Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My Recipe for Happiness

Basil Waine Kong

Although "I need no warrant for being, and no work or sanction upon my being" (Ayn Rand, Anthem, 1946), I will leave the answer as to whether my life’s work has been worthwhile and even whether I am a man of substance but I am the only one who can judge whether I am happy. I now make that claim. “I have lifted the bowl of life and drank from it with gusto.”(Mark Twain)I am married to an incredible woman. Our four children are phenomenally successful and we have six of the most beautiful grand children ever conceived. I am a happy man. According to my friend, Dr. Malcolm Taylor, the recipe is as simple as: “If you have God, family and friends, you may stumble, but you will never hit the ground.”

At 68 years old, I am retired with great health and my golf game is better than ever. As the objective of my symphony was never to get to the end, I am now focused on the rest of the journey in which I constantly feast on the vast storehouses of joy like a Negril sunset. I have the peace of mind about our financial well being and we have loving and generous children who all assured us that they will tend to our needs--if needed. After a lifetime of adventure, satisfaction from the work I have done, I am now able to accept the differences that I used to find objectionable and I am much more willing to expose myself to rejection. I sleep well and no longer have an alarm clock. But as the cock crows, I wake up. My ambition is no longer to conquer the world. So after a cup of Blue Mountain Coffee, I am ready to get on with doing what a man’s got to do such as write, do what I can for those less fortunate, and more often than not, meeting with friends to play a round of golf.

I used to live in fear that someone may judge me wanting and now care far less what others think about me. My daily prayer is:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him, forever in the next. Amen.” (Reinhold Niebuhr )

I forgive transgressions immediately. I learned to do this driving in Jamaica. Just smile and let them pass you. I no longer obsess about the other wrongs that others may heap on me. I am less self centered and much more willing to accept my shortcomings. Yes, I am a show off and over-competitive. If I obsess about anything anymore, it is to get rid of the clutter. I now believe that I didn’t need all the things we have accumulated over these many years. I am less attached to material things and more attracted to interesting experiences and my important relationships, particularly with our grand children. I try to treat everyone with kindness and freely offer compassion to others as well as myself. It comes much easier as I grow more patient with age. Unfortunately, I also have a need to impart the knowledge I have accumulated. My penchant for doing so is not always appreciated. I have come to realize that my children and others do not want quick and easy solutions to their challenges and must eventually discover these truths for themselves. I am at peace with that as well. The greatest truth I have learned over these many years is that for every truth one discovers, the opposite is also true. Neither I or anyone else have all the answers.

The world offers so much. There are many exciting possibilities and so little time to enjoy them. When I was young, time passed very slowly and I was anxious to grow up. Getting older is like a roll of toilet paper, it accelerates as one gets closer to the end. The years pass quickly. Is it Christmas again? Didn’t I have a birthday a few months ago? I now feel like I must fill ever minute with 60 seconds of bliss. The brevity of life and the certainty of death is a fact we must all contemplate.

I don’t want to just get by. I made a commitment long ago to be happy. I know a gentleman who was born in Jamaica and retired in the United States whose goal is just to live another day. His retired life is eating, watching television, playing caluki with friends once a week and sleeping till noon each day. I asked him why he doesn’t return to Jamaica and let the sun again shine on his face and he can only think of negatives. I asked him (half jokingly), if this is how you spend his time, what are you doing here? Then I ask him to forgive me as I have no right to dictate to anyone else how they should live their lives.

When I was twelve, I walked on cloud nine when a pretty girl smiled in my direction. It may have been directed at the boy behind me but I took it very personally. The first time another girl tickled my palm middle leading to my first kiss, it was a divine and is yet indelibly imprinted in my brain but not as sweet as a rum raisin ice cream cone, “bust me jawbone”, pepper mint sticks, corn pone and bullas. These provided memorable delights of my youth.

