How to Be Happy

This morning I’m meeting a man I’ve come to refer to as Dr. Happy. I call him Dr. Happy, even though his real name is Gregory Holmes, because he’s a Traverse City psychologist who gave a speech a while ago that he called “How to Be Happy.” The subject drew hundreds of people, filling Milliken Auditorium to capacity, and his speech that night created a sort of happy buzz in the community.

I didn’t attend the speech, but I couldn’t help but think it was maybe a simplistic, pop psychology notion, a man telling people how to be happy—as if it were that easy. My name for Holmes, Dr. Happy, probably reflected a bit of that attitude.

When I watched a videotape of Holmes’s speech, I learned that a key piece of his message is that we need to open our eyes to the reasons for happiness already around us, things in our everyday lives. So I invite him to talk with me in my canoe while floating on a small lake. I’m happy about canoes and small lakes and figured he would be, too.

The morning cooperates well. The sky glows blue, and the yellows and reds of autumn radiate from the trees around shore. The water reflects like a navy blue mirror. “My wife said to me this morning, ‘You are so lucky!’” Holmes says. “And I said, ‘You are so right!’” He laughs, standing there at the boat launch, a fit, bearded 50-year-old with binoculars dangling from his neck. He seems so happy, I can’t help but wonder if he is increasing his happiness to show me how effective he is on this topic, or if he is really that happy about such a simple thing—our being in a perfect place on a perfect day.

I steady the canoe as Holmes climbs into the front. “I know I’m supposed to look forward, but I’ll turn backward so we can talk,” he says. I shove off. Gravel scrapes aluminum, the canoe wobbles and then we steady. We stay quiet for a moment, drifting in the silence. We are the only people on the lake.“Where did the idea for a happiness talk come from?” I ask as I dip the paddle and take a stroke.

“It’s kind of hard to identify all the sources,” he says. “Like when you look at a river, you can easily identify major tributaries that feed the river, but others you can’t easily identify because they are so small or even underground and not available to you.”

One important tributary began flowing from a simple request by a medical resident taking one of Holmes’s psychology courses years ago. “It was the first day of class and I asked the residents to tell me some of the things they hoped to learn this term, and a young woman raised her hand and said, ‘I think it would be nice if you’d teach us something about the meaning of life.’” Holmes could have laughed it off—“Right, meaning of life, next Tuesday at 2,” he says. But instead the question forced him to reevaluate his work. He realized that what he was teaching and studying didn’t deal with some of the most important questions or problems we face as humans.

The question launched him on new paths of research, reading philosophers, poets, leaders from across the religious spectrum. He found a consistent message, perhaps best summed up by the Dalai Lama, who said, “The most important purpose of life is to seek happiness.”

During his Happy speech, Holmes said that even though he had gone to school forever and ever and ever, he’d never once attended a class, workshop, seminar, lecture or talk on how to be happy. “I asked around and they didn’t teach it on the days I skipped class either,” he said. Everybody in the crowd laughed at that idea, a childlike statement that is both naïve and insightful.

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