My wife and I know this couple whom I will call Joe and Angela. We generally run in different circles. They are fine diners while we are burgers and beer people. When traveling, they stay in nice places while we get by in more modest accommodations. Still, my wife and I are fortunate to count them among our very closest friends. Joe is a successful accountant and Angela works the social circuit. Both are VERY good at what they do.
Angela is a petite person, but don’t let her diminutive stature and proper appearance fool you; she’s no wallflower. She uses irreverence the way a surgeon uses a scalpel. This is alarming to some but endearing to most. I’ve long marveled at the way she can make a new acquaintance super uncomfortable one minute and laugh hysterically the next. Occasionally, Joe will call her on her impropriety, but he’s long ago realized that this matters little to her. Most often he goes along with it, enjoying seeing others attempting to reconcile and respond to the things Angela utters.
Over the years, Angela and Joe have chaired virtually every major fundraising dinner in town. They keep getting tapped because Angela has a knack for creating memorable events. Noting the drama that often accompanies such projects, I’ve often wondered why anyone would want to lead even one such event. For a long time, I thought Angela simply liked being the center of attention. (She does.) I’ve come to realize, though, that there’s more to it.
I’ll return to Joe and Angela later.
I’ve been reading the book Immersion: The Science of the Extraordinary and the Source of Happiness by Paul Zak. Early in the introduction he states, “The world is rapidly transforming into the ‘experience economy.’...As the planet gets richer, people are less interested in getting stuff and more interested in doing stuff - and then telling their friends about it…As a result, the ability to identify and consistently create extraordinary experiences is absolutely essential.”
He then goes on to talk about extraordinary experiences from Starbucks Reserve Roasteries, the low-cost airline Avelo, Disney Stores, and more. Moving on, he explains a general framework for companies to sell more of their wares by tapping peoples’ emotions through storytelling and other means. The science is quite fascinating, but as I continue to read, I keep returning to the book’s title and wondering, “Are extraordinary experiences really the source of happiness?” My personal thinking is that they might be, but only if we clarify what we mean by happiness and what qualifies as extraordinary.
Many of the examples Zak uses to describe extraordinary experiences lead to what I’ll call Facebook happiness – exceptional experiences that mess with our emotional wiring the way Meta's algorithms habitualize clicks. We can't really explain why, but we want more, and are left wanting when the extraordinary doesn't occur often enough. You can likely see where this ends. For some, the neverending pursuit of the exceptional ultimately leaves them dissatisfied and wondering, "is this really all that there is?" Some are disenfranchised because of their inability to access the "extraordinary" experiences described by others. And a third group does find happiness, but never fully develops a sophisticated interior self that enables them to fully consider and appreciate some of life’s greater complexities. They wander along the surface, never drilling deeper.
An alternative is what I’ll call True North happiness. True North is described by Bill George as “your inner sense, or your calling, of what you want to accomplish in your life. It's a combination of your values, your beliefs, and your purpose. It keeps you on a straight track that's true for you.” Extraordinary experiences that affirm our deepest held beliefs of self and of humanity produce True North happiness. This is a happiness characterized by solace and contentment.
In craving Facebook happiness, we miss the beauty of the ordinary, while True North happiness connects us to it. We fall in love with the ordinary. As such, True North experiences not only remind us that we’re alive, they affirm that our being alive matters. We are innately good and worthy. We are connected.
True North happiness satisfies our cravings.
Back to Angela and Joe. I mentioned earlier that they chair a lot of events which Angela ensures are always well organized and understatedly elegant. There is also some small novelty added that could easily go unnoticed but somehow never does. This makes for a great event, but it’s not the exceptional part. The extraordinary occurs in a moment when all of the trappings and warm conversations fade to the background and the only thing left are the people and the purpose. When this occurs, it’s no longer about Angela or Joe, or who can write the biggest check. It’s about the difference those gathered can collectively make. The True North happiness comes the next morning when you feel a sense of gratitude for having been a part of what occurred the night before.
As someone who writes primarily about Catholic secondary education, why am I writing about this? The short answer is that I worry that young people are searching for the wrong kind of happiness, and as well-intentioned schools and parents wanting to provide the best experience possible for our teens, we might go a bit too far in accommodating. We try to cram a lot of extraordinary experiences into those 4 years which may actually work against us sometimes. Taking liberties with a line from the wayward villain Buddy in the animated film The Incredibles, “When every experience is extraordinary, none of them will be.”
True North experiences are pretty rare…and that’s a good thing. If we’re able to harness such experiences, less becomes more because our youth find meaning and value in their ordinary everyday lives.
Let me return to Joe and Angela one more time. Recently, they were tangentially attached to a tragic and profoundly sad event involving people they did not know well. The experience lasted the better part of a week. There was no reason for them to get involved in the proceedings but, of course, they did - making accommodations for those needing to grieve. Each day, they would arrange the proper setting and circumstance and then fade into the background leaving only the people and the purpose - those grieving sharing their love and support for each other.
We often have a hard time recognizing God’s movements in dark circumstances. Angela and Joe understand that sometimes all it takes is pointing people to True North.
CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman, AVLI President
vol 5 issue 2