Reflections on Happiness by My 91-Year-Old Dad

A fellow is about as happy as he makes up his mind to be, someone once said.

Many people write to me and ask about happiness — why they don’t have it, what they can do to get it. But, doesn’t it seem like the people you consider the happiest seldom spend a lot of time thinking about happiness?

Former President George H. W. Bush said that if you simply involve yourself with something you care about, life "sings." People who go into "helping" professions — social work, nursing — often report greater happiness than those who go into higher-income fields. The high earners make more money, but often report less happiness.

A character in a movie — "The Flamingo Kid" — said his father told him, "There are only two important things in living . . . finding out what you do well, and finding out what makes you happy. And if God is smiling on you, they’re both the same thing."

I once spoke to a gathering of lottery winners. Almost every person said that the instant money often failed to make them happy, and in many cases, made them less so. Friends and "relatives" came out the woodwork, the winners lost their anonymity, faced dizzying choices about what to do with their newfound time and money, all of which created a big, deep soup of unhappiness, if not downright despair.

W. Somerset Maugham, one of my favorite writers, called money the "sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five." But wealth in and of itself, without the joy of the journey, without faith, values and friendships, seems to lead to a dead end.

A businessman once advised me to "plan for the worst, hope for the best, and take what comes." But another successful entrepreneur scoffed at that philosophy, calling it a pessimistic point of view. He argued that hard work, commitment and character create optimism, which in turn leads to success.

I know that one treads on dangerous ground when judging someone’s inside by their outside. One of the happiest men I know — at least to the extent that I can tell from the outside — rejects both God and religion. Yet most of the happy people I know rely heavily upon their faith and the comfort of an all-knowing, all-caring spiritual presence.

My dad never knew his biological father and dropped out of school at the age of 13. He and his mother never got along, and she seemed to have a series of men in her life, with whom my father constantly clashed. Yet, every week, my dad would hand me an envelope to drop in the mailbox. Years later, I found out that the envelopes contained checks that he would send to his mother once each week — for decades — until she died.

My dad worked hard at his two jobs, also accepting occasional weekend jobs, while managing to go to night school to get his GED. My mom and my dad enjoyed a 56-year-long marriage and raised three boys. My mother died last year. My dad, at age 91, remains a joy to be around.

One day, my dad and I were cleaning out the garage — throwing out a lot of old stuff. I found an envelope and we opened it. It contained a letter that my dad, at age 36, wrote to my older brother. He remembered the letter and said he wrote it because he had a premonition that he would die at the age of 36, and wanted to leave a life road map of lessons learned, to help my brother through life without his father’s guidance.

May 4, 1951

Kirk, my son, you are now starting out in life — a life that Mother and I cannot live for you.

So as you journey through life, remember it’s yours, so make it a good one. Always try to cheer up the other fellow.

Learn to think straight, analyze things, be sure you have all the facts before concluding, and always spend less than you earn.

Make friends, work hard, and play hard. Most important of all remember this — the best of friends wear out if you use them.

This may sound silly, Son, but no matter where you are on the 29th of September, see that Mother gets a little gift, if possible, along with a big kiss and a broad smile.

When you are out on your own, listen and take advice but do your own thinking, and concluding, set up a reasonable goal, and then be determined to reach it. You can and will, it’s up to you, Son.

Your Father,

Randolph Elder

Few philosophers put it better. My dad says that people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.


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