We can learn a lot about happiness from folk tales. You may know the one from Italy, “The Happy Man’s Shirt.” In it, a king’s son suffers from sadness. He lies in bed all day, stares out the window. He sighs, he won’t eat, he barely talks.
Concerned, the king tries to cheer up his son with games, jokes, parties, and tournaments. It doesn’t work.
“What’s the matter with you?” the king asks. “Are you in love with someone who does not love you back?”
No, the boy is not in love, nor is he physically sick, though he grows thin and weak, and the king is afraid he’ll die.
We might diagnose the young man with depression and suggest medication, counseling, yoga, meditation, or gratitude lists. Unfortunately, the philosophers and physicians of king’s day do not know anything about depression, yet they come up with a creative solution to the boy’s problem.
“Find a man who is happy through and through,” they tell the king, “then trade the prince’s shirt for his.”
Matthew Huston, in his article, “Magical Thinking,” talks about “magical contagion.” This is when an objet that belongs to someone else can imbue us with his qualities. Huston uses the example of Mr. Rogers’ sweaters. He cites a study in which “80 percent of college students said there was at least a 10 percent chance” that if they put on one of Mr. Rogers’ sweaters, they would take on his qualities.
This and other forms of magical thinking are common to all of us, even the most scientific and rational, so it’s not unusual for magical thinking to enter our folklore.
Back in the story, the king, glad to have something to do, sends his ambassadors throughout the land to find a truly happy man. This proves to be difficult. Most of us are happy when life goes our way, when we win money, for example, or we successfully complete a project, or we see a beautiful sunset, hear a good concert, feel warm sad beneath our feet as we a walk on the beach.
Finding someone who is completely happy, who doesn’t want more money or time or friends or prestige or land, is not so easy. Yet that the kind of person the ambassadors need to find.
As they wander around, they find many men who claim to be happy, so they bring them to see the king. Yet the king soon discovers that, actually, their happiness is situational or transitory.
Who Is Happy?
For instance, when a supposedly happy priest is brought to him, the king asks, “How would you like to come to the palace and be my bishop?”
Eagerly, the priest agrees, and the king realizes he is not the right man.
Then there’s a neighboring king who, according to rumor, is the happiest man alive. He has everything – wealth, a wonderful wife, lots of land, the respect of his people. Yet he confides in Italian king that he worries because one day he will die and lose everything. The king realizes his neighbor is also not the right man.
So it goes. Rich men fear losing what they own; poor men feel frustrated and bitter. Finally, the ambassadors declare themselves defeated. There are no happy men.
In despair, the king distracts himself with activities. He goes hunting, his ambassadors following behind him. He manages to hit a hare with his arrow, but only wounds it. When the animal runs away, the king chases after it. As he dives into the brush, he hears someone singing in a joyful voice. Excited, he stops and listens. Surely whoever is singing like that is happy.
He Who Sings
Following the sound, the king discovers a man wearing a brown jacket and pruning grape vines. When the king asks if the man is happy, he says he is.
“Would you like to come to court with me and be my groundskeeper?” the king asks him. “I will give you anything you desire.”
But nothing tempts the man. When the king asks him why he won’t accept his offer, the man tells him he loves his work, he has everything he needs, he’s perfectly content.
“A happy man,” cries the king. “A truly happy man.”
He calls out for the ambassadors to hurry, hurry, he has found the right man at last. Turning to the happy man, the king tries to explain what he wants, but his words stumble over one another. At last he simply unbuttons the man’s jacket and stops, staring.
The happy man has no shirt.
Meaning and Happiness
What the heck does this mean?
Stories about happiness abound. Usually, the moral we’re to learn is that happiness isn’t dependent on things or status or money or even relationships. These bring pleasure, which is fleeting. Although pleasure is important, at least as long as we don’t get lost in our craving for it, pleasure is not happiness. The happy person is content with and sustained by God alone, or – depending on the story – life or beauty or love. Happiness depends not on the circumstances of our life, but on our interpretation of them.
