When I was a child my father would tell me I was lucky to have a life. That puzzled me, because whenever I asked myself ‘Are you glad you were born?’ my answer was invariably ‘No.’ I believed my father when he told me I was lucky to have a life – I just couldn’t figure out why I was lucky.
I was fifteen when the football team I supported won a premiership. That day (up until then) was the best day of my life. I was bursting with joy. Elated, I asked myself, ‘Now, aren’t you glad you were born? Aren’t you glad you’re alive?’
The answer was still, ‘No’.
I stopped asking.
When my sister Jane and I were in our early twenties Jane became chronically depressed. She cried day and night, and could barely function. Next to her bed were bowls of cigarette butts and a wine cask. Every day I would visit her, or she would ring me, in tears, and I kept giving her reasons why she shouldn’t kill herself. I felt so powerless to help her that I came to dread her telephone calls.
Her medication wasn’t helping, and although I didn’t believe in New-Age remedies I was desperate to help her. She was not interested in trying new ideas, so I figured that I would try them. If I experienced a fundamental shift in my thinking, perhaps I could persuade Jane to try the technique. I tried re-birthing and self-development workshops; I even sent to Lourdes for holy water. (They sent me a gallon.)
Jane resented the pressure from family and friends to stay alive, but when one of her well-meaning male friends did reluctantly agree that perhaps she should take her own life, she felt terribly hurt. That made me realise a part of Jane wanted to live, and that part had felt betrayed by the loss of support. I was relatively relieved: for a long time I had felt guilty for persuading her to stay alive, and there had been times when I had considered giving her the same ‘permission’ to die.
I remember her smiling only once in those dark years. We were in the lounge room watching my football team playing to get into a Grand Final. There were seconds to go and it was close. Jane didn’t care about the game but I was so nervous I was bouncing around the room like a lotto ball. When my team kicked the winning goal on the siren I was so overjoyed I somersaulted twice.
My expression of joy was so absurd it prompted Jane to smile.
I remember that smile because it was the first I had seen from her in years, and it was to be the last. Six months later she killed herself, with pills. She swallowed the pills, and vomited them up. She kept swallowing pills, and kept vomiting them up, until finally she succumbed. She was determined to die.
In a way, she won: she had her wish. I lost: I had failed to save her.
Twenty years later I felt compelled to write about what makes a person happy. To do so I had ask myself that question again: ‘Are you happy? Are you glad you were born?’ It was a question I had long avoided, and the answer was slow in coming. But when it came, it intrigued me, because it was ‘Yes!’
Feeling qualified to write about happiness, I began reading widely. I read that happiness comes from having close relationships, but I didn’t have a close relationship. Other books linked happiness with success; I was the antithesis of success.
Happiness is also associated with having a fulfilling career, but I had worked a string of temporary jobs, none of them satisfying. High self esteem was supposed to be another factor, but my self esteem was so low it disabled me. In much the same way an amputee can be physically disabled, yet happy, I was socially disabled with a low self esteem, yet happy.
Having a purpose in life was often mentioned as a vital factor in achieving happiness, but I was simply paying off a mortgage, and trying to ‘survive’.
Ironically, in terms of writing this book it may have been a blessing not to have those supposed prerequisites for happiness, because had I possessed them I would have assumed it was they which made me happy. I would have assumed the happiness gurus were right.
I would have been wrong.
I didn’t have those supposed necessities, yet I was happy. I had to think long and hard about why. Finally, I had an inkling, and began writing. After the fortieth chapter I realised I was still trying to help my sister Jane. I still needed to solve the puzzle of what makes a person happy.
Eventually, I came to understand what really does make a person happy, and it’s not complicated. It’s certainly not a secret: happiness evolved in the same way our knees and kidneys did. Happiness has its purpose: it is both an incentive and a reward for satisfying our long-term innate needs.