Well I never kept a dollar past sunset
It always burned a hole in my pants
Never made a school mama happy
Never blew a second chance, oh no
I need a love to keep me happy
I need a love to keep me happy
Baby, baby keep me happy
Baby, baby keep me happy
Always took candy from strangers
Didn’t wanna get me no trade
Never want to be like papa
Working for the boss every night and day
Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, “Exile on Main Street” (1972)
In 2011 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution encouraging member states to measure the happiness of their populations. This evolved into an annual world happiness index, generally compiled by NGOs and individual researchers. It has often been released by the UN; and last year, like most years, some wealthy Scandinavian countries and a few equally well-heeled countries that are elsewhere but might as well be Scandinavian (Holland, Switzerland) were at the top of the list. This year’s report is novel in that it focuses, not on happiness in general, but specifically on the responses of the world’s countries to the challenges posed by the Covid pandemic.
Most of my readers probably live in the USA, not the Nordic countries, and thus do not belong to the winners’ Polar Bear Club of White Privilege. How did the rest of us, the mixed multitude, the mongrel non-Aryan races, fare? The USA (where we are engaged in “the pursuit of happiness”, but evidently have not yet bagged the prey) and the UK clocked in, somewhat disappointingly, at 14th and 18th. One might at least derive some Schadenfreude-tinged comfort in the lower ranking of our new favorite enemies, China and Russia, who came in at 52nd and 60th. (Tolstoy disliked bourgeois comforts, dismissing them as “English happiness”.) And war-torn Afghanistan and a handful of hapless African countries were at the bottom.
It’s easy to download the long-winded report, which bristles with bars, graphs, and other impressive-looking statistics. The text is larded with very annoying we-are-the-world photographs of thirdy-worldy sorts of people smiling into the camera. (A link to the report is above, and you can enjoy the artwork there. It is like the Museum of Modern Art’s old Family of Man show tweaked by the ad agency that handles the Starbucks account.) Most of their countries are presumably way down the list, which is a little incongruous, but what the hell. It’s the UN, after all— whose bright idea all this was— which annually picks the most iniquitous tyrannies to head its human rights commission, whose principal task is to berate free countries. Get with the program.
The 2021 happiness report, as noted previously, is special: it focuses on the Covid pandemic, which is now a year old and is far from over. The staff artist pays tasteful homage to the lockdown with thoughtful photos of empty streets and the polished floors of deserted airports. Covid is brought to you by China: it originated in Wuhan, probably at the city’s institute of virology, where it is confirmed that a number of workers became very ill just before the plague spread out of control. That is according to a story published in the Washington Post on 22 March 2021, whose author suggests that the World Health Organization downplays this because China controls it.
A disproportionate number of authors of the happiness report are Chinese; and the report repeatedly praises that country for its strong top-down policies. The criteria of the happiness index for years when the planet is not sick—thanks to China and its strong top-down policy of disseminating a deadly, weaponized virus— lean towards authoritarian and collectivist values. Trust in society’s institutions, the equitable distribution of wealth, and trust in the people of the wider community, are all factors that go into the number crunching.
Trust in institutions? Really? Which one? The Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei? The Chinese Communist Party? The KGB? The CIA? Enron? Facebook? Twitter? University administrations with their deaneries and Title IX star chambers? The Vatican? The Davos powwow? The California Department of Motor Vehicles?
My favorite teacher, Prof. Nina Garsoian, once counseled me gravely never to give my loyalty to any institution, and by God I never will. I’ve never encountered a single institution on God’s green earth that aroused anything but suspicion. As the great Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov put it, “Satan realized he could not corrupt the earth all by himself, so he built fancy synagogues with famous rabbis in big cities to help him accomplish his task.” Hah.
As to “equitable distribution of wealth”, in my book that’s academese for taking your hard-earned money and giving it away to a rainbow coalition of lazy bums: illegal aliens, welfare cheats, and sundry parasites such as academic practitioners of the Social Sciences (let’s call the latter, for short, the SS). The academics, editors, big tech moguls, and bureaucrats who favor taxing the middle class out of existence tend to be doing very well indeed themselves, thank you very much. No equitable distribution of their dragon hoards of ill-gotten gold there, no sir. You can Google the net worth of Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, one of the authors of the Report. It’s ten million dollars, says Google. Small change in Silicon Valley terms, but decidedly more than my pensioner friends in St. Petersburg have in the bank. Why mention them in connection with a major economist on the other side of the world? That will become apparent presently.
Back to criteria. As for “trusting the wider community,” well, the hell with that. I’ll decide whom I want to trust, and it’s probably going to be a smallish handful of friends. Not a statistically significant demographic segment, a.k.a. the Twittering mob. Just remember the Thanksgiving Prayer of William S. Burroughs, which includes the verse “Thanks for a nation of finks.”
