Reading Time: 6 minutes

Many people who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and read the San Francisco Chronicle  in the 1970s and beyond probably remember a column called The Grab Bag. It was created by L.M. Boyd, and at one point appeared in nearly 400 newspapers. 

I certainly read it (along with the comics). The column was a fast read, always interesting, often witty, and it occasionally included some valuable information.

Such it was when I saw an offering titled “The Five Keys to Happiness.” (It might have been called “The Five Secrets  to Happiness,” but I don’t think so.) 

After reading it, I felt that it was of such value that I actually clipped it out of the paper and kept it around for years, pasted to a 3×5 index card; at some point I photocopied it and filed it away. Someplace—I’ve searched for it a number of times at home and  online, but haven’t been able to locate it.

But not to worry. I remember what Boyd’s Five Keys to Happiness are, although not in the original language as he presented them. Isn’t it amazing the stuff you’ll remember after 50 years? (There have been people who were once close friends, and others (e.g., women) with whom I was once intimate whose names I can no longer recall. Should I feel bad about that? I doubt many of them would remember me, either. C’est la vie.) 

Yet I remember the Five Keys to Happiness, and am happy to share them with you.

1. The first is Freedom. I can’t remember the exact order of the five keys, but I am sure that freedom was first. This seems to be such an obvious element to one’s happiness, but I don’t think it would be on everyone’s list. It’s just too obvious. Yet there it is. 

If you, a close relative, or family members who lived 150 or even 2500 years ago came from a background of prison or slavery, you can probably imagine what the lack of freedom would be like. Every year of my life I have celebrated the Jewish holiday of Passover, which commemorates the Jewish people’s redemption from slavery in Egypt. (Thank you, God and Moses.) I can only imagine what freedom might mean to Black Americans whose memories of slavery are not as ancient. I have met Eastern Europeans and Asians my age who have grown up in repressive societies and value their freedom above everything else.

So it is when I recall the Five Keys to Happiness, Freedom and my great fortune to have been born and lived free always come first. 

2. Health. When I was growing up it was not uncommon to hear my parents or grandparents say to someone with troubles, “At least you’ve got your health!” 

I myself have had at least two near-death experiences, and there were times when I indeed did not have my health. Your health is one of those things that’s easy to take for granted until the lack of it hits you upside the head. As an aging man, health is one of those things my contemporaries and I take for granted less and less. 

I remember a billboard that featured a photo of Sammy Davis, Jr. smiling while smoking a cigarette. The caption (in quotes) read, “If I knew I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.” While this quote is often attributed to Eubie Blake, it’s also been quoted by Mickey Mantle, Hollywood producer Adolf Zukor, and others. Regardless of who said it first, it’s a great quote. 

The other side of the coin is a lament I often hear from people who have  taken great care of themselves but get sick anyway. Such is life.

Regardless, health—particularly good health—is a valuable key to happiness. 

3. Reciprocated love. Love is more complicated than freedom or health. If you have or have had someone in your life to whom you can say, “I love you,” and they say it back, it’s easy to check this one off the list. But not everyone is so fortunate. And even if you have been in the past, you may not be so now. And even if you are, well… you get the picture.

And how you define reciprocated love is also part of the formula.

I remember in the early 1980s when my first marriage was falling apart, I visited Mr. Masciarelli, my high school band teacher and a man I later recognized as my primary mentor. After I unloaded some of my problems on him, he smiled, gave me a hug, and assured me I would be okay. 

“Schoen, you’ve got the world by the ass!” he said.

Perhaps at that moment it was with him  that I shared reciprocated love. In fact, all these decades late I can still feel his love. And he’s been gone a long time.

With loving parents, my sister, my wife, my children, and others who have been close to me, I’ve done well in the love department. And I know many who share their reciprocated love with close friends, their beloved pets, and, of course, God. Love isn’t always where you seek it. But often it’s where you find it—especially when you need it.

4. Financial Security. Over the years I’ve become aware that while some people have great wealth, they lack security; and while others have no wealth at all, they feel secure. So while money may not be able to buy happiness, it can’t necessarily buy personal security, either. 

