Happiness

One of the greatest teachers this country ever produced was a professor at Yale University by the name of William Lyon Phelps who taught, lectured, and wrote for more than fifty years. And in August of the year 1927, he wrote a small essay titled, simply, “Happiness.” It was published by E.P. Dutton & Co. This little book was still being published eighteen years later, in its thirty-second printing. I’m sure you can still find a copy at a good bookstore: “Happiness,” by William Lyon Phelps.

He points out: “No matter what may be one’s nationality, sex, age, philosophy, or religion, everyone wishes either to become or to remain happy.

“Hence definitions of happiness are interesting. One of the best (definitions) was given in my senior year at college by President Timothy Dwight, ‘The happiest person is the person who thinks the most interesting thoughts.’

“This definition places happiness where it belongs – within, and not without. The principle of happiness should be like the principle of virtue; it should not be dependent on things but be a part of personality.

“Suppose you went to a member of a State Legislature and offered him five hundred dollars to vote for a certain bill. Suppose he kicked you out of his office. Does that prove he is virtuous? No; it proves you can’t buy him for five hundred. Suppose you went to the same man a month later and offered him a million dollars – that is, instead of making him a present, you make him and his family independent for life; for the best thing about having money is that if you have it, you don’t have to think about it.

“Suppose, after listening to this offer, he should hesitate. That would mean he was already damned.

“He is not only virtuous, he knows nothing about virtue. Why? Because his virtue is dependent not on any interior standard, but on the size of the temptation. If the temptation is slight, he can resist; if alluring, his soul is in danger. Such virtue is like being brave when there is no danger, generous when you have nothing to give, cheerful when all is well, polite when you are courteously treated.

“Fortunately, there are in every State Legislature some men who have no price, who are never for sale, who look upon all bribes with equal scorn – and these are virtuous men. After the same order, there are boys who are just as safe in Paris as in Binghamton; just as safe at three o’clock in the morning as at three o’clock in the afternoon; just as safe with evil companions as with good companions. Why? Because these boys do not allow place, time, and people to determine their conduct. They attend to that matter themselves. Their standards are within.

“So far as it is possible, it is not always possible, happiness should be like virtue. It should be kept or lost, not by exterior circumstances, but by an inner standard of life.

“It is impossible for anyone to feel every moment exuberantly happy; to feel on rising from bed every morning, like a young dog released from a chain. If you felt that way chronically, you would become an intolerable nuisance; you would get on everybody’s nerves. But, I am certain that with the correct philosophy, it is possible to have within one’s personality sources of happiness that cannot permanently be destroyed.”

Next time you think about it… ask your bookseller to get you a copy of this little book, it has only 49 pages, an essay actually titled “HAPPINESS” by William Lyon Phelps. It has the best description of happiness I’ve ever read.

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