Want to be happy? “It is all about the giving,” nationally syndicated radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt contends in his new book, The Happiest Life: Seven Gifts, Seven Givers, and the Secret to Genuine Success, “that which you have received from God and that which you give in his name.” “And if you have forgotten that,” Hewitt writes, “recall it. If you have failed, start again. If you are happy, be thankful. And if you aren’t, you can be.”
Hewitt talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about happiness, within and out of the context of his new book.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “Courage undergirds every good thing.” Why is it courage, and how do you acquire it?
HUGH HEWITT: Courage is the willingness to tackle any difficult task that carries with it some sort of risk. The highest forms of courage involve facing death on behalf of others, and so courage is rightly associated with warriors. It is a necessary virtue for everyone facing any sort of challenge or difficulty that may turn out poorly or require suffering.
LOPEZ: What makes you such an expert on the recipe for the happiest life?
HEWITT: I am lucky in family, friends, faith, and work, and, as Arthur Brooks noted at last year’s National Review summit, getting at least two of these right is a pretty good guarantee of happiness. The precondition of happiness — a generous spirit — is a learned behavior and I have had a lot of wonderful, patient teachers and examples along the way. That said, everyone is truly an expert on either happiness or misery or both. The basic building materials of life are in every life, and I hope the book helps readers figure out how to increase the former and decrease the latter.
LOPEZ: Tell me about “being a taker in order to become a giver.” Can understanding this — and practicing this — help our politics, particularly when it comes to entitlement reform, budgeting, and electing presidents?
HEWITT: We are all the beneficiaries of an extraordinary political system. That you and I can speak out about faith or politics without fear of physical reprisal is itself an immense blessing of which we take advantage. Having recognized that, I like to think we conservatives work to preserve, protect, and defend such amazing bequests. Committing to the very difficult work of assuring structural reform that allows children not yet even conceived to flourish in this system is the sort of perspective that will actually allow major political reform to occur. I think Paul Ryan is working from this perspective, and I hope that disposition spreads in both parties. We have been taking from the work of previous generations for a long time. Now we have to work for leaders who will do the real heavy lifting.
LOPEZ: “You have to have the courage to give away what you hold dearest, again and again and again. Every day. Remarkably, self-sacrifice and generosity produce the greatest, most enduring happiness.” Do you do this? Do you know people who truly do?
HEWITT: I won’t make any claims for myself, but I know many, many people who do this. My friends in the military who deploy away from their families again and again, teachers who try again and again, the endlessly encouraging receptionist, pastor, or intern — I think the world is full of such people.
LOPEZ: How is gratitude key to understanding God?
HEWITT: I don’t think it is possible to be a sincere believer and be ungrateful towards God. “Every good thing comes from heaven above” is from the letter from James, and this basic understanding pervades all of the great faiths. Secularists can credit accident and natural, though unexplained forces and dismiss gratitude as an unnecessary response to life, but no believer can.
LOPEZ: “If you observe a worthy thing — any job well done or action deserving of praise — you are empowered to say so.” What’s the difference in being encouraging? Can it be unjust to be too encouraging?
HEWITT: Encouragement is so powerful that you are right to worry about its overuse. Undeserved praise can in fact disfigure young people, and distort their values. My chapter on teachers strives to make the point that the best teachers are the most demanding, and the most demanding are at their best when they recognize genuine accomplishment.
LOPEZ: How does one strike the right balance on self-esteem?
HEWITT: Very good friends who will set you straight on abundant failings is the best insurance here.
LOPEZ: Why stay close to the energetic? Could that become exhausting?
HEWITT: True, true. The very energetic can be wearying, but much better to be exhausted from having been involved in purposeful, striving work or play than to be lethargically living out days on a couch.
LOPEZ: Why do you quote Pope Benedict writing that “The body must be trained, so to speak, for the resurrection”?
HEWITT: My editor Joel Miller brought that passage to my attention, and it fit. The Happiest Life is all about the practice of the basic Judeo-Christian values which were omnipresent in my youth and reinforced via every stream of media in the ’60s and ’70s, but which are now hardly ever openly discussed except to be jeered at. There is no reality show in the sort of training Benedict is talking about, even though the reality he anticipates is eternal.
LOPEZ: Why is empathy so hard to describe?
HEWITT: You have that right. Empathy is not sympathy, but a relationship between individuals who have similar experiences of suffering. We can sympathize with almost everyone, but we can truly empathize only with those who are enduring that which we have ourselves experienced.
LOPEZ: Is “good cheer” really “like charitable giving”? Can’t it be annoying?
