“The Happiness Paradox”—A Mort Laitner Short Story

The Happiness Paradox

    By Mort Laitner

Seven years after the Great Collapse, they popped up — like McDonald’s in the fifties, Blockbusters in the eighties, Jenny Craigs in the nineties and Starbucks in the first decade of the new millennium. They sprouted in city shopping centers, with Crayola-colored store front windows, plastered with sunflowers and sunshine. Happy faces bounced across their window panes. Four words painted in psychedelic oils with 18 inch lettering transfixed my eyes, “ENTER AND GAIN HAPPINESS.” Those words were reminiscent of the late sixties where they were found on head shop windows or on Hari Krishna’s doors.

I could not resist the aura emanating from the window art. It sucked me in and I needed help.

The last time I had been truly happy eludes me. I felt depressed for days after having left my rose-colored glasses in Applebee’s. I remembered reading on their menu, “Happiness begins with dessert.” So I tried it. The Applebee’s dessert left me empty– just as if my meds were either wearing off or not working at all.

I cat-crawled to the center’s portal in need of a natural high.

The sign at the entrance door read:

Learn how to stay happy on a tight budget.

We promise to help you enjoy life with fewer toys.

We’ll teach you how to manage your free time as well as your life.

Find inner tranquility with the help of our professionally-trained staff.

We are committed to making you happy.

Your happiness will rub off on your loved ones.

I heard similar words on the Oprah Show. Her guests calmly voiced their messages on enjoying life with less material wealth. Now corporate America was going to make a buck off of this scheme. I wanted to get mas por menos, more of life’s happy experiences while paying less pocket money.

I pulled the door open, as Claude Debussy’s Claire De Lune filled the room. Each note penetrated my ears and drove into my soul. The sweet aroma of burning incense crept up my nostrils. The clinic staff was draped in white lab coats. Some of the coats were fashioned with red, yellow and blue polka dots as if they were taken off of a loaf of Wonder Bread. Each employee wore a smile and blue name tag with their first name and job title printed on it.

I read the greeter’s name and title, Jenny— Happiness Counselor. This pretty twentyish blond with black plastic glasses said, “Good morning sir, how can we help you?”

“I’d like to become a member of your happiness tribe,” I replied.

She half-heartily giggled at my feeble attempt at humor. Jenny handed me an iPad 8, “Please answer ‘all’ the quality-of-life and the medical care questions and return the pad to me so I may assign you your own happiness specialist. He will explain to you our program and your happiness index score.”

I pondered, was Jenny really happy? Then I went to work for the next thirty minutes answering all one hundred questions. While typing in my answers, I studied the two patrons seated across from me.

One was a six-foot tall, skinny, twenty-something, unshaven male with nicotine stained fingers and unruly lock of jet-black hair. He wore a tattered green and orange football T-shirt with the name of some defunct college program emblazoned on it. His sunken eyes and his state of wear depressed me.

Seated next to Slim sat a fortyish year-old female. On her arm she wore a cat tattoo and a T-shirt in which three cats played with a ball of yarn. She was a bit overweight, a bit homely and looked as unloved as a gila monster.

They sat in silence. My heart wondered whether these two ever find happiness.

The queries on the iPad reminded me of the books I had read on the indexing of countries by how happy their populations were. I wondered if my score would fall off the chart. How many sessions would it take before my score would weigh-in as happy.

Handing the pad back to Jenny I asked, “What is the lowest score you have ever seen?”

“It’s not today’s score that matters; it’s the score you reach in the next few months that counts. Please take one of these twenty week program guides and read it. It will help you make you decision about joining us.”

I reached out to accept the brochure and accidently touched Jenny’s hand.

Acting like the touch never happened I replied, “Thanks Jenny, I’ll review them as I wait for my counselor.”

Sitting in the waiting room, I scanned the testimonials on the wall. These large photos of young and old, male and female with their perfect smiles and perfect teeth all praised the program:

“It was the best money I ever spent, I have never been happier.”

“I couldn’t believe my luck in finding Happiness. My life couldn’t be better.”

