Category Archives: On Happiness

The Secret of Happiness

“How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure.”
William James

There’s one word in this quotation that strikes me as being pivotal. Without it, the whole quote becomes banal, even offensive.

Most people are motivated by the desire to be happy? Ho-hum. The Earth isn’t going to shake over that revelation. At all times? In everything we do? Now we’re moving into offensive. The guy’s clearly a cynic. If he’s right we’re no better than animals, motivated purely by self-interest. But of course he’s wrong. I’ve made plenty of compromises for my spouse’s happiness, sacrifices for my children, given my time and money to charities. And I’m pretty sure most people have done the same.  Sometimes we act out of self-interest, but not always.

And everything we willingly endure? This part’s a little more interesting, and I’ll admit there’s truth in it. I’ve stuck through some rough times with my spouse because I believed in the long run, I’d be happier with him than without him. (Sometimes I tell him the jury’s still out on that one, just to keep him on his toes.) I’ve been the giver instead of the receiver in relationships with family and friends because I knew the time would come when those roles would switch, and unfortunately, I was right. I’ve put up with three-year-olds’ tantrums and teenagers’ disdain because I figured I was happier being a mom than a jailbird.

But so far, James’s quote is nothing special. Then he inserts the word ‘secret’. Now, secret is an interesting word in itself, implying all kinds of things about its keepers. ‘Secret’ draws us in. Knowing a secret gives us power. We’re willing to endure a boring, even irritating quote, if he promises us a secret.

Furthermore, it’s our secret. Our secret motive: Happiness. Why does James think we want our desire for happiness to be kept secret? He doesn’t say, but he has subtly made us into a far more interesting and complex creature than we would be without it.

Maybe we keep it secret because we’re ashamed. We suspect happiness isn’t a very admirable goal most of the time. Because we aren’t merely animals; we’re some strange creature that understands and admires the concepts of altruism, self-sacrifice, devotion. We want to be motivated by noble causes, by lifelong love, by the yearning for something greater than ourselves. We’re flawed and frail, but we have not given up our ideals. In our hearts we surmount the Law of Nature—survival of the fittest. Perhaps not always in our actions. Sometimes in our shame.

Or maybe we keep it a secret because we’re afraid. Isn’t acting out of the desire to be happy the same as admitting we’re not happy now? Nobody wants to admit that. It makes us vulnerable. It exposes us to ridicule. We look pathetic, wanting something so basic and being unable to achieve it.

Even as I write this, I want to add, hey, just so you know, I’m happy. I’ve got a good marriage, great kids, a strong support network of friends and family. I live in a nice house and I can afford a few luxuries. I’ve got ideals, and causes I support, and a faith I believe in. I’m not the person in James’s quote.

So why do I have trouble getting out of bed some mornings? Why do I firmly tell myself, “I wonder what interesting thing will happen today?” to cover the other thought, the one that slipped in before I was fully awake and in control? Shhh! That’s my secret.

Interesting, how a single word can completely change a message.