Happiness: Choose It or Lose It

January 06, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.--The year is still young, the days still numbered in single digits, when my friend extends her annual greeting. Happy New Year, she says, with the enthusiasm of a toll taker telling commuters to haveaniceday.

The truth is that my old friend is not thinking of a happy new year. She takes on January with something less than the good cheer she left behind in December. She encounters each new year with an icy stare, a certain set expression around the jawline. This morning she looks, well, resolute. And full of resolutions.

On her New Year's list, there are admonitions about work and working out. There are rules about belt-tightening her body and her budget. There are visions of a year destined to be lean and more than a bit mean. The good news, she says with just a hint of self-deprecating irony, is that she has yet to break a single promise.

My friend is a resolutions recidivist and we both know it. I recognize certain perennial entries to her list. The same five pounds have made their cameo reappearance. So has the promise to pay off her credit cards, to work harder, to really, finally, learn Spanish, and to NOT: not watch television, not eat fat, not let the laundry, the bills, the errands pile up.

If her life were a business, then these resolutions would be a pep talk from the boss about the need to be more productive, to do more with less, to squeeze more into the same number of hours. To accomplish this thing called 1994.

But where on this list is your happy new year, I ask? How come pleasure never makes it onto such a dutiful list of do's and don'ts? Doesn't joy also get soft and flabby if you neglect to exercise it?

My friend looks up and scoffs at my questions. Nobody, she retorts, needs to resolve to eat chocolate. We don't need to remind ourselves to do what we enjoy.

I nod my head at her grumpy certainty, but I'm not so sure of that.

The pleasures that I am thinking of this January day are not chocolate, cheese and couch potatoes. Trend watchers may talk about Americans backsliding off the health treadmill, falling off the low-fat wagon.

They may call the renewed indulgence in potato chips and steak and ice cream a sign of ''pleasure revenge.'' But I suspect that these retreats are puny rewards for servings of self-denial.

I am thinking of another list. What would happen if we wrote down our six, eight, or ten best moments over the past year?

What if we ranked the hours that energized whole weeks; the exchanges that made us think or feel most deeply? A list of what made that year worth living. The non-aerobic highs.

Would there be any relationship between the list marked resolutions and the one marked pleasures? Between our stated goals and our remembered joys? Are we trying to get to where we really want to be? Or do we neglect the pursuit of happiness in our purposefulness?

The business manuals and working-woman magazines warn people like my friend and me that we can't accomplish anything unless we follow their advice: prioritize.

So we keep a strict order of absolute priorities. Work and family. Family and work. Family as work. Committed to our lists, we plow through days, checking them off like chores.

When we think about improving our lives, we tend to measure our worth on one scale or another. We think of stripping what is unhealthy or unnecessary, firming up muscle, getting down to the bone. Instead of fleshing out the best.

We have priorities and everything else gets pushed to the bottom of the list. Only, once there, it remains untouched like some endlessly postponed dessert.

Too many friendships -- the true casualty of our time -- languish there. Too many marriages grow numb waiting for intimate stretches of time together. Too few of us resolve to sing or to walk in the snow, to make love or to make someone laugh. Too many of us forget what we want. The pursuit of happiness that once carried the moral weight of an American revolution now seems frivolous and has to wait.

But joy is also a habit. Use it or lose it. And happiness is not a banal smiley face to stick on an envelope. It's an option that we must exercise or watch atrophy.

So, while the year is still young, one more time with feeling: Have some happy New Year. Better put it on the list.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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