The source of great truths are found in the Bible.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” (First Corinthians 13:11)

For everything there is a season; a time for every matter under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; A time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; A time to embrace, And a time to refrain from embracing; A time to seek, and a time to lose; A time to keep, and a time to throw away; A time to tear, and a time to sew; A time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate,; A time for war, and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

God has ordained seasons and cycles in our lives. I believe I have planted, fertilized, kept the weeds away and watered. I saved, exercised daily, nourished my mind, body and soul so I could arrive at this point in my life when I can enjoy the fruits of my striving. At every other stage of my life or having reached a goal I found another goal was waiting. A prisoner who stares through steel bars often believe that his only problems are the bars that keeps him caged. When he is released, he multiplies his problems by a factor of 100. You may not know this about me, but I was locked up in prison once. Under the direction of Randall Robinson, a group of us were demonstrating in front of the South African Embassy in Washington DC during apartheid and was arrested (as expected) and sent by paddy wagon to the pookie, booked and locked up for four hours. It felt good to stand up for something.

In my own life, I have been guilty of many arrival fallacies. “If only I could break that track record…graduate from college… get a job… have my own car… get married… complete my Ph.D. dissertation… graduate from law school… pass the BAR… make more money… own a BMW… have successful children… have pretty grandchildren… retire without worry… break 80 in golf, etc., etc., etc.” Each time I arrived at a hard fought for goal and celebrated, I automatically went on to yet another. There is always another hill to climb and another river to cross.

I have never been unemployed, depressed, had a broken bone, a serious illness or an addiction (except to my wife). I have never been overweight. I am able to eat or drink whatever I wanted because I have always been active. I did divorce and suffered through that trauma with my teenage children but found that sometimes you must die a painful death to reach heaven. It took a long time to get over the complications and hurt feelings. What became readily evident was that one can only be as happy as their unhappiest child. Being a parent means that you must wear your emotions on your sleeve. My children are my pride and joy but from time to time, they have also been the source of my greatest agony.

According to the Buddha: “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” I make a conscientious effort to invest in the happiness of others believing that most of our happiness arises from these supportive relationships.

First and foremost, my enlightened self interest tells me that a happy wife increases my chances of a happy life. “If mamma aint happy, aint nobody happy.” If you want happy children, make sure their mother is happy. While we have survived difficult times and challenging adversities, we are now more committed than ever. I love her more today than yesterday but not as much as I will tomorrow. Whether my motivation is sex, conversation or just snuggling, we go to bed at the same time. According to Proverbs 26:20: “Where there is no wood, the fire goes out.” The most delightful of pleasures is pleasing my wife.

While I used to be more dogmatic about having my way, it is so simple these days to just say: “Yes darling!” Richard Carlson says: “Don’t sweat the small stuff and everything is small stuff” A hundred years from now, nothing I do will matter and no one will even know I even existed. I cannot think of anything that is now worth arguing over. As a result of my unwillingness to be at loggerhead with her, she is constantly thinking about how she can enhance my happiness. When our children visit, we treat them like we would if President Obama and Michelle were here. We never serve our family the broken cookies and often put out the best china and silver even when they protest that we should be more informal. When it comes to the special people in your life, use your best stuff---now! I marvel that some families save the best for company and show the worse to their own families.

Our home is a storehouse of happy memories. My wife is absolutely the best person I have known to keep happy memories vivid. Every Christmas, we summarize the highlights of the past year for family and friends. We have twenty of these Christmas letters that have become our family history. For important birthdays, she creates a book of photographs with appropriate notes for our children and grand children. For all the trips we have taken together, we have a detailed diary of each day’s adventure. I cannot wait to get old and wallow in these memories. We have a treasure house of happy memories. We are particularly keen on preserving these memories when the grand children visit without their parents for extended time over the summer. And my wife’s crowning achievement is that she creates a personal calendar with family photographs that she shares with all our family with all birth dates, anniversaries and important family anniversaries printed in the calendar. We are always thirsty for more news and developments about our children and grand children (Hint, hint).

