Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Happiness Machination

by Kerry Blair

The missionaries showed Man’s Search for Happiness at my baptism. I sat with damp hair among my non-member friends and family, thinking that while the message was thrilling, the title needed work. The gospel of Jesus Christ does not make people happy.

I’ll wait while you scream “Heretic!” and/or run for the smelling salts.

Now that you’re back, I’ll explain. I was not looking for happiness when I found the Church. I was young, healthy, and already as happy as anybody has a right to be. I wanted to be baptized because reading the Book of Mormon brought into my heart a sensation that was to happiness as a molehill is to Everest. The scriptures call it joy, and the Lord told a prophet it is the reason for our existence. Happiness is mentioned in the scriptures, but only as a synonym for joy. Nowhere is it written that man is that he might be happy. It’s a good thing, too. While joy is the same today as it was in Adam’s dispensation, happiness in modern times often means getting what you want when you want it.

It is the latter-day definition of happiness that leads Leo Auffmann* to build a Happiness Machine in 1928 Green Town, Illinois. His motives are altruistic. He wants to manufacture happiness for people who lack it, and preserve the happiness of people (like himself) who experience it every day. He plans and schemes and works diligently to cram in all the happiness-producing things he can think of: youth, dancing, beautiful sunsets, Paris in the spring. By the time he has transformed these “best things in life” into a miraculous invention, he’s mostly alienated his children, and his wife is divvying up their community property, but he has done it!

Well, almost. Leo’s Happiness Machine makes everyone who enters it deliriously happy for a few minutes, but they then leave the contraption inexpressibly sad.

“I feel awful, terrible,” Lena Auffmann wails upon exiting. “First, there was Paris . . . “

“What’s wrong with Paris?”

“I never even thought of being in Paris in my life. But now you got me thinking: Paris! So suddenly I want to be in Paris and I know I’m not!” Eventually, she calms down and explains, “Leo, the mistake you made is you forgot that some hour, some day, we all got to climb out of that thing and go back to dirty dishes and the beds not made. While you’re in that thing, sure, a sunset lasts forever, the air smells good, the temperature is fine. All the things you want to last, last. But outside, the children wait on lunch, the clothes need buttons. And then let’s be frank, Leo, how long can you look at a sunset . . .?”

As long as we are being frank, unmade beds and unbuttoned shirts are the least of my worries. What sent me to the bookshelf to exhume this treasure was, first, a series of saddening situations befalling family, friends, and friends-of-friends. (Enough to make one wonder how anybody could ever feel happy again.) My second motivation was the sudden appearance of holiday ads everywhere I turn.

Advertising is, I swear, a vast, pernicious Unhappiness Machine. I have thus far lived in relative contentment without experiencing the wonders of Paris, but I do often fall prey to smaller enticements—even though I know better. One evening of television with my mother might persuade me to believe Thanksgiving will be a disaster without that green bean casserole everybody hates. Furthermore, family and friends will be so disgusted by my dingy teeth that they will never be able to relax without a glass of the right alcohol—despite my new furnishings, sparkling floors, and ridiculously expensive air fresheners in every wall outlet.

I absolutely hate being made to wonder if I need something I did not know existed two minutes prior to some perky actress telling me about it. Also, the smartest thing I ever did was move twenty minutes away from WalMart. Oh that it were farther!

But back to Leo. After Lena leaves the machine it catches fire and is destroyed. When a neighbor offers comfort, Leo says: “You want to see the real Happiness Machine? The one they patented a couple thousand years ago? It still runs, not good all the time, no! But it runs. It’s been here all along.” He leads the way up the front-porch steps. “Here,” he whispers, “the front window. Quiet, and you’ll see it.”

There in small warm pools of lamplight they see what Leo sees. Saul and Marshall are playing chess at the coffee table. In the dining room Naomi is cutting paper-doll dresses. Ruth paints with watercolors while Joseph runs his electric train. Through the kitchen door they see Lena slide a pot roast from the steaming oven.

