THE SECRET OF HAPPINESS (a short story)
Posted by Tim Bryce on September 23, 2015
BRYCE ON LIFE
– Can it be expressed as a calculation?
It had been three years since Joshua Steivenson’s father passed away, yet the son was still cleaning out his father’s belongings. The old wooden house in Buffalo, New York was built in the 1930’s. Years ago, the cellar included an ancient coal furnace and chute, typical for the time. His father, Millard, converted it to a gas furnace a few decades ago in order to develop a clean and quiet place to study. His mother, who still maintained the house, encouraged Joshua to clean up his father’s belongings as she did not want to deal with it anymore. Everything in the cellar was tidy, which is uncharacteristic of a mathematician, but his voluminous books and notes filled shelf after shelf. Joshua had cleaned up the attic and his father’s closets upstairs, but it was now the cellar’s turn for attention. He had looked forward to pouring through his father’s notes, as he remembered the amount of effort and detail the elder devoted to them.
Millard Steivenson was a well known mathematician who had worked at the old Westinghouse plant years ago. His calculations were primarily used in manufacturing and design, earning him accolades not just from his employer, but with other mathematicians through his research papers. Joshua had followed in his father’s footsteps by also becoming a mathematician. As he grew up, father and son spent numerous hours arguing over formulas and equations; it was tremendous mental gymnastics, something both enjoyed immensely. Now that his father was gone, Joshua was eager to look through the elder’s body of work.
Millard’s notes were maintained in meticulous chronological order, in three ring binders, representing over sixty years worth of logic. This made it particularly interesting to study and watch his father’s work evolve over time. A lot of it consisted of simple formulas for use in product design, but now and then, he would try to explain concepts in physics which were often submitted to a mathematics union where papers were printed in journals and arguments presented, both pro and con. The father’s work was frequently featured in these journals.
Day after day, Joshua absorbed the journals, often going late into the evening. He remembered some of his father’s early work, but most of the pages included unfamiliar formulas and algorithms. Analyzing each computation, Joshua began to understand his expressions without having to review the accompanying notes. It all made sense to him. Then, in a binder from December 1965 he happened upon a section marked, “The Secret of Happiness,” consisting of a rather lengthy equation describing in mathematical terms how a person can discover his own personal happiness. This piqued Joshua’s interest as he didn’t recall his father discussing this concept and thought it a rather odd subject for a mathematician to pursue.
Joshua poured through the extensive formula carefully. At the heart of his father’s argument was the identification of a person’s purpose in life, both personal and professional, plus the motivation to achieve them, thus resulting in joy through fulfillment. By doing so, a person could elevate their personal self esteem through their chosen vocation and find happiness. Also included was mathematical language describing how to overcome adversity, to teach morality by discerning right from wrong, and the necessity to subdue passions, such as anger, greed and lust. It was all rather extensive. Basically, the formula was intended to unlock a person’s inner self. More importantly, Joshua couldn’t find anything wrong in the logic. It appeared everything was properly defined and interconnected. The son was rather impressed and began to quietly chuckle knowing of no other attempt to write such a formula. However, why had his father kept it a secret for so many years?
Following the formula, there were several accompanying notes, including reviews of the work. Years ago, his father had submitted a paper regarding the formula to the mathematics union. However, it was rejected out of hand with some rather sharp critiques with the contention, “You cannot synthesize human emotion.” Joshua was surprised by the open rebuff, particularly after analyzing the formula carefully. The critics even went so far as to publicly ridicule him, which may explain why his father stopped working on it. As Joshua read through the criticisms, he became angry as it became rather obvious few of the respondents had actually read the formula. The last note written by his father on the subject was a short footnote which appeared to be added many years afterwards; it simply read, “Joshua, when you are ready,” and was circled in red ink. This surprised Joshua who interpreted it as a request from his father to pursue the formula again.
As it was late, Joshua went to sleep thinking about both the formula and the criticisms of it. The logic was perfect, yet people didn’t seem to grasp the significance of it fifty years ago. What about today? What about today?…
The next morning, Joshua decided to resubmit the formula to the mathematics union for their consideration. He included an introductory letter, and updated his father’s supporting notes. One short week later, his documents were returned by the union with a strong letter condemning the work. “We are well familiar with your father’s work in this regard. As we notified him years ago, we do not consider this a viable formula. Trying to calculate human emotion is pure folly. Please do not waste our time again. Sincerely…”
Joshua was surprised the formula was dismissed out of hand so quickly. Perhaps too quickly. Obviously they didn’t study it in detail as the logic was flawless. He was particularly perturbed by their skepticism.
