Searching for Happiness and Finding Yard Work

It can be a fleeting fleeing, especially if we're chasing a need to be happy. An anxious bachelor gets out of his head and into the streets to meet friends and neighbors, in hopes of rescuing his weekend—and his outlook on life.

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It once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid; and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.

from the Three Questions, by Leo Tolstoy

I’m aching for happiness. Or at least more consistent, maybe call it, joy. A sense of purpose wouldn’t be bad. Unbearable lightness would be nice, if I could find some. Although I’m not unhappy exactly.   It’s just, you know, Saturday morning and I should feel something far more than I actually do. I crave more than knowing life is grand, I want to feel the majesty of it all.

It’s more like I’m not happy … enough.  I want more, more of the time. Explosive laughter. Or mindless ease hanging with friends in the sun with a beer throwing a Frisbee. That crystal moment with me and a few friends out at night, or me and a girlfriend on a secluded beach walking in the sun, or sometimes me, having nailed the cover art for a book no one may ever see but I’ve got it exactly right. That happy that I’ve tasted, I want it back.

It’s more like I’m not happy … enough.  I want more, more of the time. Explosive laughter. Or mindless ease hanging with friends in the sun with a beer throwing a Frisbee.

I’m pretty sure what keeps me from it. In no particular order, it’s my need to relax more, to have a new girlfriend, to settle down and have children, and to get a better job. To suck it up and stop worrying about the small stuff—that cliché too, that’s me. And my car is a hassle. I know that shouldn’t bother me but it does, I’ll need to figure out how to get a new one soon.  And global warming. That’s a stress.  If I ever have kids, what will they do? Even with all that, though, it seems like I know better.

It’s a spectacular Saturday in Oakland. I should be able to make myself happy. I have nothing to do but something that makes me happy. Except I’m not all that happy, at least partly because, well, I haven’t a clue what to do with myself. Isn’t there something urgent I should be doing to seize the day? Someone I should be doing it for, instead of all this focus on me? Some life-changing, soul-growing something instead of basking in the sun doing absolutely nothing.

I’m in my pajamas late morning and it makes me feel disjointed and slow and annoyed that I’m incapable of being happy with nothing to do at all but sit on the stoop. Go get a coffee, go for a run, go for a hike, go back to bed. I should feel better, I know it. So much I could do on this irresponsible day. Only a few weeks ago being right here made me happy, it felt, like, exactly right. Today it’s kind of peaceful here on the stair, but not nearly upbeat and happy.

But seeing the potential doesn’t budge that mood. The one where I’m happy but I’m not. The one where I’m paralyzed by all the opportunity and nothing actually excites. Which is either my fault for thinking this way, or a mood I’m in, if only I could tell the difference.

In reality, if someone dropped by right now, and asked, are you happy, I’d probably say yes. I am mostly, and why bother anyone with a complaint? Still, it’s not like I felt last week, or was it the week before? Whenever, clearly I’m capable of much more expansive, unrestrained happiness. With nothing exactly wrong in my life, logically, I must be happier than I feel.

I want to be one of them, those people, the ones who exude light and are upbeat. Go change the world, smile and laugh while doing it, life’s not worth taking seriously. Now I’m showing empathetic concern for someone I’ve never met, now I’m making a joke that cracks up the room, it’s all good. Here, on my own, I should break out in laughter at the absurdity of it all. That’s how I should exist.

Not happening for me today, this week, or this year. If you asked anyone, they’d probably tell you—sure, he’s happy. Kind of serious and prone to worrying, but apparently happy.   Except they’re missing something vital, deep inside it’s more … well, they’re right, actually. Layers and layers of serious, prone to worrying, happiness.

Spoiled, yuppie dilemma. I’m off from work today, but I’m head of a three-person art department at a not quite entirely unsuccessful publisher. Health is good. Plenty of friends and perfectly reasonable parents and a not terrible relationship with my older brother too. No conceivable risk of flood or famine. Woe is me, nothing to do but relax.

