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(Host) Commentator David Moats has been pondering the elements of happiness.

(Moats) What makes you happy? A magazine article not long ago described the work of psychologists who discovered that people who think a new car or a bigger house or a winning lottery ticket is going to make them happy are usually disappointed. They seem to be stating the obvious. Everyone from Plato to Jesus to Gandhi could have told them that.

They also discovered that great tragedies may not doom us to great unhappiness. Your romance went on the rocks? You’ll get over it. Happiness is something more basic, more elemental.

I remember a college professor who was into the existentialists saying that in the end what it all comes down to is the sunlight shining on your hands. That’s why smells can plunge us into reveries about past happiness.

There are a number of smells that have good associations for me. Fresh paint. Freshly cut grass and mud. The smell of new clothes. The pine and dust of the mountains. Even cigarette smoke, which reminds me of being out somewhere at night when I was young. Diesel exhaust reminds me of a bus trip I took when I was eleven. It seems happiness in the present is often tied to the past. A certain cozy afternoon when it’s rainy outside brings back the coziness of days gone by.

I sometimes wonder what I’m experiencing now that will form memories for the future. I guess I’ll find out in the future.

I began to think of these things after visiting my mother whose memory is not as good as it used to be. She grows frustrated when she starts to tell a story and then she can’t remember what she wanted to say. It made me realize how much of what we experience is transformed and made into something lasting by the fact that we can turn it into a story. Once your power to remember stories goes, a major component of happiness goes with it.

During our visit, she was being vague about a number of things, and then we started to talk about the house where she was living when I was born. It was the first house she and my father had together. “Everything was so clean and new,” she said, and her face lit up. The memory was so vivid and important to her there was nothing vague about it.

When you get older you no longer think about a new car or a new house. We went to my brother’s house, and the sun was shining through the grape leaves that were climbing up behind his house. My mother saw it and said, “Oh, isn’t that beautiful.”

It was. It was beautiful. It was a beautiful little moment of happiness that had nothing to do with our hopes for wealth and wordly success; sunlight shining through the grape leaves. It all comes down to that, and the story we can make of it. As we get older, making stories seems to become more important. And I guess that’s what this is.

This is David Moats of Middlebury.

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