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Does Happiness Dwell In a Grilled Cheese Sandwich?

Are you happy?

I just polled my office colleagues, using the very brief questionnaire in Richard O’Connor’s latest book: "Happy at Last." And it seems some people are not as happy as they look.

That’s because being unhappy is socially unacceptable, O’Connor tells me in an interview at his home in Lakeville. "A lot of people put up good fronts." And that, he explains, is because people feel guilty about being unhappy. It just goes from bad to very bad.

Now O’Connor, a pleasant and receptive fellow, knows about unhappiness. He has suffered from depression, and he has treated many depressed people in his psychotherapy practice in North Canaan and New York City. So, over time, he has developed interesting views on the subject.

For starters, "Happiness is not our normal state of mind," he tells me. "It’s not part of our genetic makeup."

That’s because the people who were content and unwary got eaten by bears. So we, the survivors, are hardwired to be alert, combative and always wanting more than we have already. All this striving outwitted the carnivores, but it took some of the joy out of life.

Looks pretty grim, doesn’t it? But O’Connor is not a grim sort of guy. He takes a practical view of joy: that we can, with practice, change; we can rewire ourselves to get more pleasure out of life; we can delight in a really good grilled cheese sandwich; we can switch our goals from immediate, if temporary, satisfactions ("don’t distract yourself with things") to long-term and permanent and meaningful accomplishments (not just climbing the corporate ladder); and we can pursue success and still find peace and joy.

But, it’s a job, one that he details in "Happy at Last," a very readable and entertaining book for people who want to be happier, and even for people who cling to their wary, striving selves. It’s just a thought. But of course, that’s the start.


Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., will read from his latest book, "Happy at Last," at a reception Oct. 26 from 2 to 4 p.m., at the Wake Robin Inn in Lakeville. For information, call 860-435-2000.

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