How to Be Happy — and the Problem with Advice on Happiness

Some popular happiness gurus ignore one of the most basic truths: Life is hard.

My 25th reunion at Smith College was the saddest event I had ever attended. The pre-reunion dinner was nice, though a few of my friends had been through a lot and were feeling very down. But what really got to me was the panel the next day, when several people were asked to speak, followed by an open mike. It was a litany of sorrows and tragedies: broken marriages, special needs children, breast cancer, failed careers, deaths of loved ones. There were many tears.

About halfway through, I left and drove to Hartford, Connecticut, where most of my family was gathered with my husband, Ben (twenty years my senior) and my learning-disabled son, Quinn, for my nephew’s graduation, I learned my mother had been taken to the emergency room — she had just had the first of many strokes that would leave her partially paralyzed and cognitively impaired.

At 46, life was upon me.

In contrast, my 10th reunion had been a blast. We were all full of energy, excitement and optimism, some newly married, starting families, traveling, beginning promising careers, looking forward to wonderful lives. I was a relatively new reporter at the Washington Post, and I wrote quite a funny piece about the reunion. I had intended to write about my 25th but couldn’t bring myself to do it. What would I say? Life is hard?

I missed my 50th last year, where I was supposed to do a panel on “Spirituality in our Seventies.” My husband, who now has dementia, had taken a turn for the worse, and I couldn’t go. One of my good friends at the reunion got word that her husband, who was suffering from cancer, was failing. She jumped on a plane and barely made it to his bedside before he died.

The Buddhists have a word: Dukkha, which means suffering. But it means more than that. It means life. Life is suffering. We all suffer. Some obviously suffer more than others, but the truth is that nobody gets a pass.

So the question is, how do we lead happy and productive lives, given that we’re all in for it at some time or other? Why bother? What’s the point?

If you look for answers in the bookstore today, you’ll find plenty of options. But if I see or have to read one more book on how to be happy, I’m going to scream. (One exception: Dan Harris’10% Happier, which is unique for being funny, real, and self-deprecating.) I nearly threw one current bestseller across the room this past week. It was filled with formulaic, bromidic, superficial, fatuous advice: eat well, exercise, get plenty of sleep, meditate. Also, be full of compassion and gratitude. That’s it. Oh, and turn off those annoying cell phones and computers, especially when you’re at fancy dinners and restaurants. And when you’re having great sex.

What the book doesn’t say, because it sounds elitist, is that you should have lots of massages, manicures, hairdressers, great clothes, and plenty of staff. A car and driver, a private plane and a yacht don’t hurt, especially when you need to get away from it all.

This kind of advice is great for the 1% of the 1% — and even then, when the crush of life comes, it doesn’t really work. People get sad and depressed when bad things happen. That’s normal. It’s human. But these Be Totally Happy books make you feel as though unhappiness is an unnatural response to the struggle of life.

Most of these books don’t really mention prayer. Meditation is about as far as they’ll go. (You don’t want to turn off too many upscale intellectual, secular readers.) Yet when you see horrific stories in the news, inevitably the victims and their loved ones talk about the healing power of prayer.

Countless studies have shown that believers, especially as they age, are happier, live longer and heal faster than those who are not. That’s great for those who can believe, but what about those who simply can’t believe? What should they do?

They shouldn’t look for happiness. They should look for meaning.

Many of you have read Viktor Frankl’s incredible book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote after he left the Nazi concentration camps. In it, he concludes, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”

Since starting OnFaith, I have interviewed many people about what gives their lives meaning. Some say their work, some their faith, some their families. Some are deeply religious, some are spiritual, some are atheists. All of them are searching for meaning.

My husband was part of the Grant Study at Harvard, which starting in 1938 examined nearly 300 “normal” male students, including Jack Kennedy. Every year, they fill out forms about their lives. George Valliant, who led the study for many years, came to this conclusion about what what made the subjects happy: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

I will be 73 in seven weeks. My life has been full of happiness and full of sorrow. But it has always been full of love. I was so fortunate to have loving parents and a wonderful brother and sister. I have a fabulous husband and a magical son. I have great friends. Together, we’ve found that love is not a one-way street. You have to be as loving as you wish to be loved.

Often people come to Washington and see it as a cold, unfeeling town where everyone is on the make and nobody cares about anything but success and power and sometimes money. That’s true in a lot of ways. But it doesn’t have to be true for you if that’s not what you want. My friends are my friends for life — not just when they are up, but when they are down as well. They know that and they know that I will always be there for them.

When my husband stepped down as editor of the Washington Post, the director Sidney Lumet said to me, “How could you let Ben do this.? Don’t you know that everyone in Washington will be scratching your names out of their little black books? I told him, “Anyone who does that is not in my little black book to begin with.”

Now there is no greater joy than to spend time with my oldest friends and know what we have all been through together.

My work at OnFaith is my passion. I can’t imagine not doing something I care deeply about, and I never intend to stop. The word retirement is not in my vocabulary. But my family is the most important thing in my life. Taking care of my husband, my son, and my mother has given me more spiritual satisfaction than I had ever hoped to have, no matter how difficult it has been and continues to be.

I love giving parties. To me, it’s about generosity of spirit. Nothing gives me more pleasure than getting friends together around a table with wine, candles, good food, and good conversation.

I’ve been through a really rough patch lately. There have been days when I just didn’t see how I would make it through, where I didn’t want to get out of bed, where I just didn’t want to go on. What kept me going — the only thing, actually — was thinking of ways I could bring joy to somebody I loved or cared about. That’s the meaning of life, and the key to all true happiness.

Sally Quinn
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  • Tom from North Carolina

    Wonderful, personal story Sally and thank you for this column. I’ve followed it for years on the Washington Post and continue to follow it here on Faith Street.

  • Sharon Fratepietro

    Such words of wisdom! Thank you for these thoughtful observations, Sally, and also for being willing to reveal your personal situation. It’s so true that no one goes down the highway of life without encountering bumps in the road, and some people find many more than others. Life is so — random! Yes, it helps to help other people, even with so small a thing as a smile when passing another person on a walk, or in a store, or at home. It helps the smiler, too. I’m glad you refuse to retire.

  • Andrew Johnston

    Wow–you really hit the nail on the head Sally. Thanks for a great article.