When you wake up in the morning, if you could wish for one thing, what would it be? When you lie on your death bed, if you could have wished for one thing during your life, what would it be? Would it be happiness?
First, consider the play Death of a Salesman. In this play Willy Loman, the main character, is completely focused on material success. He believes the key to success is being well liked and considers himself to be a much more prominent member of society than he is in actuality. While striving to live the American Dream, Willy actually leads a miserable life. Effectively, his miserable life conveys that the American Dream can be much harder to achieve than many believe and that this materialistic success may not be a key to happiness. Willy has two children, and one of these, Biff, discovers that he does not find true happiness in business. Biff first mentions his struggle for happiness in dialogue with his brother Happy:
Well, I spent six or seven years after high school trying to work myself up. Shipping clerk, salesman, business of one kind or another. And it’s a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer ﬁfty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still—that’s how you build a future. (Miller, 1949)
Biff desires to work outside, but attempts to conform to the blueprint of what society considers an accomplished man. Although he realizes that an occupation in business is a measly manner of existence for him, Biff firmly believes it is the only proper way to build a future.
As the play continues, Biff struggles to justify any happy existence outside of the office. Again while conversing with his brother, Biff discusses his life after high school and away from home:
Hap, I’ve had twenty or thirty different kinds of job since I left home before the war, and it always turns out the same. I just realized it lately. In Nebraska when I herded cattle, and the Dakotas, and Arizona, and now in Texas. It’s why I came home now, I guess, because I realized it. This farm I work on, it’s spring there now, see? And they’ve got about ﬁfteen new colts. There’s nothing more inspiring or—beautiful than the sight of a mare and a new colt. And it’s cool there now, see? Texas is cool now, and it’s spring. And whenever spring comes to where I am, I suddenly get the feeling, my God, I’m not gettin’ anywhere! What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week! I’m thirty-four years old, I oughta be makin’ my future. That’s when I come running home. And now, I get here, and I don’t know what to do with myself. [After a pause] I’ve always made a point of not wasting my life, and everytime I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life. (Miller, 1949)
While talking to his brother, Happ, Biff articulates his true happiness in ranching horses, but still considers a blue-collar occupation to be a waste of his life. When Biff describes ranching, he becomes inspired and passionate, but then fights this passion and dismisses it as a waste. This inspiration and passion indicate the happiness Biff experienced while ranching.
Further in the play Biff experiences an epiphany. While pursuing a job in an office that he abhors, Biff realizes this object-oriented existence is the very manner of existence he despises. Biff has an epiphany over where happiness truly lies:
I ran down eleven flights with a pen in my hand today. And suddenly I stopped, you hear me? And in the middle of that office building, do you hear this? I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw —the sky. I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am! Why can’t I say that, Willy? (Miller, 1949)
Biff comes to the realization that a life in an office is neither the person he wants to be nor the person he wants to become. This existence in an office is in no way associated with what he loves in the world. Confronting his true identity, Biff realizes that he has been avoiding the life that will lead him to the most happiness. For Biff, happiness supersedes monetary wealth. Happiness resides in personal values.
Throughout the book Into the Wild Chris searches to find a life of happiness. Although he is from a background of affluence, Chris discards all of his material possessions in pursuit of an existence where material status does not rule life. Additionally, he cuts ties with his family and any previous relationships as he sets out on an arduous journey to experience life as a wanderer. He strives to discard the baggage of his previous life in search of true freedom.
Along his journey, Chris encounters many people whom he drastically impacts. When Mr. Franz decides that he is going to tell Chris to find a job and make something of his life, Chris has the quick rebuttal “you don’t need to worry about me. I have a college education. I’m not destitute. I’m living like this by choice” (Krakauer, 1996, p. 51). The conventional view of society is that Chris is a hobo and consequently his life has amounted to little value. On the contrary, Chris believes that his life has much more value without dependence on material goods. For Chris, his life has value simply because he is happy. Such a radical leap in lifestyle has brought Chris to experience events that most other people could never fathom.
