What Price Happiness? In their pursuit of more pay and perks, athletes might pause to ponder when enough is enough

November 27, 2000

Happiness is...

...a slogan on a coffee mug. It is, by various accounts, a warm
puppy (Charles M. Schulz), a warm gun (the NRA) and "the very
purpose of life" (the Dalai Lama). The Declaration of
Independence asserts our right to pursue it. But what is it? "A
feeling of great pleasure, contentment, joy," says the fourth
edition of Webster's, in which happiness falls--on the same
spread of pages--between hanger-on ("sycophant, parasite") and
hardball ("characterized by ruthlessness, coercion").

In sports, hangers-on play hardball to bring happiness to their
clients. So agent Scott Boras is widely reported to have made a
litany of requests on behalf of free-agent shortstop Alex
Rodriguez. Those requests--allegedly to have included $200
million, office space at the ballpark, private-jet service
distinct from the team's private-jet service, billboards
promoting A-Rod in the city of his signing, and a guarantee that
A-Rod will remain the highest-paid player in baseball--serve as a
kind of acquisitions list for one athlete's happiness. With these
items, the thinking goes, I will be content. While A-Rod's
requests are many things--they're strange, they're silly, they
raise the high jump bar of hubris to new heights--they are
unlikely to make an already rich and famous man happy. Or
happier.

Indeed, A-Rod denies demanding any perks, and points out that he
already has a private jet at his disposal, and his own office,
and thus will be happy with little more than "$18 or $23 million
a year." But will he?

It's not merely that the wishes on his list are so dispiriting.
(Think of the other joyous people who have longed to see
themselves on billboards in their city: Mao, Mu'ammar Gadhafi,
Donald Trump.) Or that the whole of human history has shown that
happiness does not increase significantly after one's basic
requirements are fulfilled. (The social psychologist Abraham
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs includes air, food, drink, shelter,
warmth and affection but says nothing of private-jet travel.) No.
For centuries, great minds, happy people and most Twilight Zone
episodes have concurred: Happiness isn't acquired in
negotiations, and leaving a place where you're happy for a place
where you hope to become even more deliriously happy is seldom a
good idea.

No one begrudges A-Rod his right to ask for whatever he
wants--especially from a Baseball Owner, the kind of cartoonish
rich man who'd be right at home wearing a monocle on a Monopoly
card. But he should know that those wants, once fulfilled, give
way endlessly to new ones. Such desires are made manifest in the
nightclubs that so many stars inhabit, with the inevitable
glassed-off VIP room, inside of which is a smaller roped-off VVIP
section, and so on, until the biggest star in attendance can be
found standing alone in a kind of VVVVIP phone booth, dolefully
sipping a mai tai.

These are the kind of highly refined cravings we now see from
Manny Ramirez (who requires more than the $17 million a year that
the Cleveland Indians offered him) or from Tiger Woods (who
recently expressed unhappiness with the PGA Tour). But happiness,
as Benjamin Franklin recognized, "is produced not so much by
great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little
advantages that occur every day."

A happy life is a pointillist painting, a million-tiled mosaic.
Rodriguez is more apt to find happiness in a perfectly turned
double play, in a letter from a child or in listening--as I am at
this very moment--to Bob Marley sing Three Little Birds than he is
from a souvenir tent at spring training that sells only
A-Rod-related items. "Like anybody, I would like to live a long
life," Martin Luther King said in a moment of bliss, to people he
loved, sanitation workers in Memphis. "Longevity has its place.
But I'm not concerned about that now... I'm happy tonight." What
a gift, to have known that. King was dead the next day.

You hope that somewhere this Thanksgiving, a high-profile athlete
stops dwelling on all that he needs and thinks about all that he
has, and maybe even says, "I'm happy tonight." Because happiness
is like Thanksgiving dinner. Put down your fork for just a
minute: You might notice that you're already full.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

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