So that’s when I decide: Seek out the answer to happiness. The root of my own personal joy, and a purpose in life. Today. One day only, step right up.

• • •

I figure, as I often do, start with Gregory.  In small part because he’s studying psychology.   In large part because since high school, far before we talked each other into moving West for grad school, we’ve been prone to late night through early morning contemplation of anything from the trivial-and-factual everyday stuff through the grand-but-theoretical of life. What I am going to do, I’m failing algebra, and by the way, I’m not sure I believe in this God thing so much. Wherever the conversation scurried, we followed. Nodded, cracked jokes, built on the discussion. Not so much figured things out as discussed them into submission. The ideas themselves mostly collapsed right before we did, exhausted and wrung out.

I walk into his apartment without knocking, and jump right in. What should I be doing with myself, G? Right now, today, what should I do?

Well, it’s nine in the morning, I can’t buy you a drink until four.  So that’s out. How about a bagel?

Gregory is sprawled on his sagging living room couch, studying. Well, there’s loud music on and sports highlights and a few open notebooks, so maybe studying. Year five or seven or something of a very intense graduate degree in some aspect of neuropsychology I didn’t actually know existed. He’ll once again happily put aside work for the day to hang out and chat. How many Ph.D. students does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One, but it takes nine years. No rush, the decade isn’t closing in yet.

What’s up, Noah?  

Oh, you know. Kind of bored I guess. In that mood again. Should be happy. Not happy. That conversation, I think we called it brooding life angst number 406A, the one about me wanting to be happier?

Shit, 406A?  You want to talk it out again, or just pretend we did and go do brunch?

Happiness is the Homemade Café for breakfast? I’ll run it by marketing.

That’s happiness.

We almost had it right after college, didn’t we? First job, hanging out all the time. I was moving towards something easier then. Didn’t I seem happier?  

You mean back when you had zero responsibility? Money but nothing to spend it on?

No seriously, G, I didn’t feel on edge so much then. I felt better even when I wasn’t happy.   I was more almost happy even when I wasn’t.

You’re not making sense. And you worried just like now. You worried when you were in a relationship that you might want to get out, you worried when you were out of a relationship that you wanted to get in.  It was fun, but you weren’t always happy or anything.

So what’s the answer, G? What’s the point?

What do you think?

Me? I want to do something worthwhile. Have a family. Make art. Not sure what else, that’s maybe it. What else is there?

What’s worthwhile to you?

Not creative director of book cover art for an almost out of business publisher. It’s boring as shit. I’m designing covers for books no one will ever read.

Gregory got up out of his chair to stretch, then fell back into it again, apparently exhausted by the effort. Sounds like you’re not happy with your work. Again. Conversation … um … 625.2. No wait, that’s you unhappy because a friend doesn’t have a good enough job.  

Shit G, you studying to be a therapist or something? Not so helpful.

Why do you say that?

Why do you think I said that?

Why do you think I think you said that?

Why do you … screw it G, say something new.

You’re fine. You’re working things out, you’re thinking about your life. Maybe one day, you’ll figure yourself out. Now get out of my house. I have to get some work done, for once. Really do. Catch a movie later this week?

Sure, a movie. That would be fun.

Same old, same old. Gregory the go-to, knowing better than to take me seriously. Air it all out, move on. Every few weeks one or the other of us dragging through the mental muck. Otherwise, risk getting lost in our own confined dark mental space. I feel a little calmer.

Still more content than happy, though.

• • •

Too much time in my own head so far today, and I know who can get me out of it. I mean, life isn’t about my happiness anyway. I’d be happier if I knew not only what I was supposed to be doing but maybe who I was supposed to be doing it for. Definitely not happiness on the me me me path for very long, the guilt would overwhelm if nothing else. I get on my bike and head over to Gary, he’s always up to something. Or something else. Never nothing. Maybe he’ll distract me.

I walk in without knocking once again. The door is always open for our group of friends unless it’s locked. That’s true for Gary, even if he is the only one of us in a serious, sharing-the-rent type relationship.

