The Circulation of Limited Happiness

A recluse, with a sordid past, discovers it’s possible to find happiness in the simple events of daily life, and contentment in even the most forlorn of places…

by: Chris Klassen

There is a fixed amount of happiness in the universe. It never goes up and it never goes down. It is shared by all humanity. What that means is, if I’m having a great day and I’m very happy, someone else on the planet isn’t doing so well. When some guy in Dallas randomly buys a lottery ticket and wins thirty million dollars, someone else’s six-year old child has just been diagnosed with leukemia. Or, when a garage sale junkie finds a painting that turns out to be a long-lost Georgia O’Keeffe, someone else just got killed by a stray bullet. It’s not fair and it’s not unfair. There’s no sense feeling good or bad about it. It’s just the circulation of limited happiness.

My birth mother was a heroin addict, at least that’s what I was told by my adoptive parents when they felt I was old enough to understand. She didn’t want to give me up but it wasn’t up to her. The system made her do it. It devastated her but my new parents were ecstatic. They were never able to conceive naturally so finally having a child of their own was the best thing that ever happened to them. See what I mean? Limited universal happiness. 

My childhood was typical middle-class suburban. My parents had good jobs. We had two cars. We went on annual holidays to Florida and Cape Cod. The first few years of school were enjoyable enough and I made some friends. I played football and baseball in the summer and skied for fun in the winter. One of my most cherished childhood memories was the time I hit a homerun that propelled our team to the championship. I was eight at the time. We all yelled and hugged with huge smiles on our faces. My parents and the other parents were in the stands cheering wildly. But I caught a glimpse of the other team, some of them were crying and it made me feel terrible.

High school, on the other hand, wasn’t good. People seemed to be meaner, more vindictive. Cliques developed and if you weren’t cool or a rocker or a stoner, you weren’t considered much of anything. As personalities, egos, and bodies developed, it didn’t take much to be left aside. Most days for me felt like I was on the outside looking in. When the happy, beautiful people would walk by in the hallways they would smirk at each other and roll their eyes. It affected me deeply. I know now that the same thing happens in every other high school in every other suburb, but at the time, I took it personal.

I had the option of either trying my best to find a group and be social, or to retreat. I chose to shut myself away, living behind a closed bedroom door as much as possible with books and music as companions. The louder and weirder the music, the better. Heavy metal and punk made me happy when not much else did. Only once did I have the nerve to ask a girl out on a date. She laughed at me.

Another vivid memory I have as a spectator of high school life is that it seemed like the people who were doing “bad things” — drinking, drugs, vandalism — were much happier than I was, and this was really confusing. I remember overhearing the weekend stories of fellow students, bragging and laughing about how they were so drunk, or so stoned, and how it was the best time ever. A few had even been arrested for petty crime and spent a night or two in jail. In their social group, it made them even cooler.

It wasn’t until after graduation and my first experience traveling solo that I felt brave enough to experiment a little, to break out of my shell. I was sitting by myself in the kitchen of a Dusseldorf hostel after dinner, eating a pastry that I had bought at a nearby bakery. True happiness, to me at least, is the smell of freshly baked bread and pastries. It doesn’t matter if it’s the early morning smell of baguettes in Paris or honey-scented baklava in Istanbul, it is impossible not to smile with those scents in the air. That evening, a girl was sitting next to me and we started talking the way solo travellers do. She was seventeen years old and from New Mexico. Her parents thought she was travelling with her brother and that was the only reason they had let her go, but she left him in London and went out on her own. No one knew where she was and she loved it that way. She told me she had a bottle of Schnapps in her room and asked if I wanted to have a drink. I lied and told her it was one of my favorites.

This was the first time in my life that I had ever tasted alcohol and, initially, the first few sips did not make me happy at all. In fact, they were vile. But we kept drinking and I stayed as stoic as I could. I’m sure she figured out pretty quickly that I was a novice because, at one point, she said that I should probably slow down. I told her not to worry, that I was fine, that I’d done this a thousand times before. As the evening progressed, I was discovering that the more I drank, the happier I was getting. We talked about everything that night: philosophy, religion, literature, our pasts, our families, our goals. She was the very first person I ever told about being adopted. It was the best night of my life. She explained to me that she was into sleep deprivation and native mysticism. She said that if you stay awake long enough you start to see visions. She was such an old soul. I was enthralled.

