...a slogan on a coffee mug. It is, by various accounts, a warm puppy ( Charles M. Schulz), a warm gun (the NRA) and "the very purpose of life" (the Dalai Lama). The Declaration of Independence asserts our right to pursue it. But what is it? "A feeling of great pleasure, contentment, joy," says the fourth edition of Webster's, in which happiness falls—on the same spread of pages—between hanger-on ("sycophant, parasite") and hardball ("characterized by ruthlessness, coercion").
In sports, hangers-on play hardball to bring happiness to their clients. So agent Scott Boras is widely reported to have made a litany of requests on behalf of free-agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez. Those requests—allegedly to have included $200 million, office space at the ballpark, private-jet service distinct from the team's private-jet service, billboards promoting A-Rod in the city of his signing, and a guarantee that A-Rod will remain the highest-paid player in baseball—serve as a kind of acquisitions list for one athlete's happiness. With these items, the thinking goes, I will be content. While A-Rod's requests are many things—they're strange, they're silly, they raise the high jump bar of hubris to new heights—they are unlikely to make an already rich and famous man happy. Or happier.
Indeed, A-Rod denies demanding any perks, and points out that he already has a private jet at his disposal, and his own office, and thus will be happy with little more than "$18 or $23 million a year." But will he?
It's not merely that the wishes on his list are so dispiriting. (Think of the other joyous people who have longed to see themselves on billboards in their city: Mao, Mu'ammar Gadhafi, Donald Trump.) Or that the whole of human history has shown that happiness does not increase significantly after one's basic requirements are fulfilled. (The social psychologist Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs includes air, food, drink, shelter, warmth and affection but says nothing of private-jet travel.) No. For centuries, great minds, happy people and most Twilight Zone episodes have concurred: Happiness isn't acquired in negotiations, and leaving a place where you're happy for a place where you hope to become even more deliriously happy is seldom a good idea.
No one begrudges A-Rod his right to ask for whatever he wants—especially from a Baseball Owner, the kind of cartoonish rich man who'd be right at home wearing a monocle on a Monopoly card. But he should know that those wants, once fulfilled, give way endlessly to new ones. Such desires are made manifest in the nightclubs that so many stars inhabit, with the inevitable glassed-off VIP room, inside of which is a smaller roped-off VVIP section, and so on, until the biggest star in attendance can be found standing alone in a kind of VVVVIP phone booth, dolefully sipping a mai tai.
These are the kind of highly refined cravings we now see from Manny Ramirez (who requires more than the $17 million a year that the Cleveland Indians offered him) or from Tiger Woods (who recently expressed unhappiness with the PGA Tour). But happiness, as Benjamin Franklin recognized, "is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day."
A happy life is a pointillist painting, a million-tiled mosaic. Rodriguez is more apt to find happiness in a perfectly turned double play, in a letter from a child or in listening—as I am at this very moment—to Bob Marley sing Three Little Birds than he is from a souvenir tent at spring training that sells only A-Rod-related items. "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life," Martin Luther King said in a moment of bliss, to people he loved, sanitation workers in Memphis. "Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now...I'm happy tonight." What a gift, to have known that. King was dead the next day.
You hope that somewhere this Thanksgiving, a high-profile athlete stops dwelling on all that he needs and thinks about all that he has, and maybe even says, "I'm happy tonight." Because happiness is like Thanksgiving dinner. Put down your fork for just a minute: You might notice that you're already full.