Tuesday February 9, 2016
In David Brooks’ compelling book, The Road to Character, he says in the introduction, “We can shoot for something higher than happiness. We have a chance to take advantage of everyday occasions to build virtue in ourselves and be of service to the world.” Through the theoretical characters of Adam 1 and Adam 2, he speaks about the more egotistical, resume-driven self versus the more interior, eulogy-driven self, the egotist versus the other-minded person in whom reside the virtues we associate with a person of exemplary character.
In thinking about the positive psychology literature on happiness and well-being, it seems there is not such a great divide as Brooks suggests, between happiness and good character (although he does say that folks of maturity, commitment, humility, and dependability radiate a kind of “moral joy.”) According to Martin Seligman and colleagues, there are tiers of happiness—the frivolous, full-of-pleasure kind, the fulfillment of expressing one’s signature strengths, and the most meaningful sort of happiness in which one’s outputs contribute to the purposes of the broader community.
Before our granddaughter, Minna, was born, my husband and I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Brooklyn, New York, helping to ready the small apartment in which our hardworking daughter and son-in-law would welcome their baby. Inexplicably, a great sense of excitement surrounded us as we rode the train from Boston, as if this were an exotic adventure to a foreign land.
It was a small service in the scheme of things, but an intimate one. I felt gratitude and a sense of privilege for their trust in us, and for their permission to negotiate, handle, refold, and re-place their material belongings.
The modest apartment would welcome and nest their first baby, our granddaughter. It is hard to describe how pleasing it felt to participate in these tasks: wiping down woodwork, my husband bolting together two bookshelves, stuffing clothing into giveaway bags, taking trash down three flights of rickety stairs, re-rolling towels and sheets into a pantry that doubled as a linen closet, completely reorganizing the tiny kitchen’s cabinets to make things accessible without a landslide. We helped plan where furniture might move in order to convert a little office into the nursery.
We chatted, we laughed, we sashayed around the apartment surveying our work; we ate snacks from the small but well-stocked grocery down the block, took laundry to the laundromat for washing. By the end of this nothing-short-of-euphoric day, it seemed impossible that anything other than the baby herself, could rival such happiness.
I can’t stake a claim to “moral joy,” or even, as in the Positive Psychology literature, a truly meaningful happiness from utilizing personal signature strengths in the service of a greater community than myself.
This joint undertaking felt simple; an earthy roll-up-your-sleeves kind of joy: Was it about helping our grown children? Or simply about sharing a hardworking but easygoing day with them? About participating in the transformation of their habitat? Was it the gift of their trust in us to help with this clean-up effort? Or the anticipation of this baby who would so grace our lives? Maybe it was just that we participated with one another in a vitalized and fully present way.
But we had fun! We played. We used our muscles. We reveled in the companionship. We worked on a cooperative project, and felt awe in the transformation of a couple’s apartment to a home suited for a family of three.
Don’t you notice how the mundane and the miraculous tend toward each other with love as their seam?