I learned in my 12th grade Economics class that half of the formula that defines the world’s economic condition is the “insatiable wants of man.” The other half pertains to the stinginess of nature.

Once I read that Nelson Rockefeller, the American businessman, politician, and multi-millionaire, was always seeking more and more wealth even near the end of his life. When asked by a reporter why he was doing this, he replied that he didn’t feel that he had enough. At the time I wondered how this could be the case. I have a better idea now.

On my bookshelf I have a copy of Get A Life – You Don’t Need A Million to Retire Well  by Ralph Warner. My edition is from 2002, when a million dollars was worth a lot more than it is today. In the book, the author says that some things are even more important than money when you’re seeking a successful retirement. These include health, community, and social activities. But even he does not totally discount the need to have “enough” money. It does make a difference. 

The concept of “enough” comes up again and again in financial discussions, and no one can determine what it really means. Perhaps it’s easier to determine that you don’t  have enough. You’ll just have to decide yourself.

5. Satisfying and meaningful work. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the satisfaction one derives from “work” is not necessarily what you derive from your day job. I’ve heard countless stories of talented artists, writers and musicians who have supported themselves working at dull, routine, or even distasteful positions so they could work at what they love.

I’ve experienced this myself. After the publication of my first book, I began speaking at book events where I would be introduced by someone who hardly knew me, if at all. So I was advised to write my own introduction that would be read verbatim before I spoke. 

The tagline I came up with was this: 

Robert Schoen leads three lives.

I didn’t make that up. Rather, I stole it from the popular 1950s TV show of the same name based on a book by the same name. (Unlike the TV show, my own three lives were not “businessman, spy, and counterspy.”)

So where was I getting meaningful satisfaction in my life: From my profession as an optometrist? From the music I composed and performed? Or from the book that had taken me seven years to write? 

The easy answer is: from all three. But the truth is that each also provided frustration, angst, and depression, and a stream of income.

When I was studying music composition in my fifties I encountered the music of the late Charles Ives. In biographical descriptions of Ives his occupation is listed as composer, organist, insurance agent. 

In the 1890s, after a musical education at Yale, he started a career in insurance and was quite successful in that field. At the same time, he was a church organist in addition to being a prolific composer. Many of his friends in the insurance industry did not know he was a composer. Many of his friends in music did not know he was a successful insurance executive. He became sort of a hero to me, especially when I learned that many audience members didn’t care for his music. (If you listen to some of his compositions, you won’t care for them either.)

In retrospect, had I known then what I know now, I might have taken a different path from my teens to my seventies. But I don’t know whether it would have been any better; it most likely would have just been different. I’d have to say that the most important feature of your work and of “making a living” is that you don’t hate what you do, and you don’t hate the people you’re obligated to work with. 

And as far as this last key to happiness goes, your work certainly has to provide a quality of life that leads to happiness.

It would be nice if when reviewing these Five Keys to Happiness you can check all of them and declare, “I have it all.” Of course, that won’t always happen. Four  or maybe even three  out of five may be all you can get at any given time. But that might be enough. Where is it written that you should be happy all the time? Even God has at times expressed unhappiness, especially with some of God’s own creations. 

And as I’m sure you recall, the Declaration of Independence offers only the pursuit  of happiness. Hey, do you know something that Thomas Jefferson didn’t?

There you have it. The Five Keys to Happiness. Remember, they’re not secrets!

Often when I’m trying to get back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night (and I’ve run out of sheep and blessings), I will run through “Ten good things in my life.” I always start off with the Five Keys, hoping that I can score all five. On top of those, I try to add five more. These “extras” usually include statements like, “I had a good music practice today; I walked three miles with my friend this morning; the gig went well; I did two loads of laundry; my peperomias seem to be happy; or my car is running well.” 

These last few might not be what Jefferson or even L.M. Boyd was alluding to. But they work for me. And we all need to grab happiness where we can find it.

Go top