Most scientists are convinced that exactly four species in the animal kingdom have the ability to feel happiness: elephants, primates, dolphins and, of course, us. The debate around the rest of the animal kingdom and their own capacity for emotion is a hot one, but the case is closed on those four.
* * *
A good friend told me once that he had a wicked heart. “If you only knew,” he said, holding his thumb and forefinger scarcely an inch apart, “how miserable and small and black my heart was…” and he trailed off, unable to finish. There were tears in his eyes and he said it, his voice cracking. We were at a church. This sort of confession was something that had been pried from him by our pastor. It’s what we were all supposed to be doing; acknowledging our own wickedness in front of each other. It would, we were told, be a release. “I’m so miserable!” my friend said. “So miserable!”
* * *
With elephants, the case for happiness is based largely on their sense of family, which is unparalleled. A long-absent elephant reuniting with his family is one of the most stirring displays in nature. “During the extraordinary event,” reads a marvelous account from researchers. “The elephants about to be united begin calling each other from a quarter a mile away. As they get closer, their pace quickens. Their excitement visibly flows as fluid from their temporal glands streams down the sides of their faces. Eventually, the elephants make a run towards each other, screaming and trumpeting the whole time. When they finally make contact, they form a loud, rumbling mass of flapping ears, clicked tusks and entwined trunks. The two leaning on each other, rubbing each other, spinning around, even defecating, and urinating (for this is what elephants do when they are experiencing sheer delight). With heads held high, the reunited pair fill the air with a symphony of trumpets, rumbles, screams, and roars. Bliss.”
* * *
“Does it make you happier?” she asked.
We were driving on a beautiful, sunny day downtown. I was a Christian, she was not, and there was a little something going on between us. My religion was, however, proving a difficult.
“No,” I said.
“Don’t people become Christians to be happy?”
No, I said, and I was adamant about it. I felt like something of a hero in this moment, like I was tearing down one of the devil’s lies about my beliefs. No, no, no. Christianity isn’t about being happy. We’re not happy. Life is so hard, and we’re all still so bad, and belief doesn’t make it a mite easier and being a Christian certainly isn’t some sort of ticket to happiness.
“Then,” she asked. “Why be one?”
* * *
With dolphins, happiness is seen in both their love of play and in their ferocious appetite for sex. While other animals display the use of tools, no other animal uses its environment as a toy. Dolphins will jump out of the water for the sheer thrill of it, will make balls out of clumps of seaweed to bat about, and have been observed crafting a complex game utilizing their own bubble rings, the exact rules of which scientists have yet to determine. Dolphins are also uniquely taken with the joy of sex, and will bone for fun instead of reproduction. (Groups of males have actually been observed in what constitutes gang rape on solitary females, and male dolphins have been known to attempt to violently force themselves on female humans. But let us hasten away from such nightmares.)
* * *
What is most fascinating in all this is that while happiness is a limited emotion—reserved for only our most intelligent species—fear and misery appear to be universal. If you’ve got a pulse on planet earth, you’re given to skittishness. Whether you’re walking into your boss’ office or the farmer’s slaughtering house, what you’re feeling is par for the course. Welcome to the club. Your fear doesn’t make you special. It, more than most things, is truly only natural.
Happiness is different. Our capacity for joy actually does set us apart. Fear, sadness, wallowing in misery—that is easy. Any animal can do it.
Being happy, now, that is a rare thing, requiring intelligence.
* * *
As you know, authenticity is the chief virtue of this modern age. The church has canonized “authenticity” like a fruit of the spirit. Or, we like to call it authenticity. It generally takes the shape of acknowledging our own sorry state. You say you’re sad, you’re scared, you’re angry, and it’s authentic.
This is all very well. A church where one was not free to acknowledge such things would be a dangerous place indeed. There was a time when happiness was, perhaps, the only true emotion allowed within the stern confines of the Protestant Church. And our reaction to that is a natural one.
But with that embrace of authenticity has come a deep suspicion of earnest joy. You say you’re happy, full of joy, or feeling great, there’s a suspicion that you’re being fake or shallow.
Or, worst of all, “cheesy.”
* * *
In 2 Samuel, King David brings the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, for the first time in ages. To read of David’s actions during all this, he might as well have just discovered an ocean of gold. As the Ark is brought into Jerusalem, David “dances before the Lord with all his might.” As the trumpets and lyres roar in the background and the people shout in delight, David takes it to the streets in a thin sheet, dancing, handing out candy to all present, positively beside himself. He is literally dancing in his underwear. And if that expression of delight and joy before the Lord strikes you as rather undignified, than you have an ally in Michal, David’s wife. “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today,” she scolded him later. “Going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!”
David, for his part, takes this as a dare. “I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes,” he said. “But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.”
* * *
I met Brennan Manning only once, and he told me this story. A miserable alcoholic, Brennan found himself crawling on all fours down a sidewalk, penniless, homeless, wretchedly drunk and, seemingly, unable to get a grip. “Abba,” he cried. “Abba.” Over and over. This time, Abba responded. (I have no idea how often God responded to Brennan’s prayers. Maybe this happened a lot.)
“Abba,” Brennan cried, even as he cried while relating this story to me. “Abba, I’m sorry.”
“What are you sorry for?”
“I’m sorry I’m such a sinner. I’m sorry I’m always drunk. I’m sorry I’m a failure.”
And then Brennan smiled.
“And God said, ‘Oh, I don’t care about any of that stuff. Come on. Let’s go play.’”