In the morning when I woke up, she was gone. I asked about her at the front desk but no one had any information. We had never even told each other our names. I was brutally hung-over for the next two days, but I didn’t take that as a warning and it didn’t stop me from trying as many other types of alcohol as I could get my hands on. For the rest of my trip, I consumed copious amounts of beer, wine, vodka, rum, gin, even absinthe. Fortunately, it was just a phase. No real harm done, although I’m sure the people who occasionally found me passed out on their driveways weren’t pleased.

I visited most of Western Europe over the next four months until my money ran out and it was time to either try to find an unofficial job somewhere or return home. For better or worse, I went home. It was great to see my family again, but it quickly became bittersweet for all of us. I had seen and done so much and felt like a new person in a lot of ways, but nothing at home was different. There was no reason it should have been. I was the one who had changed, not them. It was harder than ever for us to relate to each other. People were interested to hear about my experiences for a little while but then they understandably went back to their regular lives.

By this point, I really thought I would have discovered a passion that I wanted to pursue, but I was aimless. I knew that my choice to avoid university had made my parents unhappy, but, at the time, the thought of going back to school made me cringe. Instead, I took a couple menial jobs which allowed me to save enough money to move out into a tiny apartment closer to the city. I was as reclusive as before, just in a different location. I went for a lot of walks, hung out in a couple different bars, and watched sports and movies at home.  

I was making terrible money at the time, working a few shifts a week at a hardware store and a couple evenings in a factory warehouse. But, in truth, I didn’t really want anything. I was a minimalist before it became trendy. I had a couple sets of dishes, a small tv, a second-hand stereo, and a little plant in the corner that I usually forgot to water. I didn’t care about buying clothes or getting a nice car or saving for a house. I didn’t really have any friends so going out for dinners or to clubs or concerts never came to mind. Every now and again, I wondered if people were disappointed in me. I must have had some potential at some point. I remember one of my high school teachers telling me that I could be anything I wanted if I tried hard enough. He would probably be unhappy if he knew how I was living my life.

What my existence has really taught me, and it’s the greatest lesson I ever learned, is that it’s possible to find happiness in the simple events of daily life. Take today, for example. It’s a nice warm evening. I’m sitting on my bed after having a great meal, the biggest meal I’ve had in ages. Across from me on the shelf are all my favorite books. I just finished reading The Sun Also Rises for the twentieth time. I’ve read it every year since I came back from Europe. I also have 1984, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Naked Lunch, Brave New World and a biography of Che Guevara in my collection. Since I have a lot of free time, I can read as much as I like. This afternoon, before dinner, I played a bit of basketball, lifted some weights, then went for a long walk. I can’t remember feeling happier.  

After my meal, which consisted of roast beef, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, gravy, whole wheat buns, and lemon meringue pie for dessert — anything I could ever want in a meal — I had a visitor.

“I know the jury didn’t buy your story, so do you really expect me to believe your so-called confession?” the warden asked.

“Of course I do,” I replied. “It’s all true.”

“I see. What confuses me most of all is that you failed to mention that you killed your upstairs neighbors.”

“Someone else did that.” I smiled.

“Right. And you weren’t found passed out in the front yard with a bloody knife next to you and blood on your clothes that matched all the victims.”

“I’m innocent.”

“Sure you are. Everyone in jail is innocent.”

The warden opened the cell door. “Come on,” he said. “It’s time.” I stood up and walked out of my cell. The chaplain was there too.

“Is there anything else you would like to say?” the warden asked.

“Remember how I once told you there is a fixed amount of happiness in the world?”  

“What about it?” the warden replied.

“Well somewhere right now there’s a really miserable person having a terrible day,” I said.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I’m ecstatic.” I grinned and the tattoos on my cheeks wrinkled.

The chaplain nodded and we began a slow walk down the corridor.


Chris Klassen is a hobbyist writer and resident of Toronto, Canada. After graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in history and living for a year in France and England, he returned home and worked the majority of his career in print media. He is now living a semi-retired life, writing and looking for new ideas. His work has been published in Short Circuit, Unlikely Stories, and Fleas on the Dog.

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