Yo Gary, what are you up to today?

Hey Noah, how’re you? Busy, you know. Over-committed once again. You want to come along? I’m going to run some stairs. Then I’m going to the lumber store, helping my sister build her kid a treehouse.

I’ll probably die running stairs with you. Question: I’m spending too much time thinking about me again. I figured you’d know what I should do, you’re always doing something for someone.

You’re asking me who should you pay attention to today if not yourself?

Kind of, that’s it.

Do something worthwhile, make a difference. That’s what makes the world go round, doing stuff for people who need it. Young and healthy we are, so we should be productive.


Get out of your head and go volunteer somewhere. Teach art, do a charity race, something like that.

That’s going to make me feel happier?

Maybe. But it will make you feel busier. Then you stop thinking so much. And you’ll feel happy doing something useful for someone, sure, that too.

I’m always worried about bills and deadlines and birthdays and which phone call I forgot to return. It’s like this cloud. No, not a cloud, that sounds worse than it is. It’s like, it’s a beautiful day, and all is well, but there’s this, um, humidity. It would be a perfect day, I know, if I could set aside all the “stuff I’m worried about” … humidity … but I can’t figure out how to do that. Like, happiness is mine to have, if I could just stop worrying about the stuff I’d tell anyone else in the world to stop worrying about.  

You’re unhappy about excessive moisture in the air?

Not literally.  

You’re unhappy about your mental air quality?

Something like that.

You have way, way too much time on your hands, my friend.

A familiar thought arises unwanted from the swamps of my psyche. You know what? I should have followed Gina back East.   She always knew what to say.

How’d you get there? She thought you were going, you know. But you weren’t happy with her for very long anyway.

If not her, who else? I need a girlfriend. I’m always happier when I have one.

Relationships aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

I know, I know. Heard all about it, when you tried getting me to stay with Gina. Nothing’s perfect, keep working on it, you said it then a thousand times.

Gary shrugs. You coming with me? I’ll go by the community garden first, want to help a friend do some planting. Then stairs.  

Don’t you and Bob ever just stay home?

Course not. Then we have to talk and work things out. After six years together it’s easier like this. He laughs, though I try to guess the reality to his joke.  

Shit, you’ve been together six years? My grandparents were together fifty years, what are you going to be doing to each other by then?

He shrugs, unconcerned. Feels good to get things done, to help out, that’s what it’s all about.

If I was doing as much as you did, I burn up in a week.

Give something back. Take on a cause, do some good in the world.

I’m always flying home and helping out my mom when she’s not feeling well. I’m working for Bernie. That’s not enough?  Busier and then I’d be happy?

Works for me.

Filling life entirely with projects doesn’t seem like happiness. Worthwhile, but not happiness. I’d rather have my quiet, unmoored Saturday any day.

• • •

The afternoon drifts and so do I. I wander towards Scott, the least employed of the bunch of us. Not unemployed, just less employed.  Keeps him earning a small room in a shared apartment, pot, beer, and semi-obsessive visits to the local farmer’s markets to cook under-appreciated meals that fall far beyond our limited palates.  But beyond that, the most straight-forwardly nice person ever. Not always sober, but always kind.

Scott. Dude. I’ve wasted the whole day and haven’t done anything yet at all.

Wasted? Great idea! Let’s get drunk and try to get laid.

Working tonight at the restaurant?

Not so much. Looking for work again. I’ll find something. It’s all good.

You think it’s all good? It’d be better if I won the lottery, that’s my new plan. No worry about making a living, do art for fun and take everyone out drinking every weekend and we take turns hooking up in the limo. Or maybe we can each have our own limo.

That would rock, dude. Drinks are you on you, millionaire.

Sure, first round on me tonight, I’m winning the lottery soon enough. Anyway, let’s go back to that place from last weekend—Heidi might show up, she said.

You guys hook up yet?

I shake my head. Nothing much to say, but no, not that happiness either.