Last summer, we invited my mother, a favorite aunt, our four children and their five children (The youngest had not yet arrived) to spend a week in Montego Bay. As they are scattered throughout the United States, we realized that the grand children did not know their uncles and aunts. It was a marvelous week showing them where I lived and went to school and grew up. They also all learned to swim, play dominoes and to love Jamaican food. I even made a maypole. As much as I advertised how wonderful my childhood was, none of them would consider living in Woodlands. On the other hand, they would consider living in a fancy Villa in Montego Bay with helpers and a swimming pool. They also enjoyed Duns River Falls, the Beaches and water parks.
According to Gretchen Rubin: “Happiness has four stages. To eke out the most happiness from an experience, we must anticipate it, savor it as it unfolds, express happiness, and recall a happy memory.”

My grandmother told me that good deeds are seeds that when planted will always bear fruits to be enjoyed later. The giver is always more blessed than the receiver. We really should thank those we help for the opportunity to earn a blessing. “One is not always happy when one is good; but one is always good when one is happy.” (Oscar Wilde)

My mother is now 89 years old. While her physical body is failing her mind is sharp. While I have been diagnosed with CRS (Cannot Remember S—t), the best assurance that I will not have old-timer’s disease is to have parents who do not. Her favorite retort to my telephone calls to inquire about how she is feeling: “I am still above the ground and taking nourishment” and still remind me that "Mother knows best" and will remind me of the time when I didn't follow her advice and lived to regret it. She continues to challenge me with intellectual conversations and more than anything else, she has a wonderful sense of humor. She taught me that I could only be happy if I lived a life of service to others. When we do things for others, we please God and inspire ourselves. “If you have something to do, do it as if all depended on you but praying as if all depended on God.”

I find that my generosity often cost me nothing but connecting people. I asked my golfing friends in the United States to donate golf clubs and shoes to the caddies at Caymanas Golf Club and they did. I brought representative from Food for the Poor to see the deplorable living conditions of some of the people in St. Elizabeth and they built and donated over 100 houses out of this initiative. I was having breakfast with some friends at the Pegasus Hotel one morning a year ago and saw fifty people wearing lab coats, I went over and introduced myself and found out they were medical missionaries from Florida who annually visit Jamaica, I suggested that they consider bringing their services to St. Elizabeth. One year later, their team came and treated 1,000 under served people and distributed 500 free eye glasses. I get a great deal of satisfaction from seeking out opportunities and seeing them inure to the benefit of the village that raised me when I was a child.

Everything goes better with happiness. When I am in a happy frame of mind, my performance is at a peak, the quality of my golf improves and I feel strong and healthy. The people I encounter are beautiful and engaging. Whatever I eat or drink is delicious. The music I am listening to goes to my soul. The sunshine on my face is warm and radiant. The cool breeze is delightful against my skin. The songs of the birds are everywhere and the bloom of the flowers are rich and colorful. God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. Occasionally, when I am in a bad mood and feel bored, frustrated, worried and tired, I become withdrawn, irritable, critical of others, overwhelmed and nothing please me.

The story of the woodsman has always had important meaning for me. The Woodman was hired to fall trees. On his first day, he was able to tumble six of them. Working even harder, the second day, he was only able to fall five and on the third day, only four. He was tired, puzzled, embarrassed and frustrated as he explained the situation to his wife who listened and responded: "Darling, have you stopped to sharpen the axe?" Golf has always provided this respit for me to keep my axe sharp.

Do bad, feel bad. Feel bad, do bad. Do good, feel good. Feel good, do good. Comfort the sick and dying to find health and well being in ourselves. I focus less on my own worries and more on relieving the suffering of others. You cannot hurt other people without hurting yourself. Criminals are very unhappy people.

