Happiness Is…

Yesterday I met an elderly man in the supermarket parking lot. He was loading his car, I was loading mine. He wore a surgical mask. So did I.

Beneath his mask all I could see were his bushy, white eyebrows, with stray hairs that grew 8 feet long and curled sideways like little corkscrews from hell.

Do me a favor. When I get old, if my eyebrows look like this, tie me down and take the horse clippers to me.

Anyway, my new elderly friend was very nice. He was telling me about his childhood during the 1940s. The Great Depression had just ended in the U.S. But not entirely. You don’t just snap your fingers and say, “Depression’s over!”

His family lived in mountains of North Alabama. They were poor. They used outhouses. He and his brother hauled drinking water from the creek because they couldn’ t pay their water bill. And life kept getting worse.

His mother got sick. His baby brother died. His father left for California to find work and never came back. These were not hard times. These were horrible times.

“Listen,” the old man said, “after growing up the way I did, I figured out the trick to finding happiness. Care to guess what it is?”

No. I didn’t. Because my carton of ice cream was about to melt.

He went on, “The only way to be happy is to be unhappy.”

I had to rub my chin for a second before making a profound and thoughtful remark: “Do what?”

The old man told me that the Great Depression made him a happy man. Not at first. But when it was over, it was pure euphoria. Good jobs were suddenly available, money was better, the War had finally ended. Everyone kissed the ground and thanked the sky.

“You can’t appreciate spaghetti and meatballs until you’ve had to live on ketchup soup,” he said.

I nodded and pretended like I understood him, but I didn’t. Alas, I am not the sharpest spork in the drawer.

We bid each other goodbye, he wished me a happy Fourth of July and crawled into a ratty car with bald tires. His son was driving. After they puttered away I was left standing in a cloud of blue exhaust.

Ever since then I’ve been thinking about what he said. And I wonder if he’s right. Maybe I’ve been looking at this whole coronavirus thing wrong.

So I did a little research. Here is what I found:

In the last four months, bicycle sales have been sky high. The highest in fifty years. Bikes are selling like hotcakes. There are bicycle shortages all over the nation.

I called a big bike shop in a big city. I talked to a guy over the phone.

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s been a crazy good year for us. We get a lotta young people who wanna get out into the real world, and nature, and quit playing on their phones so much.”

Ah, yes. Cellphones.

You’d think with everyone being trapped inside that phone usage would be up. And according to cellphone company records, usage is up. But not like you think. People are making more phone calls to Mom and Dad.

So then I interviewed several parents about their kids’ cellphone usage. One woman said this:

“Normally in our neighborhood, kids are always glued to their screens, but not this summer. We’ve had neighborhood baseball and football. Lately, my son forgets to take his phone with him. It’s a miracle, really.”

Here are a few other ways that the pandemic has changed people’s routines:

Erin, in New Jersey, says she has cooked supper in her own kitchen for 133 days, consecutively. She admits, “We have saved a LOT of money just by not eating out.”

Sue, in West Virginia, said that since the quarantine, her family has been eating dinner each night together around the table.

What a novel idea.

My friend in Oklahoma City said he lost his job when the lockdown started. Unemployment depressed him at first, but after a few months, something weird happened. His blood pressure went down.

Pretty soon, the doctor took him off his medication. He’s working part-time from home now.

“I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said.

Kyle, in Virginia Beach, has lost 30 pounds since the quarantine began. Ashley, in Chicago, has taken up jogging.

My friend Allen gave up drinking. And if you knew Allen, this would shock you. Especially if you once saw Allen drink gin out of his own shoe on New Year’s Eve.

Almost everyone I interviewed admits that they have grown closer to their immediate families.

Some of the other things I’ve heard:

“I have more time to go on walks.”

“I hang out with my kids a lot more.”

“I’ve been reading books non-stop.”

Reading books might sound like a small thing, but I can relate to this one. Four months ago, I was too busy working to read through “Cat in the Hat.” But during these last months I actually read a few books. It’s the most fun I’ve had in years.

So I don’t know. Even though this has been a hard year for me; even though I’ve been bored; even though I’ve been downhearted and in need of electro-shock therapy; even though it has seemed like this entire world was falling apart at the hinges; something inside me says that an elderly man I once met was telling the truth.

Still, I hope my eyebrows never look like his.


  1. Christina - July 3, 2020 6:37 am

    I needed to hear this tonight. It’s been an overwhelming season, but yes my scaredy-cat daughter learned how to ride the bike!