So is the happy man truly happy? If all his grapes died, if he lost his farm, if he were hungry, would he still sing so joyfully?
This story does not ask that question. It allows us a certain base prosperity, although one in which a man who either owns the property on which he works or is employed by the person who does, wears a jacket with no shirt. Does this show his disdain for material goods?
Striving for Happiness
I think, actually, that the lack of a shirt has less to do with symbolism than with plot. What other object would be imbued with the happy man’s essence and yet allow for its lack to be unnoticed by the king until he opens the coat, thus allowing the tale to finish with its unexpected punch line?
So the lack of a shirt simply helps make the point that happiness cannot be traded or bought. It can’t be found in external events or objects.
I see a deeper meaning in the story, though, one tied up with our striving for happiness.
The king fears his son will die. That’s not so far-fetched. Some people with depression do die young, from suicide, addiction, or increased risk of heart disease. To avoid this tragedy, the king seeks a magic cure. Yet the cure does not exist.
In Let Your Life Speak, the educator, Parker Palmer, writes movingly about a bout of depression he experienced. Friends tried to cheer him up, or give him advice, or commiserate. None of it helped. But one friend, Bill, made a difference. He would visit, sitting silently, or making a few quiet observations: “I can sense your struggle today,” or “It feels like you’re getting stronger.” Although Palmer could not always respond, his friend’s words “reassured [him] that [he] could still be seen by someone.” (63-64)
Being seen gave him life.
In the article “Four Ways Happiness Hurts You,” Jane Gruber explains that constant happiness, while it sounds good, has pitfalls. Because happiness makes us less inhibited and more trusting, an overabundance of happiness may endanger us, leading to increased risk-taking. Also, happiness is not always appropriate. When we are with someone who has just experienced a tragedy, our happy mood will seem callous and unkind. Thus, an excess of happiness makes it difficult to connect with others. Gruber suggests that when we try to be happy, we may actually end up miserable.
What Is Happiness?
Which gets to the question: What is happiness? When we’re happy, do we always feel joyful and upbeat?
Such attitudes are not only are unsustainable, but if we’re trying to feel “good” all the time, we end up miserable and lonely, as Gruber describes. Imagine the poor, but happy, peasant in folk lore, one who is usually generous to those in need. Does she always smile? No. She knows pain and heartache. Like Palmer, she has been through hard times, yet she made her way through them.
How do I know this? Because the peasant is generous. She sees pain in someone else, and she empathizes. From empathy grows compassion and a desire to help.
As Palmer points out, we try to help in many ways, some of which are not so helpful. Sometimes silence is the best support. Sometimes a person needs money or clothes or a home. If we can’t experience pain and fear and anger, we can’t understand each other. We can’t connect.
Happiness is not the absence of sadness. Pleasure may be, and as such, it is respite from the struggles of daily life. Yet happiness is the ability to be okay in the depth of our pain, to honor our experience and emotions. Happiness allows us to feel, grow, love life, and love others.
Hopefully, the king learned he could not give his son a magic cure. He could not, in this way, escape his own grief over his son’s pain. To sit with our pain and be okay, so that we can sit with the pain of others and be okay, is its own kind of happiness. When we can find a core happiness that sustains us as we stay present to pain, we offer the gift of happiness to others. Bill gave Palmer that gift. In his empathy, he saw Palmer as he really was. In his quiet happiness, he stood firm in the face of Palmer’s turmoil.
We may long for a talisman, a magic potion, an instant cure, but life isn’t like that. God isn’t like that. This Italian folk tale reminds us of that. The tale invites us to return home and to sit with our son without trying to change him. First, we may need to sit with ourselves and look for that core of happiness within us that can sustain us through tragedy.
In faith and fondness,
Photo Credit: By Kursten Würth from Unsplash
Copyright © 2016 Barbara E. Stevens