I count the hours by the number of rounds that come and go. The din makes it hard to hear much of anything, certainly not any thoughts in my head, and I’m feeling somewhat more euphoric. Everything is funny. Answers must be at hand, it’s my best night in weeks. Plus, I was right, Heidi is here with a group of her friends. Witty, attractive, apparently perfect Heidi with the newly ex-boyfriend entirely not visible anywhere in the bar at all.

Scott, it’s like, I can’t feel perfectly happy all the time because that’s not life. If that’s what I want, I’m making myself unhappier, aren’t I?

Not sure. Maybe. Can I buy you another drink?  

I’m lost in the music and Heidi’s dancing is awesome. She’s a center of gravity. A bunch of us start orbiting and bouncing off each other on the floor, and then it seems like I am dancing with her alone. Near her at least. Or she’s more near me than anyone else, that much must be true.

Heidi literally draws me in and pushes me away and I’m sure she’s flirting. I mean, she knows we’re dancing together. Maybe she does, her eyes are closed and she’s smiling about something. Except she’s not really aware of anything but herself. She’s in a private universe, eyes closed, but at least we’re together on the dance floor.

No, she is actually closer to me than anyone else. It’s heaven. It’s happiness. I’ve been waiting years for a relationship with someone I’ve worshipped, dazzling smile and razor sharp wit, athletic and kind, she’s the one. Don’t even want to hook up tonight, I want to end up talking the whole night in a diner somewhere, that would be perfect. Lasting happiness.

And then, even in my hazy blurred mental state, I see.  She’s not actually paying much attention to me. Maybe any attention at all. Well, a moment there, she opens her green eyes and smiles at me. Or towards me.

Heidi is the world’s sexiest dancer. She should be on a pedestal, and I’m not on it with her. I move towards her, and for a moment we’re sensually in motion as one. No, that was an accident. Now she’s spun away. We’re clearly not actually dancing together.

I’ve gotta pee. Again. I yell that fact suavely as possible into her ear as and her momentum doesn’t slow. She may or may not nod. She’s dancing. She’s happy, clearly.

I walk away. She’s in her own world, with or without me. And mostly I’ve been keeping her from being hit on by every other guy in the bar. But would she go home with me? Never.

Which may or may not be her intention. Using me to not be hit on by someone else. I’m that safe. Or worse, maybe I’m preventing her from hooking up, with her newly single and all? I’m in her way.

I’m back from the bathroom, couldn’t be gone two minutes. There’s a guy dancing next to her. Close to her. She looks over his shoulder and waves, clearly the opposite of a “come hither.” Somehow manages to convey, Aren’t you happy for me, Noah, my just-friend. Let’s talk sometime soon that isn’t tonight. Now she’s dancing in an entirely new way than I experienced a few minutes ago.

And my personal glimpse of ease and happiness … right, right, alcohol is a depressant, I always forget. One is nice, two relaxing, then a toxic mood cozies up for the evening. The walk home is damp with Bay Area mist, and not the happiest of my life.

 • • •

I wake on Sunday tired but thankfully not hung over, and realize it is another aimless day. No plans, no responsibilities, plenty to enjoy and still not quite sure what to do with myself.  Leaving the house after breakfast, I notice my neighbor Leo outside, working on building his deck.

He waves. Hey Noah, how’s things?

I drift over, not knowing Leo so well but always enjoying time together. Good, it’s been a quiet weekend. You guys do anything?

His wife Alison waves from the kitchen window, then turns back to their toddler, Lila. He waves at them and smiles, while answering me. Not much, and you?

Oh, I don’t know. Saw some friends. Tried to figure out the meaning of life, that kind of thing?

Get anywhere?  He goes to pick up a pile of lumber to move closer to the deck he’s building, so I reach over and pick up the other, quite heavy side of it.

Not so much. Scott thinks having fun and drinking too much – that’s his happiness. Gary thinks working and volunteering all the time. Not sure what Gregory thinks, he keeps asking what I think.