  2. turtlekid - July 3, 2020 11:43 am

    My life has scarcely changed, but I don’t like the masks when I shop. So I got one of those clear face shields. MUCH better. 😉😉😉🐢🐢🐢

  3. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - July 3, 2020 11:43 am

    Sean, I am an older man and the older I get, the more confirmation I receive that I do look a little like my Dad’s side of the family – at least when it comes to eyebrows. I have a portrait photo of my great grandfather that is a family treasure – at least for me it’s a treasure. Anyway, great grandpa had a set of eyebrows that look like a couple of ferrets fighting across his brow ridge. I have vowed that no photo of me will have those eyebrows. So far, I have kept that pledge, but it’s a never-ending battle. That and the nose hairs.

  4. Janice - July 3, 2020 12:52 pm

    With as much hair as you have, they will. Lol. First thing I read every morning is you!! Thank you for tears, smiles, and making me think.

  5. Phil S. - July 3, 2020 1:09 pm

    Great words of encouragement, Sean. As a child i heard about the Great Depression every single day from my grandmother. “If you’d lived through the Depression like I did, you’d appreciate that boiled okra and eat every bite of it!” What a dedicated, loving lady she was, and man, could she evermore cook! We never “ate out” in those days. Dinner was always at her food-loaded table. I can still taste her pound cake and stove-top iron skillet fried chicken. Thanksgiving and Christmas were extra special because there was always her delicious oyster dressing.
    Yes, these are tough times, but not that bad when you think about how The Greatest Generation dealt with life. As the lyrics of a wonderful song say, “At the end of a storm there’s a golden sky.”
    Hope you made it home with the ice cream still solid.

  6. Dianne - July 3, 2020 1:27 pm

    Thank you for reminding me how nice things have been for me for the past three months. I’ve cooked more for my husband and me, our gasoline consumption has gone way down, we’ve watched a lot of movies on TV, I’ve read more books than I normally do, missed seeing my family as often as we used to see them (this isn’t good), and how my life has slowed down to the point that I don’t want to be busy, busy, busy again. Your wife will be able to trim your eyebrows when they begin to grow!!

  7. Betty Boyles - July 3, 2020 1:34 pm

    I have also seen a change in my daughter’s family. She has four children: 18, 16, 11, and 5. Before the coronavirus the older children were very busy with school activities and work, so they had very little time to interact with the littles. I lived in their household for several months, due to health problems. I saw the four of them begin to interact and all four of them are so much closer. The 16-year old didn’t pay any attention to their new rescue dog, Bella. I also watched both of them come to love each other. So, even though the virus is bad, good things happen from it. (This is too long; you probably won’t read all of it, but that’s ok, too.)

  8. Diann - July 3, 2020 2:10 pm

    I love this- in my case, I have cooked a lot more but the fun thing I have done is caught up 9 years of scrapbooking and finished a hand sewn quilt- getting ready to start another one. Yep- life is good.

  9. Karen Good - July 3, 2020 3:04 pm

    Great insight – there is a silver lining in every cloud! My grandparents and parents lived thru the depression, and I was stunned at myself yesterday, when I caught myself folding a piece of aluminum foil to save… just like my Mom and Grandma did when I was a kid. Our lives needed a change, and if it took a pandemic to do it, then so be it! Live and learn.

  10. Donna - July 3, 2020 3:54 pm

    GREAT reminder Sean; about unexpected silver linings & parallel of unhappy darkness help us recognize happyness & light.

  11. Linda Moon - July 3, 2020 4:40 pm

    If I outlive you and happen to run into Old You with bushy white eyebrows, I’ll clip them for you. I’ve had experience with this because of my old guy from North Alabama Mountains. Your elderly new friend’s oxymoronic definition of happiness is spot-on. I do believe your research about our current condition is spot-on too, and it brought some truthful perspective to us readers. This reader (me) is actually going to FINISH reading each book before I begin the next one. Yep, it’s been a hard year, and I hope you stay with us ’til your eyebrows grow old, Mr. South!

  12. MAM - July 3, 2020 7:06 pm

    I’m a gal, and I trim my eyebrows! Some of them have a mind of their own! But you new-found friend was spot on about the happiness. I can start to feel it as things open up again. We have certainly learned lessons that I remember from my parents about the Depression. Write on!

  13. Steve Winfield [Lifer] - July 4, 2020 3:00 pm

    I’ll hit 60 in a couple months. Grooming those stray ear hairs have become part of my daily routine. Whodathunk?!


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