According to Eric Burn, we need at least a dozen “strokes” per day. Strokes are positive encounters. The smile from someone bidding you good morning or good night, someone expressing gratitude for a good deed you have done, receiving a hug, a complement, someone offering you a cool drink, demonstrating respect or biging you up are all examples of strokes. Unfortunately, you cannot obtain more than twenty percent of these strokes from the same person. So, we have a responsibility to make ourselves lovable to a wider audience so these transactions can be genuine. False and fake complements don’t count. The rituals of a birthday cake and the singing of the birthday song and important as we take turns being the center of attention for each other.

I am on a mission because having a sense of purpose is important. I try to put passion and energy into everything I do. I have always brought intensity, diligence and enthusiasm to every task. Sometimes I have had to practice a poem, speech or song repeatedly so I could perform with gusto. It takes a lot of practice to make things look natural. The older I get, the longer it takes to commit these things to memory and it does not linger after the performance. I was amused when a character on “Saturday Night Live” said he could teach anyone four years of Spanish in one easy lesson. According to him, the only thing we can recall after studying Spanish for four years are: “¿Cómo está usted? ¿Cómo estás? Bien gracias, ¿y usted? ¿Cómo te llamas?” He promised that he could teach us those phrases in one session.

Most people wake up, have breakfast, go to work, put in 8 hours, get home, watch TV and go to bed. People with passion, WAKE UP, HAVE BREAKFAST, GO TO WORK, PUT IN 8 HOURS, GET HOME, WATCH TV AND GO TO BED. While we may be doing the same activities, one set of people are bored with the routine while others are happy and exhilarated because of the energy and passion we pour into it.

Making progress is the definition of happiness. What does a patient want to hear from the doctor? “You are getting better Ms. Jones”. What does an employee want to hear from an employer: “You are making good progress Mr. Jones.” Happiness is all about making incremental progress. If you spoil your child and provide an expensive automobile and access to all the luxuries of life, your child will be doomed to unhappiness as he or she will have nothing to look forward to with joy and will be unhappy as they cannot keep up with the lifestyle to which they are accustomed. A millionaire losing a thousand dollars in unhappy. An employee receiving a $100 raise on a $10,000 salary is happy. “Best is good but better is best.” (Lisa Greenwald) Don’t indulge every whim even if you can afford it. Leave room for improvement---forgo something. All human beings love to make progress and interestingly, we are happier making progress up the summit than after reaching the top of the mountain. I told my youngest son that the highest prestige he will ever enjoy was being a medical student. Now that he has graduated, he is just another doctor.

There is no more happiness than a recovered patient, a deaf mute who has discovered his hearing and his voice, no more joy than sight to the blind. There is magic to the words, whether it is a sudden catharsis or actual vision: “I can see! I can see!! I can see!!!” Without having gone blind, what if you woke up each morning and scream: “I can see! I can see!! I can see!!!”

“Happy people are more altruistic, more productive, more helpful, more likable, more creative, more resilient, more interested in others, friendlier, and healthier. Happy people make better friends, colleagues, and citizens. I wanted to be one of those people. I knew it was certainly easier to do good when I was happy. I was more patient, more forgiving, more energetic, more lighthearted, and more generous. Working on my happiness wouldn’t just make me happier, it would boost the happiness of the people around me.” (Gretchen Rubin)

"There comes a time in your life, when you walk away from all
the drama and people who create it. You surround yourself with
people who make you laugh. Forget the bad, and focus on the
good. Love the people who treat you right, pray for the ones
who don't. Life is too short to be anything but happy. Falling
down is a part of life, getting back up is living."

It also helps that I live in the third happiest place on earth. I have contemplated why, among the poverty, the limited opportunities, crime and violence, why Jamaicans are happy. I believe it is our sense of gratitude. We are happy and grateful that no matter what comes, we survive. And yet we rise! But at 68 years old, like Robert Frost: "I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep." And I will be happy doing it as I persist, in my own way, to making this world a better place. My life is a testimony that “...His favor is for a lifetime...”(Psalm 30:5)