Chris has found happiness through a personal lifestyle choice. However in finding happiness, he cut all previous relationship ties, and then precariously danced on the boundary of forming any new relationships, careful never to step over the line. This implies the question—For one to have true freedom can they have any relationships? Mr. Franz was one of the many acquaintances Chris made along his journey. Krakauer (1996) remarks as Chris leaves Mr. Franz:
On March 14, Franz left McCandless on the shoulder of Interstate 70 outside of Grand Junction and returned to southern California. McCandless was thrilled to be on his way north, and he was relieved as well—relieved that he had again evaded the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it. He had fled the claustrophobic confines of his family. He’d successfully kept Jan Burres and Wayne Westerberg at arm’s length, flitting out of their lives before anything was expected of him. (p. 55)
Through the many experiences Chris has had wandering across the country, Chris believes that he now has a better notion of happiness. Chris presents the inherent value of happiness found in constant change and adventure:
So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun (Krakauer, 1996, p. 56).
While wandering across the country Chris has constant new experiences. Because this is a happy period of his life, he associates happiness with change. Moreover, Chris determines happiness is not associated with relationships since he does not establish any real relationships while wandering. Hence his conclusion:
You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living. (Krakauer, 1996, p. 57)
In the Death of a Salesman and Into the Wild a few common themes are apparent. Happiness seems to be an existence that one chooses, an existence that is undoubtedly not the product of force, an existence in which materials are irrelevant and unvalued, an existence where relationships (if they exist) are unbinding, an existence lacking the hand print of conventional wisdom, and an existence where passion is prevalent.
First, Biff chooses to ranch cattle, and Chris chooses to live the life of a hobo. Next, Biff finally deduces that he needs to escape the boundaries of his forceful father and Chris just can’t be forced into anything as he cuts all relationship ties. Through witnessing his father, Biff concludes that ample money and a high social status built on materialistic values can be very detrimental. However, Chris literally discards his material possessions. Moreover, Biff discovers that his family relationships are restricting him to value ideas that he no longer consider worthy. Thus, Chris conspicuously ends all relationships. Finally, Biff and Chris are each forced to arrive at the fact that—conventional wisdom is in stark contrast to what they believe. A life as a hobo or cattle rancher is not what most would equate with a happy life. Last, both are very passionate about their way of existence.
Although Chris and Biff are very similar in many respects, they are also different since Chris is functionally living his idea of a happy life, while Biff merely discerns what he believes constitutes a truly happy life. Unlike Chris, Biff never actually lives the life he associates with happiness. Biff had previously lived a joyful life as a rancher, but at the time he had considered it to be a very low manner of existence.
But perhaps Thoreau (1854) best captures the essence of happiness:
No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal,--that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. . . . The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
Thoreau truly understands that we struggle to appreciate the minuscule occurrences during life that should make us happy.
I would like to contest the theory that Biff, Chris, and Thoreau each seem to insinuate—happiness can’t be found in human relationships. Personally, I believe that the strongest bit of happiness can be found in the warm smile of another or the amazing act of kindness one does for another. Happiness is best when it is shared. I perceive happiness to the most potent as a contagious disease. I contend that if we all look for the small things in life to appreciate, and continue radiating this happiness to others, that the world would be a much happier place.
I feel at peace and am consumed by a sense of honesty emanating from my true self whenever I am helping others. I undergo an indescribable feeling of effervescence, bubbling up from the core of my being, signifying that I am doing what is meant for me. For me, helping others in whatever capacity is when I am happy.
Consider this hypothetical situation. Pam, a 29-year-old mom, stopped her car to ringing cries of a homeless man calling out in anguish. The man had been robbed and injured very badly. From the streets where drug addicts, murderers, and the worst types of villains prowl, Pam took this homeless man, Peter, to her home to bandage him. The overwhelming amounts of blood stained her car and drenched her clothes to point in which cleaning was impossible. Forgotten were the price tag of her designer clothes and BMW.
Then, thirty years later Pam told her son this story and admitted that she had never told anyone else. Pam told her son that while Peter had recovered in her house the next week, that she had experienced real joy for the first time in her life. She had taken a risk and experienced something outside of the norm of her conventional life. The homeless man repaid Pam in the only way he could—by saying thank you. But Pam told her son that the sincere thanks from Peter was more fulfilling than any other monetary thanks she could have ever received.
Little known is that an affluent and powerful senator first sped past the ringing cries of Peter, the homeless man, on his way to what he considered more important affairs. Little known is that the senator attempted suicide the next month from severe depression. Little known is that Peter is now in charge of the 4th largest homeless shelter in the United States.
Krakauer, J. (1996). Into the wild. Villard, NY: Anchor Books
Miller, A. (n.d.). Death of a salesman. Available from http://www.free-ebooks.net/ebook/Death-of-a-salesman/html/
Thoreau, H. D. (1854). Walden. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/205/205-h/205-h.htm