Happiness is a warm metaphor

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first book ever published by that publishing industry behemoth, “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz. It was called “Happiness is a Warm Puppy,” and it wasn’t – like Schulz’s later output – merely a collection of Charlie Brown strips.

You might remember it. It was a small square book of Peanuts drawings, each accompanied by a “Happiness is …” aphorism – “Happiness is sleeping in your own bed,” “Happiness is climbing a tree,” “Happiness is a Vodka Collins followed by three days of oblivion” – wait, that last one was from Lindsay Lohan. Scratch that.

Schulz put on the cover Snoopy getting a big hug from a blissfully smiling Lucy Van Pelt – for whom the word “crabby” was practically invented . The underlying message there was if even sour little Lucy can find happiness in the simple things in life, why can’t you?

Practically from the moment I found that book lying around our house as a 5- or 6-year-old, I’ve been brooding on the whole notion of happiness – What is it? Where can you find it? Why doesn’t it last? What does it have to do with beer?

Now, in middle age, after trudging through the self-help shelves and the Buddhist guidebooks, I’ve come to the conclusion that I should have listened to Schulz in the first place. Happiness is indeed a warm metaphor.

A few years after the publication of “Warm Puppy,” the Beatles – only the most popular musical act in the history of humankind – essentially destroyed Schulz’s Zen innocence with the snide satirical John Lennon-penned song “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Today, if you ask 10 people to finish the sentence “Happiness is a warm …,” nine of them will say “gun.” I know. I did it. Of course, I hang around some pretty crusty people.

The point is that the Beatles’ idea of happiness trumped Schulz’s because popular culture feeds on snark and cynicism and discontent. The biggest mistake of Schulz’s publisher was to present “Warm Puppy” as if it were a book for children. That way, it gave the children who took it to heart something to reject as childish when they came of age in a world that demanded detachment and street smarts.

Most of us spend much of our waking hours either trying to find happiness or to hold on to it, and the methods to get there are as diverse as the colors of the rainbow – flower gardening, tai chi, Xanax, charred meat, fantasy baseball, half-marathons, credit card abuse, romance novels … whatever blows your skirt up, right?

But the Buddhists will tell you that happiness is not something to find out in the world. It’s a way of perceiving the world in front of you. Happiness can really be measured by the distance between what you expect from any given situation and what you really get. You can’t always control the latter, so the only way you can be consistently happy is to re-examine your expectations and adjust them accordingly.

Still, there’s a nagging suspicion that happiness involves a certain amount of complacency, and for the habitually unhappy, complacency is the real enemy. I have known quite a few punk rockers and political activists in my day, and I wouldn’t say any of them are necessarily searching for happiness. They are looking for justice. Happiness is a warm puppy? Yeah, tell that to all the puppies euthanized every day because they can’t find homes!

In this view, happiness is an indulgence for over-lotioned middle-aged women who listen to “Eat, Pray, Love” in their cars on the way to yoga. If the way to happiness is through shiatsu and Bioidentical Hormone Replacement Therapy, then it becomes just another class issue to wrestle over.

Our political and entertainment culture feeds on this particular brand of unhappiness, and those who seek to stave off complacency by staying informed on the horrors of the world have to expect to be brought down by them every once in a while.

And yet, still the defiant ones are operating from the same formula of happiness – the distance between reality and expectations. Only to them, the best way to shorten that distance is to change reality and to maintain the expectation that the world can be a better place.
There’s your lesson, then, as you get older. How do you close the unhappiness gap? Do you abandon all expectations of how the world should work and just happily be a leaf in the wind? Or do you spend all your energy railing against an ugly world, demanding that rivers flow in the opposite direction?

The answer is a little of both – expecting less means wanting less, and that’s the ticket to gratitude, the key component to long-lasting happiness. But the other part of it is working to make the world a better place than you found it. Besides gratitude, the essential parts of being happy have to do with growth – the sense you are changing for the better whether it’s in your golf game or your volunteer work – and faith – not necessarily religion, but a commitment to a larger purpose and belief that your efforts mean something.

That’s what Charles Schulz was saying. The elegance of the simple truth of “Happiness is a Warm Puppy” is undeniable. But underneath that larger message is a couple of smaller ones – happiness is also putting in time at an animal shelter and happiness is believing that work makes a difference in lessening the suffering of the world.

For puppies and all other living things.

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