On heroes and happiness...

Saturday, 13 July 1996

So, do you know how to be happy?

ONE of those strange quirks of human nature is that the best time is never now. Nearly everyone seems to remember a time when things were "better". Nearly everyone looks forward for to a time when things will "get better".

The American economy, for example, is in better shape than it has been for years. Efficiency is back, employment is rising, the minimum wage is increasing, the markets are buoyant. American companies have retaken the world's rankings from the Japanese.

But Americans are unhappy. Survey after survey portrays a nation shivering in a winter of discontent desperately fanning the dying embers of past glories.

(Sorry. That was clichéd. Even though the Canadian coast is disappearing into the distance as I type this, five weeks in the US has taken its toll on me.)

Look at the world through the eyes of the American media. It's enough to make one suicidal. Bill Clinton is boring. Bob Dole is droopy. Even Ross Perot's outsider Richard Lamb is tedious.

The world's last surviving superpower is suffering a midlife crisis.

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Earlier today, we visited the Washington Post, which continues to be hugely successful in an age where newspapers are shutting down.

Don Graham, publisher and CEO of the Post, noted somewhat wistfully that Nelson Mandela was the only truly impressive leader left in today's world. "We haven't had someone of that stature since Franklin Roosevelt," he said.

He's quite correct about Madiba. His life has all the bravado and heroism of Fidel Castro without the baggage of Castro's ideology. He's probably the last real global hero of the 20th Century.

And the truly scary part is that he may be the last ever. The world today frowns upon heroes. In our quest for equality, we've fooled ourselves into believing that we are all equal.

I asked Randal Robertson, head of the influential Transafrica black advocacy group: "Who is going to be the black American leader of the next generation?"

He frowned. The time had passed for Messianic leaders, he said. Black Americans had grown beyond that.

I shook my head, recalling the spontaneous outpouring of Black American pride on Mandela's release. 4M posters and tee shirts (Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Mandela) were suddenly throughout New York.

"Until black people are free of the inner city, they will need a Messianic leader," I ventured. "Shouldn't that be someone other than Michael Jordon?"

He paused, then answered softly. "Yes."

We need heroes. We need people who by their example show us that there is much to be had from life. The Wall Street Journal this week spotlighted Judi Adams, 36, of Phoenix, Arizona.

Judi works for American Express as manager of an in-house incentive programme for credit card employees. She's a single mother with a two-year old son. And she's an archer on the US Olympic team.

She practices every day from 5am to 7am, works an eight hour day, cooks dinner and watches TV with her son from 5pm to 6.30pm, practices from 6.30pm to 8pm with her son in tow, reads bedtime stories at 8pm, practices for a while longer, and goes to bed with the alarm set for 5am.

She told the Journal: "People ask, `How can you be so busy' I say, `How can you not be?' People ask me about the sacrifices I've made, but I've never made a single sacrifice.

"I've made choices, and I'm a better person for those choices. To say I've sacrificed something is kind of funny to me."

Is she right? We performed an interesting exercise to test our happiness at the Harvard Business School, led by Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard graduate.

He presented each of us with eight scraps of paper on which we wrote these words "career", "friendship", "family", "health", "personal development", "community", "spiritual", "financial".

"These are the values we hold dear to us," Tal said. "But we can't have all of them. You need to sacrifice one. Crumple it into a ball and throw it into the middle of the room." We did so.

"But you still can't have all of those. You need to throw away another..." We did so.

And another, and another, and another, until each of us had only three values left.

"Now these are the things that are most dear to you," Tal said. "Ask yourself, do you live your life by these values?"

I'm happy. Are you?