent.” My desire for happiness is connected to each of you. As I search for answers, I keep this and similar ideas in mind. I have come to understand that I am most happy when I am doing something for myself that benefits others.

The last two summers I worked with my son and friends in Biloxi. We worked with young children. We worked hard to replace what Katrina had done a good job of taking away. Strangely, working with families and businesses in Mississippi produced little internal conflict for me.

I should also mention that I do not make much of a distinction between the words happiness and kindness. We are all caught in an interdependent relationship with each other. It is hard for me to imagine my happiness without trying to imagine yours. My sense of living in the world, being part of a community, means I must do something continually to translate my personal desire for happiness into a community desire for doing what is just, right and fair. I do not do this to be selfless, but because I fully appreciate how my desires are linked to others in this community.

If I plan to achieve happiness, then I must find a way to share my humanity with others. I must choose to say hello, offer a supportive glance, pitch in where it is appropriate and lead by example. If I fail to do these things, I appreciate there will be no “fair trade happiness.”

And I, ultimately, understand I will not achieve the happiness I shyly seek for myself.