I knew a cowboy in Wyoming who knew another cowboy who decided that the town where he lived was too damned crowded. It wasn’t crowded. The area of Wyoming is 97,818 square miles, with a population about half a million; California, population forty million, is less than twice the area of Wyoming. But our cowboy wasn’t thinking, I must trust the collective. He was thinking, Don’t fence me in. He decamped to a place called Ten Sleep— which, translated from Shoshone, means a ten-day-long ride from anywhere— where he settled down with his horse, who was named Horse, and his dog, who was named Dog. And that was community enough for him. But Western “rugged individualism”, or, if you live in Boston, drink weak tea, and like Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (an essay Harvard used to require incoming freshmen to read), is not a criterion on the World Happiness Index. Sorry your lifestyle does not involve trust in the masses and therefore isn’t certifiable as happy, Cowboy, Horse, and Dog.
Speaking of dog-and-pony shows, a prominent editor and co-author of the Happiness Report— as I noted above— is the world-renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Columbia University in New York City. The latter, my home town for purposes of full disclosure, is the most congested city in America, according to yet another statistic I read yesterday. Quite unlike, say, Ten Sleep, Wyoming. New York’s trustworthy social institutions include the office of the Governor, who ordered Covid patients to be placed in old age homes, thereby causing about ten thousand deaths, give or take a few hundred, and who’s counting, since he opined “They’re gonna die anyway.” Then there is Hizzoner the Mayor, who relocated dangerous felons from jail to residential neighborhoods and ordered that the police be imprisoned instead if they used anything tougher than harsh language in dealing with crime. I get it: that’s why the report opens with Columbia asking you please to observe the International Day of Happiness on 20 March 2021. Because the Big Apple’s so happy.
Damn, what with Purim, Shabbos, and Pesach coming up, I clean forgot to mark the International Day of Happiness on my calendar. Sorry, Professor, and sorry, Alma Mater. Maybe by next year we will have strong top-down policies about the public observance of holidays, too, and everybody will be gently reminded to turn out with smiles plastered to their faces, march in neat rows past a reviewing stand, celebrate the togetherness of our blissful nation of finks (Long Live Cancel Culture), carry placards exclaiming how fucking happy we are, and wave at the trustworthy leaders of our institutions. (“Look, Natasha, isn’t that President Xi standing next to Sachs, Cuomo, and Newsom? Yay!”)
Prof. Sachs uses a small part of his ample chapter in the Report to bash Trump and praise China. China? But didn’t the virus come from there? Aren’t they the ones putting Uighurs in concentration camps and turning Hong Kong into one more police state? And Trump? Didn’t Trump initiate Operation Warp Speed and find a vaccine in record time? None of that matters, and it shouldn’t surprise you, gentle reader. Consider the curriculum vitae of the venerable scholar: Sachs used to work at Harvard, where in the early 1990s he and some fellow wunderkind young economists, at the behest of Boris Yeltsin’s trustworthy and bibulous government, crafted a program of “shock therapy” for the Russian economy. This was a policy of radical privatization of the country’s industries, businesses, and natural resources. When you fall off your horse and scatter the contents of your pockets, saddle bags, and so on all over the place, they call it in Wyoming “a complete and total yard sale.” Imagine Russia’s oil, gas, timber, gold, platinum, heavy industry, shoe stores, the corner newspaper kiosk, you name it, dumped on the ground at bargain basement prices. But the complete and total yard sale of everything on one sixth of the earth’s land surface is roped off, and the only customers are members of the old boys’ club of the ancien régime. The Russians dubbed this privatizatsiya “privatization” prikhvatizatsiya “grabbing-for-oneselfization”: the program created a class of gangster capitalists and replaced nascent civil society with a brutal political oligarchy.
Russians lost their savings and pensions, tens of millions were reduced to poverty, and millions more died prematurely in a pandemic of unemployment, alcoholism, suicide, and the collapse of social services like health, education, and housing. But Sachs and his Ivy pals were very handsomely reimbursed for their professional services; and their trustworthy institution profited too. Wage equality all around, at least for those at the top of the pyramid, ah, scheme. Read Janine R. Wedel’s article, “The Harvard Boys Do Russia,” for all the gory details. But every cloud has a silver lining, doesn’t it? For many Russians who lived through the chaos of 1990s in the house-that-Sachs-built (let’s affectionately dub it “Sachsenhausen”, but not forget to give plenty of credit to all the other players, all of them big men with big plans) the Covid epidemic does not seem nearly as dire as it might to the rest of us. Maybe they felt more like celebrating World Happiness Day this year than I do.
And why not? The Soviet Union used to have all sorts of improbable holidays like that. I was once in Moscow for Tankists’ Day, or maybe it was Border Guards’ Day. In Yuli Daniel’s satirical tale “This Is Moscow Speaking” (1961), the government announces a Public Murder Day, on which citizens are encouraged to kill each other. There are bright posters showing happy young people, and bar graphs demonstrating how dramatically pederasty has increased under Soviet rule compared to the pre-Revolutionary base year of 1913. I think we all owe the United Nations General Assembly, Professor Sachs, and Columbia University a big vote of thanks for World Happiness Day 2021! Is everybody having fun yet?