The refutation did not deter Joshua. As he was also well versed in computer programming, he decided to write an “app” for the formula suitable to be used in smart phones, tablets and computers. He expended considerable time coding the formula into the program. Special touch screen technology was added to simplify the use of the program. To do so, a person would simply need to press and hold his/her finger on the app logo whereby a screen was displayed showing the person’s hidden desires. This was done by accessing the person’s central nervous system through the finger where the logical and emotional spheres of the brain were read and scrutinized. The analysis judged the person’s intellectual and emotional stability, frustrations, along with wants and desires. From this, it would visually display the person’s preferences for happiness and offered viable alternatives for achieving them. Basically, it was offering a blueprint for the person’s next stage in life.
Joshua tested the program thoroughly on himself and was surprised to discover he should be making adjustments in his own life; suggestions he immediately understood and embraced. After making the last few technical adjustments, he uploaded the app to the various Internet app stores for free public download under the name, “The Secret of Happiness.” After he uploaded it, he called it a night and went to bed.
The next morning, he checked on the app counter and found 325 people had downloaded it overnight and more were continuing to do so before his eyes. When checking his e-mail queue, he discovered several messages praising him for the app and how it already was changing people’s lives for the better. Day after day, Joshua watched as hundreds of people downloaded the app, then thousands, then tens of thousands, there was no stopping it as it went viral in the first week. News reporters took notice and began contacting Joshua for interviews. Many had used it themselves and became fans well before they asked their first question. This resulted in an avalanche of publicity and “The Secret of Happiness” became the darling of the press. The requests for interviews and correspondence overwhelmed Joshua, so much so, he started to shy away from reading his email.
Then one day, a letter arrived in the mail from the mathematics union requesting a personal interview with Joshua regarding the formula. This surprised him after receiving the terse letter earlier. The tone of the letter was less antagonistic, so he agreed to meet with the union.
Joshua appeared in the union’s offices at the arranged time, dressed in suit and tie. As he waited to be announced, he looked around the office. The building was massive and very well equipped and decorated. It appeared the union didn’t suffer financially, but he wondered how it was paid for; this certainly couldn’t be based on just equations and formulas.
A receptionist led him into an opulent board room with a beautiful table, chairs, and state-of-the-art multimedia screens on the walls. Several officials greeted him, seven in all, and asked him to take a seat. All were much older than Joshua and were dressed as authoritative figures. Their demeanor was serious, giving Joshua the uneasy feeling this was going to be more of an inquisition than a casual interview.
“Mr, Steivenson,” the Chairman began, “We have asked you here to discuss the app you introduced using your father’s formula for happiness. As you know, we have reviewed the formula, both recently and years ago, and found it unacceptable as a means of defining happiness through mathematical language. In fact, we believe it to be reckless on your part to release this to the public as an app.”
“Sir,” Joshua responded, “There is nothing compelling people to use the app. It also comes with a warning that it can only be used on a voluntary basis. So far, I have received no complaints, only compliments from the public, that it is helping them realize their potential and improve their quality of life.”
“We’re well aware of that,” the Chairman continued, “and that’s part of what disturbs us; we’ve tried it ourselves and could not see how it works on any of us here. It didn’t impact us, so we thought this was nothing but a scam or placebo, and are willing to go to the press in order to get you to retract your claims of its effectiveness. We do not wish to see the public suffer.”
“Suffer?” Joshua said, “Hardly. I have testimonials from hundreds, if not thousands of people from all over the world who have described the positive impact the app and the formula has had in influencing their lives positively. The formula does, in fact, work, but only for those who want to believe happiness can be attained in their lifetime. In your case, I knew you would not accept it, so I added a ‘skeptic’ function to my father’s formula, whereby it will not work with people such as yourselves who do not possess an open mind.”
“Yes, in order for it to work, you must either believe in the formula or are willing to give it an honest try. Since your minds have already been made up, regardless of how ridiculous your arguments are, you will never be able to use it and, as such, will never realize how it can help you with your lives.”
“That’s preposterous,” the Chairman exclaimed, “You cannot use math to deduce skepticism.”
“Really?” Joshua said smugly, “You also said that about my father’s happiness formula and I now have millions of people who have a new outlook on life thanks to it. You do not believe simply because you do not WANT to believe, and that is sad. It is hard to make progress when the people in charge invent irrational egotistical roadblocks. Sometimes you have to do an end-run to get something done. Good day, gentlemen.”
