What’s the definition of happiness? Driving home from Vegas this weekend, I realized that Sin City thinks it has some answers to that question. You start seeing them when you’re still miles out from the Strip, weaving through the desert on Interstate 15. One billboard says,
Gourmet meal $10.99
with a picture of a lobster tail spilling out of its shell. Like it's on steroids. There’s more meat on display on another one:
Treasures Gentlemen’s Club & Steakhouse
Two kinds of meat, actually. The litany of signs is endless. Like the desert.
Happiness, Vegas-style, boils down to sex, money, and, as another sign declares, “sinful food, heavenly views.”
But novelist David Malouf is thinking about something else in The Happy Life: The Search for Contentment in the Modern World (Pantheon) published earlier this year. On our trip I took along this slender but considerable book — don’t let its mere 112 pages fool you — to one of the most (in)famous desert cities in the world.
Oh, I wasn’t trying to be some cool master ironist; I wasn’t planning on sitting in my room reading Malouf while the rest of Vegas played. I just admire Malouf’s novel Conversations at Curlow Creek, about a good talk before a good hanging, and I wanted to see what he was about in the new book. Besides, its short length seemed just right for when I wasn’t driving.
As all those billboards were sliding by and the Vegas skyline came into view, I couldn't help thinking of what Malouf says about our contemporary notion of “the good life”:
The good life as we understand it today does not raise the question of how we have lived, of moral qualities or usefulness or harm; we no longer use the phrase in that way. The good life as we understand it has to do with what we call lifestyle, with living it up in a world that offers us gifts or goodies free for the taking.
But if that isn’t happiness, then what is?
Malouf doesn’t provide a single, definitive answer — that seems impossible. Besides, as a novelist, he’s more comfortable with evoking questions and leaving readers to form their own conclusions.
He marshals a glittering assortment of figures — among them Thomas Jefferson, Plato, Montaigne, Ovid, Rubens, Rembrandt, Dostoevsky, on and on — who have offered their understanding of what “the good life” and “happiness” are. Personally, I appreciate the view of 16th century author/diplomat Henry Wotton. Of Wotton Malouf writes:
The happy life for Wotton was the life that made full use of the gifts a man had been given, that fulfilled its promise, first in action, then in days and nights of rest; life had been good to him, but he had also served it well in return....He had done what he could for the world and done no man harm.
Do no harm. How many of us can say that we’ve accomplished this and made full use of our gifts?
Malouf’s provocative, searching book ends on a note that addresses technology and its ill effects on the world. The fact that technology connects us and makes us aware of the entire world separates us from the world view of the medieval peasant by a million miles. His world extended maybe as far as an hour’s walk to a market or town. That was the portion of the world he worried about — unless, of course, invading armies were spotted on the horizon.
His sense of fulfillment was more limited, and also more controllable; technology today reminds us how so much is beyond our control. Malouf puts it much better:
It isn’t a question of whether our mind can accommodate itself to new ways of seeing, to new technologies and realities that are abstract or virtual — clearly it can — but whether emotionally, psychologically, we can feel at home in a world whose dimensions so largely exceed, both in terms of the infinitely great and the infinitely small, what our bodies can keep in view...
And what do we do when that infinite view becomes too overwhelming to think about?
Well, at times like those, nothing probably makes more sense than a $10.99 lobster tail. Then the medieval peasant in us takes over and our mouths start to water. Suddenly, the world's manageable again. We're happy--temporarily. (Man, those billboard designers are philosophical geniuses.)