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Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007 07:57 am

What makes for a happy new year?

Some gathered advice from Brits, economists, gardeners, God, and Coca-Cola

Untitled Document This time of year, everyone is wishing everyone happiness. In the week after Christmas we all heard, a hundred times, “Happy New Year if I don’t see you.” Cards and e-mails offer hope of a “happy and prosperous new year,” a reminder that the two are not the same. This is all just talk. Few greeters really think about what it would take to give you a happy new year, though there are hints around. “It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato,” says Reader’s Digest. The same source quotes Bonnie Raitt: “I think everybody has a right to happiness and freedom and security and health care and education and guitar lessons.” Even a holiday-edition Coke bottle offers a prescription for happiness: “Give. Live. Love.”
By now we all know that it wasn’t the things we got for Christmas that made us happy but instead the giving and receiving and the family all around. By mid-January we have left the glow behind and have gone back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century description of Americans as “so many lucky men, restless in the midst of abundance.” Wouldn’t it make a great story for WICS (Channel 20) to take cameras out looking in corners, closets, and Dumpsters for all those Toys for Tots given so generously so recently? “The more you have, the more you are hounded,” warns Ecclesiastes 5:11. “The more you have the more you have to defend; and you will have no time for appreciation and joy.”
If things don’t make for happiness, what does? Leave it to the British magazine The Economist to probe beneath the surface of this elusive goal. Turns out there is an emerging “science of happiness” making inroads into traditional economics. Economists used to think that if a man spent $5,000 on a new grill, it must be what he wants, but the new economists are bold enough to say that he’s crazy. “They advocate experiences over commodities, pastimes over knick-knacks, doing over having. Work shorter hours, commute shorter distances, even if that means living in smaller houses with cheaper grills,” the article says.
People in Springfield know the joys of short commutes and cheaper houses, but the concept of shorter hours has not taken hold here. Many still give up their nights and weekends, and the time they save with a short commute, to slave away at work. This is so they can get ahead, but it only works if others aren’t slaving away, too. If everybody starts putting in too many hours, the rat race escalates and nobody is happy. The cause of happiness in work is called “flow.” It arises, we’re told in The Economist article, in work that “stretches a person without defeating him, work that provides clear goals, unambiguous feedback, and a sense of control.” Sadly, there are more than a few who work for the state of Illinois whose employment contains none of these ingredients. Of course, some people truly love their jobs; others make their jobs fulfilling. Studies cite hospital cleaners who brighten patients’ days while they clean their rooms, hairdressers who serve as clients’ confidants. This is called “good work,” and it’s easier to find in some professions than in others. Researchers, according to The Economist, say journalism is a “prototypically misaligned profession, staffed by reporters who want to investigate great affairs of state, but read by a public more interested in stories that are scandalous, sensational, and superficial.”
While economists and researchers continue to work on what will make us happy, we can take some lessons from gardeners. “The most important thing about gardening is to never take it too seriously,” advises Allan Armitage in the current Fine Gardening magazine. “A garden will always be a work in progress. But if you enjoy your garden, that’s what counts. Don’t garden so hard that you never enjoy it. Believe it or not, benches are not only there for ornamental value. Sit down. Enjoyment multiplies with practice.”
He continues: “There are sore gardeners, keen gardeners, and broke gardeners, but there is no such thing as an old gardener. It is impossible to get old when you look to the future, and that’s what gardeners do.”
Look to the future. Make your work enjoyable. Practice doing more than having. Have a happy new year.
Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.
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