Happy Together

ard to keep the upper lip stiff these days.

The market continues to crater. Unemployment soars. Tim Geitner mumbles. Rush foams unproductively at the mouth, endlessly high on authority without responsibility.

Instead of being ridiculed in the prison shower, Bernie Madoff lounges in his penthouse. Both the Con Men of Wall Street and the Mortgage Morons just down the street are getting free money with little consequence for their overtly venal actions.

Jobs are beginning to vanish. Businesses are collapsing. It practically costs more to download Weird Al’s latest song than it does to buy a share of GM.

What the hell is going on? Is it just me or are things getting a little weird? Does anarchy seem to be standing a little closer to us at the party than it has for a while? Don’t you hear the wind promise a hard winter ahead?

As a history major who learned that good times always vanish I regularly entertain apocalyptic notions. “What if all of this goes away?” I ask myself. By “this” I mean cable TV, Pizza Pit delivery, Badger basketball on BTN, a 9:45 tee time and iTunes.

Plus, civility, convenience, prosperity and Pasqual’s Chili Cheese Dip.

I am not the only one who has contemplated the end of things as we know it. Cormac McCarthy, Stephen King, Whitley Streiber and Nevil Shute have each penned novels based on the apocalypse theme. Mel Gibson became a star by playing a John Wayne in a world gone to hell.

For some it is hardly fiction. There are still plenty of folks around who remember a Europe when civility vanished and madness ruled. But here is the thing … concentration camps and genocide aside, maybe a little retraction of our luxury profile won’t be so bad.

When I am alone at the cabin up north, I am as close to being off the grid as I can get. And I love it. I don’t watch the news. Eat simply. Read. Keep the fire going for heat. Sure, I have electricity, but when that goes out, it’s very manageable and quaint.

When the family is up, we live in much smaller quarters than in our Madison home, and by and large we get along better. In short, we have less, yet we are happier. I thought this was just me, but it turns out it’s all of us.

While watching lectures on Ted.com, I happened upon a talk by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert who trotted out some amazing facts about human happiness, the foremost being that our fears are far worse than reality because humans have a remarkable ability to adapt to changing conditions and achieve happiness regardless. In fact, according to our Harvard friend, we are the only creatures on earth that can synthesize our own happiness.

Of course the Harvard guy does not factor in societal disruption. If that were to occur I would have to get a gun and chainsaw to survive at the cabin. Right now it is against federal law for a Roach man to own or operate them. We are dumb and clumsy. If I possessed either I would no longer possess the digits or limbs required to write this column.

All this aside, it is worth pondering just how much we require to be happy. According to Dan Gilbert studies, not much. And the less we have, the more we adjust.

Gilbert’s research brings to mind a sermon I heard at church many, many years ago by a young priest on Super Bowl Sunday. He observed very smartly that the Super Bowl was just as much about commercials as it was about football. He wisely cautioned the gathered flock to avoid falling prey to the suggestion of the commercials. That suggestion being if you do not have this car, this credit card, this large sandwich, this phone, this beer, this bag of chips, you will not be happy. He observed that true happiness had little to do with any of those things.

Well, that is a good thing. Because right now it looks like we are going to have to do without the premium channels. In the short- or even mid-term, we will have to figure out how to be happy with less.

And with something else.

Each other.

And maybe, with luck, some cheese dip.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Comments? Questions? Write john@jrpinc.com.