“This program really works! You have got to give it a chance.”

“Why be depressed? Find happiness in our loving hands.”

These testimonials reminded me of my need to hit the mens room.

“Jenny, can I have the keys to the bathroom?”

“Sure,” she responded as she handed me the keys. This time our hands did not make contact.

I walked and read the Center’s three clear plastic aluminum-framed posters lining the wall to the restroom:

“What is the meaning of life? To be happy and useful.”-Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalia Lama

“There is only one happiness in life, to love and to be loved.”- George Sand.

“No one is in control of your happiness but you; therefore, you have the power to change anything about yourself or your life that you want to change.”- Barbara deAngelis.

I contemplated each message. I recalled what I learned in college- happiness is a strange phenomena. It does not obey normal principles, which means that happiness can not be acquired directly; it can only be acquired indirectly. My professor called it something like the “paradox of hedonism.”[1]

Returning to the waiting room, I felt conflicted. I placed my reading glasses on and started to review the Happiness twenty-week brochure.

I read:

Week one— Understanding you state of mind, role playing and keeping your diary.

Week two— What is happiness? Why are you sad? Your objective is to change your behavior.

Week three—Define your personal pursuit of happiness. YouTube and musical auditory exercises.

Week four— Choose happiness! Only you can make it happen. Make it your goal.

Week five —Happy foods make happy people. Your diet counts.

Week six— How to give and receive massages; the power of the human touch.

Week seven— Awaking all your senses. Sensory exercises.

Week eight— Time to smell the roses. Diary review.

I stopped reading as the door separating the counselors from the clients swung opened. Counselor Greg greeted me with a Texas-sized smile, handshake and bear hug.

“Come on in buddy, I ‘m going to teach you a new path to happiness.”

Still trying to catch my breath, I followed Greg to his office.

“Buddy, have a seat and make yourself comfortable. I want you to know our center is a leader in happiness research. You’re in the epicenter of the field of positive psychology. At the Happiness Center we apply the scientific method to your issues. Our scientific field is growing by leaps and bounds. Happiness is no longer a fuzzy concept that your parents talked about. With our computer models we can craft you an individualized happiness program, with personalized apps for your everyday use. This center will study your well-being. We monitor your positive and negative emotions. I have reviewed your happiness index and we have a serious amount of work ahead of us. We have had people with lower scores than yours and they have found a better, happier life. Based on your score, I’m going to recommend you sign up for the twenty week program. Every week we will meet at least twice and go over your progress. I’ll give you new exercises and techniques to follow and after every session we will tabulate your happiness index. While you were in the waiting room did you get a chance to read the brochure concerning our twenty week activities program handout?”

“I read some of them. It is a pretty interesting list of goals and objectives. What’s your success ratio?” I asked.

“Most of our clients move from their state of mild depression to the level of moderate contentment and a good twenty percent make it the full-blown intense joy.”

“Wow. That’s pretty amazing. How much is the twenty week we program?”

Greg looked me straight in the eyes and without a blink said, “Six hundred dollars. It’s a lot of money in our present day economy, but who can put a price on a happy life? In addition you receive:

One Choose Happiness T-shirt;

One hundred happy-face stickers which you place around your environment to constantly remind you of the good things in your life;

Plus a ten week supply of Happiness bars- our scientifically-formulated nutrition bar that will alter your mood within minutes.”

Greg smiled and continued, “You look convinced, ready to make the change and invest in your future.”

I smiled and started to reach for my wallet. Pulling my wallet out of my pants, it flipped opened and I saw the picture of my cat. Greg’s spiel collapsed. The picture of my cat popped into my head and I remembered something else I learned in college.

“Greg, happiness is like a cat, if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.[2] It’s a paradox. I’m sorry, I’ll think about your program, but I’m not joining.”

I stood up and walked to the door realizing that money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy an education.



[1] Sidgwick, Henry. The methods of ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 1981.


[2] Bennett, William J. – A similar quote was written by Henry David Thoreau, “Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.”



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