Three Minnesotan Perspectives on Happiness

Three Minnesotans offer their unique perspectives on how to be happy

Jack Jablonski’s mission of meaning and happiness after devastating injury

Portrait by David Bowman

Since suffering a paralyzing spinal-cord injury in a hockey game as a sophomore at Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School in 2011, Jack Jablonski has become an inspirational public figure, in large part due to his indomitable positive attitude. Today, he hosts a weekly radio show and is beginning his freshman year at the University of Southern California next spring.

“We all have floods and droughts in our lives, but they pass, and your [psychological] bobber is just set where it’s set. When I got injured, I was at a real high point in my life. It was winter break, I had just made varsity, all these things were going right, and then I was instantly hit with this big drought. But then a ton of support came flooding in, and that helped to bring me back up.”

“Before all this, I hated public speaking. When I got injured, it was a total 180; it completely changed my dreams and goals. Before that I was just thinking about girls and sports.”

“Sure, sometimes it’s funny to hear someone say that they’re too tired to get up and get something five feet across the room. But I understand it. I remember life before this chair.”

“You have to realize that other people have ups and downs, too. People are going through their own issues—family problems or internal struggles that might not be obvious. Focusing on how I can help others—in chairs or on their feet—makes me a better person. I can always help with a good attitude and good advice.”

“You have to be happy with yourself first. When my life was blowing up and I was lying in that hospital room, at first I couldn’t let in the love and support people were offering me. I had to do a lot of talking with my family and a therapist before I realized that this is going to be a really long life if I’m not happy with myself and what’s around me.”

“The most important thing to realize is that no matter what you’re going through, there’s always someone worse off. When things around you aren’t going well, look to yourself first. Look at what you can do: Develop your work ethic, focus on kindness to others. No one said life is fair, and some have experienced the truth of that more than others. But it all starts with yourself.”


A philosopher defines happiness as a focus on things that matter

Portrait by TJ Turner

Most of the happiness-related books today are found in the psychology and self-help sections, so it’s easy to forget that it was originally a central question of philosophy. “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence,” said Aristotle in 350 B.C.—and philosophers have been wrestling with the meaning of, and means of attaining, happiness ever since.

University of Minnesota philosophy professor Valerie Tiberius was drawn to the question of what it means to live a good, happy life. “The main economic paradigm of happiness today is desire satisfaction—people getting what they want,” she explains. “But I think that misses something. Often times we get our desires met, and it turns out to suck.”

It’s a perspective that plays out on scales both small and large, whether it’s buying a coveted kitchen gadget that ends up gathering dust or finally bagging a dream job only to find that it comes with longer hours and major stress.

Rather than as the ability to satisfy every momentary desire, Tiberius defines happiness as the fulfillment of deeply held values over time. “Values are a special kind of desire, something connected to us on an emotional level, when your head and your heart are on the same page,” she says, defining her own top values as health, friendship, the welfare of her loved ones, and work. On a practical level, this means that happiness for Tiberius comes from making daily choices that support those values, not “wasting time and energy on things that are trivial from your own point of view.”

Tiberius describes the virtue of being able to shift perspective from daily minutia to a wider lens, to avoid getting “anxious and obsessed about things that ultimately won’t matter,” and to pull back to see whether your life is on track to be a success on the terms that matter most to you.

“I like the way values pull you out of your own head and toward something bigger,” she adds. “If you value your friends, you don’t just get to do whatever you want. You have to nurture empathy, refrain from knee-jerk judginess, and be there for them. It puts constraints on your behavior. I like that idea, that living a good life is an ideal toward which you have to aspire and grow. Living well is a process, not a finish line.”


A Zen Buddhist teacher’s journey from darkness to a worldview of joy and unity

Portrait by David Bowman

Norm Randolph studied with the group that founded the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center in Minneapolis and today is a senior teacher at Dharma Field in Minneapolis, a center dedicated to Zen practices including sitting meditation.

“In my 20s, I worked in an Air Force psychiatric clinic, where I was doing intake interviews, and I began to get a deep feeling of how powerful human suffering is. In high school and college, I had been more interested in pursuing a hedonistic lifestyle, going to parties and having a good time. But listening to the psychiatric patients and their situations made me reflect more seriously about how difficult human life is.”

“When I was about 26, I got out of the Air Force. I was pretty discouraged about the possibility of finding a harmonious way of life at that time, and thought that it would be difficult for me to fit into society as I understood it.”

“I felt that no matter what I did, or how successful I would be, there would still be something missing. I had a pretty dark view: No matter how good things might turn out for me, it wouldn’t be enough. It would still be living without knowing what my life was.”

“Zen practice and thinking is basically to live as we truly are. Unfortunately, we often ignore what we truly are, and get caught up in our limited ideas rather than living our lives through what we directly experience. We get in a lot of trouble when we ignore the nature of reality, caught up in our limited views because we want to gain something.”

“When we believe we’re separate egos living in a world of other separate things, we want to grasp onto the things we like and run away from the things we don’t. It’s a basic confusion: The problem is that we get caught up in believing that this divided view of reality is the way things actually are.”

“We’re very confused—that’s how we live our lives. Zen is seeing, letting go, and living as we truly are—a life of peace and joy. The joyful life is right here. It’s a life for all beings living inseparably from each other, assisting each other. All beings are functioning together, and that’s a joyful life.”