The Dr. Frankenstein of economic shock therapy in Russia and a bunch of SS specialists and Chinese functionaries have delivered the handbook on universal happiness in this special coronavirus year, complete with a tasteful array of illustrations and graphs. I don’t get how Scandinavia keeps coming out on top. It’s kind of weird, considering how often one hears of high suicide rates in that region, with its long winters. Genius is sometimes born of suffering, but very little of the world’s great literature, music, art, or thought came from those snowy climes. (Grieg, Munch, Ibsen, Bergman, okay, but still… ) They have a social net because they’re rich. They didn’t get rich by doing anything remarkable, really. Norway just had a lot of oil. Well, as my Mom used to say, “Rich or poor, it’s good to have money.” I’ve nothing against Scandinavia. Just to the contrary. During the long lockdown, I’ve savored the Netflix menu of “Occupied”, “Lilyhammer”, and “Ragnarok” and have come to love the comfortable, well-intentioned Norwegians. If they are happy, then that makes me happy. They should live and be well. I just wonder about the UN study’s criteria, which seem to me to be calibrated to advance an ideological agenda; and happiness is too important a question of the human predicament to be left to the tender mercies of wolves dressed up as shepherds.
Maybe people really are happier when they are cared for, when major decisions are made for them, and convictions are delivered to them by paternalistic consensus. This is the hyper-nanny state, which can be annoying at times but basically benevolent, as in Scandinavia; or it can be malevolent and totalitarian, as in China (think of a nanny from hell). The other extreme is the laissez faire jungle of the kleptocrats— Bezos, Sachs, and their ilk. I would like to suggest that happiness, or at least the kind of true happiness that only freedom can buy, is neither, and that it is the American way. Protectiveness and coddling are certainly part of the right way to raise children; but when a child becomes an adult, as St. Paul says, he has to put the things of childhood away. He becomes free: he has to care for himself, his family, and others. He assumes the responsibility to make decisions and to live with the consequences. He has to arrive at a set of convictions by continuing to study God’s Word, the Holy Bible, as his parents and teachers introduced it to him; and by consulting his conscience and making moral choices. That is freedom, and it can be hard and agonizing. Sometimes it can lead to social isolation and censure, maybe worse. Ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Alexander Solzhenitsyn, if they were happy. They might ask you back, Is that the point?
Dr. Freud joins in. He’s channeled here by an elderly Middle European Jewish professor in Woody Allen’s movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989): “Human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. it is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.” Love and work, the good Doctor’s ultimate therapies, are not external and top-down, but internal and radiating outwards. Going out and doing something for somebody else, not sitting in the nest with your mouth wide open like a baby bird, is what makes a day meaningful. It’s also what makes you an goddam eagle, not a chick.
The department secretary where I used to teach, Miss Carol Cross, of blessed memory, worked hard every day of her life, typing flawless book manuscripts for faculty in obscure Near Eastern scripts and languages she didn’t know and didn’t want to know. For department parties she prepared homemade lahmajun— a sort of Arabic pizza. She did this on her own time, at her own expense. If she really liked you, she’s give you a pot of homemade mustard. And whenever anybody was fool enough to say “Have a nice day!” to her, she relied, bless her soul, “I’ve got other plans.”
Work, as in the maxim age quod ages of the ancients: a painter in his studio; a writer at her desk; a musician blasting out Halleluyah on his saxophone; a Zen master of motorcycle maintenance; my cousin Nina, of blessed memory, making a unique teapot or cup. Keith Richards, after all these years, playing blues guitar, laughing with an old friend, marveling at his grandchildren. I’ve seen a secret happiness in these people that eludes UN statisticians. Where are these people, all of them hidden away from the shock therapy and top-down squad? “Happy are they who live in Your house; they ever praise You, Selah,” sang David, king of Israel, in the tenth century BC, in Psalm 84:4. That’s where they are: in the Temple of Jerusalem. Where is that? Look inside.
The Hebrew word for “happy” in the Psalm is ashrei; it translates into Greek as makarios, and both have the sense of “blessed”, Latin beatus. Hence the Beatitudes, in the Gospel according to Matthew. On a very hot and dry summer day over thirty years ago I was riding a horse named Luther past a field of spiky yellow weeds. “Look, Luther,” I said to him. “Tares.” (As in, the Parable of the.) This was in the Galilee so probably one should have said it in Hebrew, but Luther obligingly looked left, and thought to himself, “Okay, I looked. I’m a good boy. But those ‘tares’ don’t look like I can eat them.” After about ten minutes we came to the shore of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). Just ahead was an improbably green and rather diminutive hill crowned by a little monastery. This was the site of the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus Christ. We edged around it, I took off Luther’s saddle, and we went for a swim. As I floated next to my happy horse, I heard this:
“Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Happy are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Happy are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Happy are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Happy are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Happy are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Happy are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God.
Happy are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
That is the truth, and the truth will set you free; and that freedom is the way to real happiness. I can think of no better criterion, definition, or measure, and doubt there ever will be one, though we will keep on debating what happiness and virtue are as long as philosophy and human passion endure. The “happiest” nations have some wealthy people who inhabit a hell all their own; while people in out-of-the-way places are living in God’s house and don’t need a Report to tell them. Me, I picked sides a long time ago. I hope you will.
Luther and I ambled out of the lake and dried off, and as we cantered home I bent down to pick a handful of grapes in a vineyard. They tasted delicious.