Joshua rose from his chair and turned to exit. Before he could leave though, the Chairman said strongly, “Young man, you have no idea who you are dealing with; no idea whatsoever. You better be careful.” Joshua didn’t like the sabre rattling but chalked it up to old men in their dotage, and he departed.
Following the meeting, Joshua returned home and to an adoring public who thanked him many times over for helping them rebuild their lives and pointing them in the right direction. The app was so infectious, the mood of the country began to change. A wild spirit of entrepreneurship and prosperity blanketed the nation consisting of new companies offering new products and services, all built or delivered with a high sense of craftsmanship. Consequently, the Gross Domestic Product began to rise, money was generated for the people and taxes; so much so, the federal debt was arrested and actually began to retreat. People no longer resisted going to work, but openly welcomed it instead. Grades in schools substantially improved, and education was made meaningful again. Crime rates declined radically, as did unemployment, and spending on welfare. America awoke from the doldrums to once again become a leader in industry. The rest of the world started reporting similar successes as well.
Then, one day, a computer virus was quietly introduced to the world over the Internet, some claimed it originated from China but nobody knew for sure. It was designed to seek out and destroy Joshua’s “Happiness” app and the virus circled the globe like wild fire deleting it from all machines. In just five short days, it had completely eradicated the app, including Joshua’s machine containing the source code for the program. It was gone, all gone, and the public’s attitudes began to shift back to complacency as before the app was introduced.
Joshua could not understand who or why anyone would want to destroy the app. He began to investigate the virus by capturing and dissecting the code embedded within it. Inside he found some interesting clues consisting of mathematical formulas and expressions leading him to believe he had been sabotaged by the mathematics union. Infuriated, he rushed to the union building and demanded an audience with the Chairman, and surprisingly, it was granted.
Although he felt his blood boil, he stopped to take a breath and regain his composure before entering the Chairman’s office. He desperately did not want to express panic under pressure and maintain a cool demeanor.
As he entered the office, the Chairman greeted him, “Good afternoon Mr. Steivenson, I have been expecting you.”
“You have?” asked Joshua.
“When we heard your app was the target of a virus, we knew you would blame us.”
“And I suppose you are going to claim ignorance on the matter?” Joshua asked.
The chairman came out from behind his desk and sat down next to Joshua. In a calm and fatherly voice, he said, “No, Joshua, we had nothing do do with it. At our last meeting, I tried to warn you that you had no idea who you were dealing with, and to a certain extent, neither does our own organization. We are the eyes and ears for various government agencies around the world, who happen to fund our work, something we are paid well for.”
He continued, “I will admit I opposed your father’s formula at first, but I finally overcame my skepticism which allowed me to work with your app. Frankly, I was amazed how well it understood me and recommended changes in my life which I have embraced. Believe me, you wouldn’t have gotten into this building if I didn’t believe the app worked. I apologize for not believing in your work and not encouraging you to pursue it, but I was directed to discourage you and let the matter drop, as your father did years ago.”
“Why was that?”
“Joshua, ask yourself the question; what government would want its citizens to be truly happy? You’ve already seen some of the effects your app has had on our country, that we were becoming a vibrant society again, one that began to challenge the status quo and change the political landscape. That is more than any politician can stand. They want apathetic voters and people with a low confidence level, thereby making them more inclined to accept government control. I honestly do not know which country produced the virus, it could have been America, China, Russia or many others, it doesn’t matter, it was inevitable. They simply do not want the citizens to rise beyond their control. Your app was a very real threat to them, so I am not surprised. I know this isn’t much solace, but I’m honestly sorry about all this. I had no idea it would go this far.”
Joshua slouched in his chair. He realized he was defeated. To pursue his dream meant doing combat with the governments of the world, very much a losing proposition.
Days after his meeting, Joshua returned to his father’s cellar and organized his notes in another three-ring binder. Included was a printed copy of the app’s source code which Joshua had printed prior to his computer being attacked, along with schematics and other documentation explaining the program’s logic.
Before closing the binder for the last time, he took out a red pen and wrote on the last page, “For my son, when you are ready.” He then swept the cellar, made sure it was as tidy as his father had kept it, and turned off the lights.
NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the characters in this story and any real person, living or dead, is not intentional and purely coincidental.
Keep the Faith!
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Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at email@example.com
For Tim’s columns, see: timbryce.com
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Copyright © 2015 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.
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