HEWITT: “Perky” is annoying. Good cheer, I don’t think so. Genuine good cheer can be very quiet and very sly, but always noticed. Mirth is a quality that comes in all sorts of packages.
LOPEZ: In all the interviews you’ve done with people, what has been the most important insight or witness?
HEWITT: Rabbi Harold Kushner told me in 1995 that when people are suffering, “Show up and shut up.” I write at length about what he was getting at in The Happiest Life, but it truly is the best advice I have ever been given.
LOPEZ: Why is it important to point out in a book on happiness that “Nobody gets out of here without pain or sorrow along the way”? Isn’t that obvious? Or is that, in fact, a key sticking point in many if not most lives?
HEWITT: It is obvious, but so is the denial of most people about the fact that suffering is ahead, some very awful days. The failure to prepare for it is an invitation to even greater sorrow. Awareness of its inevitability also makes joy in the day we are in all the more appreciated and real.
LOPEZ: What do you mean when you write that “people don’t work hard enough at making marriage worth it for their spouse”? What’s a good New Year’s resolution here?
HEWITT: The cliché is that every spouse’s most important job is to get his or her mate to heaven. But even a secularist ought to realize that a happy wife means a happy life. Working hard at making your spouse happy isn’t a guarantee of a successful marriage, but it is certainly a precondition, and you are right about the material of excellent New Year’s resolutions in that subject.
Thomas Nelson suggested we bring the book out on December 31 for this reason: This is the season of resolution making and the book is a prompt for making the best ones.
LOPEZ: Can we really still say there is such a thing as “rightly ordered love”?
HEWITT: Yes, it is true. It is set out in Scripture and church teaching, and though it is a hard thing to achieve and maintain, it is very much a reality we are enjoined to pursue, and not just with spouses, but also with family, friends, and colleagues. I quote from Lewis’s The Weight of Glory twice for this very reason.
LOPEZ: You have unique religious affiliations, describing yourself as an “evangelical Roman Catholic Presbyterian.” What do you mean when you write that “the Catholic heart still beat”?
HEWITT: I attend Mass on Saturday evening or early Sunday and then my Presbyterian church on Sunday as well. I left the Catholic Church for 15 years, but throughout that time the deeply ingrained training of a parochial education never let me rest quietly in even the best-led Protestant churches because of the differences in sacrament and liturgy. It is a good thing to spend time on both banks of the river, but if you grow up on one side, you never really leave your love of it behind.
LOPEZ: “The days are flying by,” you write in your chapter on parenthood. Is that among the most important points to consider every day, when looking at every person and every gift you can give them?
HEWITT: Absolutely. I quote David Mamet from my interview with him when his The Secret Knowledge came out: “The afternoons are endless, and the years fly by.” No one believes this in their 20s. Everyone does in their 50s.
LOPEZ: If you could only have one of the seven gifts, which would it be?
HEWITT: Genuine gratitude is the sweetest thing to receive.
LOPEZ: Friendship if one of your treasured gifts in life. How does one develop a “capacity for friendship”?
HEWITT: Awareness of and anticipation of the needs of your friends, from the very basic simple things like some shared time to being there in moments of terrible grief and loss. The capacity for friendship develops by being available for people in your orbit to actually get to know you and for you to get to know them. It takes time. The opportunities for such friendships are declining as the devices in our lives eat up more and more of the time that was even only ten years ago devoted to conversation.
LOPEZ: What’s a “particular friend”? How do you acquire one?
HEWITT: One has to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels to get the full import of that term, but it is the closest of friends with whom many different and important experiences have been lived, sometimes dangerous, sometimes impulsive, but always memorable.
LOPEZ: As a radio host, what’s your philosophy on cutting off guests?
HEWITT: I have only cut off one guest in 24 years of broadcasting on radio and television, and have only been hung up on four times. All guests are worth the time, because all people deserve respect, even when the debate is heated. Dumping a guest who has made a commitment to call into a show just isn’t gracious. Cutting off crazy callers, well, that is a service to the audience.
LOPEZ: Why did you feel the need to point out that you “know powerful women”?
HEWITT: I think I point out that I have worked for strong women and believe very much that gender is no bar to leadership of any sort.
LOPEZ: What is it that fascinates you about politics and religion?
HEWITT: Charles Krauthammer writes in his new book Things That Matter that “politics are sovereign” in our lives, and he is both right and wrong. Politics is the most important subject for how we live with each other in the here and now, but relationship with God is the most important relationship, given its eternal nature.
LOPEZ: If there were only one thing people walked away from your book considering, what would it be?
HEWITT: That the day they finished it they began a practice of casual encouragement of every person they meet, but especially of their families and closest friends.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.