“Sure,” Leo murmurs. “There it is. The Happiness Machine.” A moment later he is gone. He soon reappears inside, “tinkering, making a minor adjust here, eliminating friction there, busy among all those warm, wonderful, infinitely delicate, forever mysterious, and ever-moving parts.”

This is one model happiness of which the prophets speak--the kind that lasts forever, no matter what saddening circumstances arrive in life. Most Americans used to know that. Years of having mostly too much has made mostly too many of us less happy. In 1919 Annie Johnson Flint wrote a verse that has remained in my grandmother’s Bible ever since:

God hath not promised skies always blue,
Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through.
God hath not promised sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain.
God hath not promised we shall not know
Toil and temptation, trouble and woe.
He hath not told us we shall not bear
Many a burden, many a care.
But God hath promised us strength for the day,
Rest for the laborer, Light for the way,
Grace for the trials, help from above,
Unfailing empathy, undying love.

That is the the real happiness for which men search, and it is in the gospel of Jesus Christ. (So maybe I was wrong back there at the beginning.) I see true happiness in the glimpses I get through cyber-glass into so many of your lives. I hope you know that I am inexpressibly grateful for all the examples of courage and faith. You are all essential components of my Happiness Machine.

*characters/story excerpted from Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Initial copyright 1946 by Ray Bradbury; renewed in 1975. The edition I reference/quote here was published by Avon Books, Inc. of New York in 1999. Nothing was used with permission, so don't pass it on, but do go buy a copy for yourself! Ray Bradbury is one of the greatest philosophers -- and writers -- of this generation. If I were to have a bust on my desk (like Schroeder does on his piano) it would be of Ray Bradbury.


At 11/05/2010 2:04 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

I think working for a corporation in America is a type of Unhappiness Machine. For some of us, it lingers even after we leave.

But hey, it's Friday! =)

Very nice post, Kerry. I think maybe you should start working on Counting Your Blessings, vol. 2.

I had a member of the stake presidency tell me recently that the Lord would literally pour blessings on my head. I had a sudden image of a torrent of water falling on my head. (but, you know, a good torrent of water) I think maybe people literally use the word "literally" incorrectly much of the time.

At 11/05/2010 2:45 PM, Blogger Karen said...

I recognized that story right away! I love Dandelion Wine. Thanks for a great reminder about joy and happiness. I also enjoyed the poem from your grandmother's bible. I need to write that one down for a reminder to myself.

At 11/05/2010 4:15 PM, Anonymous Roger Billings said...

I enjoyed your post. The movie/filmstrip Man's Search for Happiness tends to remind me of a similar title: Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. There are other surprising similarities besides the titles. Probably someone somewhere has even done a comparison of the film and the book, although I have not seen it. Man's Search for Meaning is primarily about how Frankl was able to survive Auschwitz by discovering that happiness does not depend on our circumstances, that we have the power to choose our state of being despite what is going on around us. It reminds me that true happiness or joy is much simpler than we usually imagine. I love the phrase of family life you quoted: "warm, wonderful, infinitely delicate, forever mysterious, and ever-moving parts." That gets at the simplicity I am thinking of.

At 11/07/2010 12:36 AM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

Oh, I love you, Kerry. Though we've never met face-to-face, the glimpses through your window never fail to show me the true happiness machine. Thank you for sharing those glimpses. Thank you for being one of those bright lights by which I may always set my compass.

God bless you.

At 11/08/2010 3:26 AM, Blogger Marsha Ward said...

Lovely, Kerry. Thanks for putting in the poem. As I read it, it rang a bell, so I'm sure I've seen it before in my youth, but didn't, of course, know where to find it again all these years later.

You are truly a gem beyond price.

At 11/12/2010 10:38 AM, Blogger Stephanie Abney said...

Another classic post, Kerry. You are a marvel!!! And I miss you. Now that I'm not teaching, we need to find a day I can visit... if it's okay with you. Email me. Love you, girlfriend!!


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