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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Happiness Without Pursuit

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In a story that surely stunned many old Russia hands, Interfax recently reported that the latest poll data indicate "most Russians are more or less happy with their lives today." Indeed, a whopping 80 percent of those surveyed by the Levada Center claimed that "things are not that bad." Pardon my skepticism, but you may want to verify this yourself: If only two of the first 10 people on your neighborhood bus tomorrow seem irritated, indignant or just clinically glum, I will be greatly surprised -- and I'll either move to your neighborhood or admit that there has been a dramatic change in traditional Russian attitudes toward, well, attitudes.

Happy Russians? While perhaps not on the level of "sovereign democracy," as oxymorons go, the phrase lurks in that vicinity. This is a society that began its recorded history unhappily and never got over it. Following a mysterious ninth-century plea to nearby Vikings to step in and sort out the mess here, Russians were visited by a series of natural, extraneous and self-made disasters that remain unparalleled in human history. Forget the actual events. Simply naming the categories -- invasions, civil wars, serfdom, schisms, autocracy, famines, pogroms, social inequality, revolutions, mass repressions, failed states, idiots and bad roads -- is enough to depress the average commuter before even reaching the bus stop.

This lengthy parade of misfortune inspired some of the world's least-optimistic folk sayings ("Happiness is where we aren't," "We were born to make Kafka come true") and a national Weltanschauung in which the absence of bad news is good news. Russians do not cringe when bad things happen to good people; here, bad things happen to all people, and pretty much all the time. Happiness is when they magically stop.

While Russians slogged grimly through their history, Americans were frog-marching their own muse in the other direction, hell-bent not only on "the pursuit of happiness" at home, but on making the rest of the planet happy a l'americaine: Who else could inflict the happy face on the world's Internet, the happy hour on its liver and the Happy Meal on its innards?

And how happy has pursuit made the pursuers? At home the United States' red and blue clans remain intensely unhappy with each other (and with $3 per gallon gasoline); on the foreign front, ever fewer folks seem happy about an endless campaign to save Iraq from now-deceased evil Iraqis. Meanwhile, habitually miserable Russians have begun looking back at 1987 and 1997, and find 2007 looking pretty darn good, says the Levada Center. Maybe they just haven't learned to smile on the bus yet.

Does this mean that Russians are now happier than Americans? Is this part of Cold War II -- a happiness race? Can a galvanized United States close the happiness gap?

In reality, of course, there can be no comparison here, much less a race, as the two visions of happiness are so different. The Russian variant -- an abeyance of the suffering and misfortune long identified as both the nation's lot and its redemption -- clearly has little to do with the indexes by which Americans tend to calibrate contentment, such as achievement, recognition and acquisition. It has everything to do with a perceived steadiness and predictability that are precious, indeed, when you have always lacked them. The pursuit of happiness can be trumped by the assurance of stability, and likely always will be. Ask Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The good news is that the two versions of happiness can be reconciled. During Lent, which ends the same day in both camps this year, it's good to recall singer Sheryl Crow's advice: "It's not having what you want, it's wanting what you've got." Happiness isn't your head no longer banging against the wall and it isn't taking over the wall and democratizing it. It comes from recognizing your gifts and what's worth doing with them -- and then doing it.

One of my grandfathers pursued happiness and the other did not. The first tried a dozen disparate jobs but found only modest success and fleeting satisfaction. The non-pursuer -- a rare combination of journalist, historian and Methodist minister -- did all three for their own sake and that of others, and did them very well. When he died, Time magazine titled his obituary "A Happy Man."

If the Levada people are right, that's great -- I couldn't be happier that Russians are happier. I just hope their happiness, along with ours, is of a kind that endures.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.