Hmmm.  Hold this board for me?  I reach over and prop a piece of wood against a brace, so he can drive the screw.

So what do you think, Leo?          

Hold here again, can you?  

For a while I get into a rhythm helping move and fix boards into place. Now that I’m involved, you can see almost the infrastructure that’s going to eventually hold the floorboards.

We stop for a drink of water, and I find myself still talking. Yesterday was exactly the problem. I had a great time, it was awesome, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. It was fun. But nothing happened. Even now, this is great. But it’s not like I felt when I was on the beach in Maui, I should be happy like that again, shouldn’t I? Before my next vacation, I don’t want to wait that long. I mean, I used to fall all over myself laughing with friends … and that doesn’t happen anymore. Does that mean I’m less happy?

I used to fall all over myself laughing with friends … and that doesn’t happen anymore. Does that mean I’m less happy?

Can you grab those extra screws over there?   I’m going to go grab the other battery for the drill.

And last night was fun, but then I starting thinking I was going to hook up and then I didn’t, so then it kind of left me hanging.

You want to help me pour the cement? The bags are impossible on my own. I’m adding a few more posts.

We spend quite a while mixing cement, pouring the base for another section of porch, carefully setting posts in the cement straight and perpendicular. He’s building a deck the size of my apartment. The morning passes, we’re sweating and our clothes are basically ruined but we’ve done more deck building than I’ve ever managed before. Having never built a deck at all, of course.

Can you read Lila a book while I clean up? Alison needs to leave soon, I think.

Love to.   I find my way inside, drink some ice water, and drift over to the couch. I’ve been over before, Lila knows me. Dad says he’ll be in soon, and I should read you a book.

She brings me a picture book I’ve never seen before, with watercolors by Jon Muth. I read her one, then another, then one more. All are done in a painting style I’ll have to pursue one day; I’ve never done watercolor. Lila’s leaning against my side and asking for another book when Leo comes inside.

Tell you what, let’s take a walk. Alison is not going out after all, she’s still here.

So we walk. Towards the Bay, through some green space, then on some run down streets.   We talk about whatever, but somehow every time my angst takes hold the conversation steers away now.

Nothing much happens for a while, except when it all of a sudden does. At a busy street corner, an oblivious teen lost in his headphones blasts into the road at a near jog. I put my hand across his chest and hold him back, he’s about to step in front of moving at a good clip.   He shrugs off my hand, annoyed, and looks up with glaring eye contact. Alert now, he steers himself through the oncoming cars while we wait for the light. I shake my head.

Leo, says, Nice job.

Hope he remembers me one day.

Eventually we come back to Leo’s sidewalk in front of his well-tended yard, and I smile. Now that was a great day.

Was it? I’m glad.

But I didn’t really get my question answered. What’s the point of it all? What should I do with myself?

But you already know the answer.  

I do?

This morning you came by right when I needed help with the deck. Right then, at that time, that was the most important thing for you, and I was the most important person.   I couldn’t have done it on my own, much less gotten that much done. Thank you again.  

Then I went to clean up, and we thought Alison had to go out, and you spent time reading books with Lila. She looked so happy, and I couldn’t watch her and clean up at the same time. So right then, Lila was the most important person, and that was the most important thing to be doing.

And then we went for our walk. Which was pretty great. But you probably saved that kid’s life too. If you hadn’t gone for a walk, you wouldn’t have been at that corner. Right then, that teen was the most important person, and stopping him from playing in traffic was the most important thing to do—even if he was totally obvious about it.

There’s nothing you influence but right now, and what you choose to do next.  Because there’s no other time you can actually do anything, is there?  So the most important person is the one you’re with, because who else is there right then?  And if that’s true, all you can do is your best for them, right?  That’s all there is.  At least that’s what I believe.

Leo turns and wanders inside.  I pause and watch, wave to Lila, head towards home. No plans for the night, nothing to do. I could try some watercolors, or go for a run.

And that thought kind of makes me happy.