Happiness and Hogs

“I was in the Virgin Islands once.  I met a girl.  We ate lobster.  Drank piña coladas.  At sunset we made love like sea otters.  That was a pretty good day.  Why couldn’t I get that day?  Over.  And over.  And over.”

So laments Phil, the weatherman played by Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.  The movie turns 20 this year and seems to get better with every viewing.

Besides the broad secular cult following Groundhog Day has acquired since its release, it has additionally been proclaimed the “most spiritual movie of all time” by some members of the clergy.

The story, as you possibly know, involves Phil getting stuck in a time warp whereby he experiences the same day, February 2, ad infinitum—or at least until he learns to spend it wisely.

Theories abound as to what Groundhog Day is truly “about.”  Self-improvement, perhaps.  Redemption.  Being a Good Samaritan.  Doing the Lord’s work.

In the context of the quotation with which I began, allow me to position the movie as a simple meditation on happiness.

Like the film as a whole, Phil’s Virgin Islands anecdote contains depths of meaning that are not necessarily apparent at first (or second, or tenth) blush.

Consider:  Were you stuck in his position—re-living a single day an infinite number of times—but also had the power to select the time and place, which one would you choose?

That is to say, what was the best day you have ever had?  What made it so?  Have you ever experienced a time that would be worth redoing forever?  Is it possible ever to be that happy?

Every issue of Vanity Fair ends with the so-called Proust Questionnaire.  Administered to some famous person or other, its queries are meant to derive a bit of insight into the respondent’s personality.

One of the questionnaire’s inquiries is, in fact, “When and where were you happiest?”  An additional probe, related but by no means identical, asks, “What is your idea of perfect happiness?”

As far as personal survey questions go, these and the rest require a bit more introspection than, say, “What is your favorite color?”

I say the two happiness questions are not equivalent.  Logically, perhaps, they should be.  After all, would not your idea of “perfect happiness” derive from a past experience of being perfectly happy?  Or can “perfection” of any kind only be conceived in the abstract?

One can devote a lifetime to the study of happiness and the pursuit thereof.  As a foundational subject in the story of America (see: Independence, Declaration of), it is a mystery well worth one’s effort to solve.

In a panel discussion on the subject on Charlie Rose some years back, P.J. O’Rourke entertained the possibility that true happiness cannot be appreciated in the present—it becomes apparent only in retrospect.

To O’Rourke, such a theory helped to explain why so many members of the Greatest Generation came to view the years of World War II—an epoch of untold death, suffering and sacrifice—as the happiest of their lives.  For all its horrors, the war provided a sense of purpose and vitality that peacetime, for all its pleasantries, often lacks.

Happiness is not necessarily the same as pleasure.

Notably, the most recent taker of the Proust Questionnaire was Ed Koch, the newly departed former mayor of New York City.  On his view of “perfect happiness,” Koch offered, “Sitting in a living room with my sister, Pat Thaler, and her seven grandchildren and just talking with them.”  However, on the “when and where” question, Koch answered, “At City Hall, conducting the affairs of the city and providing services to more than seven million New Yorkers.”

It is intriguing—is it not?—how the mayor split the difference between work and leisure in assessing what made him happiest.

I suspect most Americans feel the same—that is, the ones lucky enough, in Christopher Hitchens’ words, “to have a life instead of a career.”  Those who get satisfaction simply through being useful to society by putting in a hard day’s work.  Those who would second the historian and biographer David McCullough, who said for himself, “I have never associated ease with happiness.  I am happier when I’m working than doing anything else.”

Ultimately, the definition of happiness is a personal one.  Like the definition of God, it cannot be scientifically challenged or categorized.  It is, rather, something to be contemplated by individuals on their own terms.  As with the search for any great Truth, one might never arrive at an answer.  The pursuit just goes on and on and on.


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