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In Sight of Ourselves: 10. Happiness (December 21, 2001)

The Christmas holiday was pressure cooker time in the family of my childhood. Each of us in my family had to live up to the cheerfulness of a Norman Rockwell painting. Above all, we had to be happy this the time of year. "Tis the season to be jolly!" so you HAVE to BE HAPPY! Of course, it was fun to open the presents on Christmas morning. But is having fun the same thing as being happy? Is pasting an artificial, movie-star smile on our face being happy?

The word "happy" comes from the old English hap, which meant chance or fortune. Happiness is something that just happens, instead of something calculated. Imagine someone waking up one morning and saying, "Today I am going to be happy." The harder he tries to grasp it for himself, the true smile-one that originates in the base of our stomachs and then radiates upward to reach our face-seems just out of reach like chasing the wind or clutching a shadow. Happiness is a surprise, a sudden event that is connected to something else. We pause for a moment while on a Christmas eve walk, look up at the canopy of shimmering stars above, and the beauty of the moment overcomes us. "It will be all right," we tell ourselves. And something warm stirs inside us, a happiness that is felt but not seen.

The poet Alexander Pope wrote, "Fix'd to no spot is Happiness sincere; Tis nowhere to be found, or ev'rywhere; Tis never to be bought, but always free."

We cannot arm wrestle life to give us happiness, but we can make the effort to bring joy into the lives of others. The December 20 issue of USA Today described the work of a "secret Santa" who is walking the streets of New York City giving $100 handouts to the needy. At the end of three days, he will have given out $25,000 of his own money. Then he returns home to Kansas City where he will repeat his generosity. Is "secret Santa" buying happiness-Only to the extent that he is using money to benefit someone who might be facing a bleak holiday. Their smiles are genuine and… contagious.

Few of us have enough money to be like this secret Santa. Even so, we have other riches we can give away: a friendly word, a helping hand. Hearing children's laughter while we play a game and feeling a sick child hold on to us while we rock her to sleep can bring happiness into our lives, one with a smile, the other with the warmth of being needed. Last year at this time, I saw my brother-in-law play the part of Santa in a San Diego barrio on Christmas morning. He talked to more than 250 children, each one embraced on his lap, radiating the joy of receiving something special from Santa. In giving something of himself, he was given something freely in return.

What makes happiness so precious is not only its elusiveness but also its brevity. Not only can we not seize it, we cannot keep it. That scarcity makes happiness more precious than gold.

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