Sandra is the happiest person I know.
When she was 13 years old, she promised her parents she would always take care of her little brother, Joe. For the past 21 years, Joe has lived with Sandra and her husband, Paul.
Joe has Down syndrome.
Caring for Joe is a sacrifice. At a time when Sandra and Paul could be enjoying the freedom that comes with being “empty nesters,” they are home most evenings and weekends taking care of Joe. In the mornings, they are getting him ready for work.
This is not the kind of life most people envision when asked, “What will make you happy?”
Yet, this, or something like it, is what most happy people describe when asked what their life is like.
Researchers find that the four most common things people think will make them happy are physical attractiveness, free time, wealth and being younger.
However, what actually makes people happy are being good at something, staying busy, having good friends and growing old.
Why is there such a disconnect between what we think and what people actually experience?
When we think about happiness abstractly, we tend to imagine it resulting from status, from the position we attain in relation to others. We tend to think, “wouldn’t it be great to have what that person has?”
Status, however, is illusory. When we attain whatever status goal we set for ourselves, we find there is no “there” there. The goalposts have shifted. The line over which we were trying to cross has moved further away.
Happiness isn’t about getting somewhere or obtaining something. It’s about being a certain kind of person.
Consider the well-known children’s story: The Three Little Pigs. The first pig builds a house made of straw, the second a house made of sticks, and the third builds a house out of bricks. A wolf comes along and huffs and puffs and blows down the houses of the first and second pigs, but he cannot destroy the brick house.
The first two pigs come to a bad end because they lack foresight, persistence and an ability to distinguish between needs and desires. The third pig, by contrast, possesses character traits long valued in many societies.
First, he has wisdom. He understands that his house may be needed to protect him, so he makes it much stronger than it has to be during ordinary times.
Second, he has courage, a strength of spirit demonstrated by his persistence in continuing to work on his house long after the other pigs have finished theirs and despite their ridicule. He is not afraid of appearing foolish.
Third, he has temperance. He invests his resources in the right things — the bricks, the time and the effort needed to build a strong house — which requires him to forfeit some of the things he might enjoy.
The combination of these traits results in integrity, represented by the house itself: well-built, sturdy, able to withstand stress.
These four virtues — wisdom, courage, temperance, and integrity (or justice) — are known as the “cardinal virtues.” They are the foundation of a good life.
The lesson of The Three Little Pigs is this: If you accept responsibility for the challenging things that come your way, you will develop character traits that allow you to deal with other, bigger challenges also. But if you try to remain a child and evade responsibility, challenges will inevitably come along that you cannot evade, and they will destroy you.
Not everybody can grow up. There will always be people like Joe, who through chromosomal disorder, or disease, or accident, have their growth disrupted. But Joe is not a tragedy; he is a gift. A tragedy is the person who is able to grow up but chooses not to, the person who just wants to have fun, who relies on others to clean up the mess.
Sandra has good moments and bad moments, like everyone else. But what seems to make her happy is the way she deals with those moments.
Every week or so Sandra will share what she calls a “Joe story.” Like the time Joe confessed he had been swearing while she was gone. “What happens when you swear?” he asked.
Sandra replied, “You tell me. What happens when you swear?”
Joe thought for a second, “You go to prison, I think, or to church.”
This ability to balance the good and the bad through persistent humor and gratitude is central to what psychologists have lately termed “resilience.” But resilience is just a fashionable word for integrity: the strength and wholeness of a person who has embraced challenges willingly and grown into maturity as a result.
When we think about what would make us happy, we should not look at the things we can see, asking, “How can I get what those people have?”
Instead, we should look at people like Sandra and try to imagine the world as she sees it, asking, “What could I do to become a person like her?”