What Is Love? What Is Happiness?


What is love? (Baby don’t hurt me…) What is happiness? What is the point of marriage? These are a few of the questions that Douglas Kennedy’s novel Five Days attempts to answer.

This was a random pick off the general fiction shelves at the library. I knew nothing about the author, although I did a tiny bit of research, and found out he is an atheist, which explains much of the book’s philosophy. He is also a pretty good author and has written quite a few novels, as evidenced by positive reviews on Amazon and similar sites.

In Five Days, Laura, our main character, is a radiologist trapped in a dead-end marriage. Her two children are nearly grown and out of the house. She’s starting to let the more morbid aspects of her job affect her. Her husband has recently lost his job and is depressed because of that, making the lives of everyone around him miserable. So she is happy for the chance to go to a work-related conference in Boston. At said conference, she runs into a man named Richard, who she realizes is in fact the love of her life, and her entire life up until this point has been a series of wasted opportunities due to her own lack of self-esteem. She has always sold herself short.

The plot seems mundane, I know, but it immediately grabbed me because I like “real-life” style books. It took place over the course of, obviously, five days, but through flashbacks and long stories told by Laura and Richard, it delved deeply into the characters’ pasts and explained why they made the choices they made and how they became the people they are.

This book really made me think about whether Laura was justified in cheating on her husband. I could not justify it in my head, at least, from my own perspective. From the author’s perspective, yes, anything is justified if it fits within the character’s moral code and if it will bring about happiness. But is happiness the supreme goal of life? I’ve always thought that one of the purposes of life is to help others and attempt to make their lives easier or better, which does not always equate to happiness, as making others’ lives easier or better can hinder your own happiness. “Happiness” is ephemeral and doesn’t last. “Happiness” can also become a selfish concept, if the main goal is to make and keep yourself “happy” at the expense of others.

Is love the supreme goal of life? From my perspective, yes, but only the love of God. The love of humans attempts to come close but will fail every time. From the author’s perspective, yes, but only a love that validates, not “tough love” that can challenge.

Do people “deserve” to be happy? This was another concept that I struggled with throughout the book. Laura never felt as though she deserved happiness because of guilt and poor choices from her past, so I suppose she felt justified in her affair with Richard. I have the opportunity for happiness, and I deserve it, so let’s go for it, even if it means tearing apart my marriage and family!

What I’ve learned over my relatively few years of life is that, ultimately, only you are responsible for your own happiness. If you rely on others to make you happy, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of sadness. In a way, this clashes with my other philosophy about helping others; to some degree, you’re making yourself responsible for others’ happiness. However, I don’t believe that one should help others for that reason. It should be done for God, to attempt to see others in the way that he would see them.

Was it Laura’s fault that she never came to terms with her past until everything reached a boiling point (i.e., she met Richard)? Yes, unfortunately. She never quite managed to find happiness or contentment where she was, so she suffered in relative silence for years. This is never good, and it’s something else I’ve learned in my life, although it’s been hard to put it into practice: Talk to someone. Do not let things fester, because even if you don’t believe you will, you will absolutely reach your breaking point and you will crack. And destruction of some sort will happen. In Laura’s case, it was the destruction of her marriage. I felt so sorry for her poor husband, who had been laid off from his job, then had to deal with his wife’s behavior as well, all in the name of what she believed she was owed because she kept her past and its tragic events bottled inside.

As for the marriage aspects of the book, it seemed like the author didn’t hold marriage in very high regard. If you’re unhappy, and you feel as though you have a good enough reason, why not leave? Why not cheat? People enter marriage for a variety of reasons, and they are definitely not the same after 10 years of marriage as they are after 2 years of marriage. People sometimes grow apart, things happen, unforeseen events wreak havoc on what would have been a long-lasting marriage. That is the natural order of things.

But giving up on marriage, in my opinion, should only be done when every single other option has been exhausted or if the situation is abusive or dangerous (to the other spouse and/or the kids). Laura’s husband might not have been her perfect intellectual match (that was an annoying thing about the book: the characters were supposed to be so intellectual), but he was a decent man who did his best to provide for his family. His only error was marrying Laura while knowing that he would never measure up to the man she had loved before him. Her error was lingering in the past and keeping so many secrets of said past from her husband. I think they could have worked on the marriage, rather than Laura leaving after not even bothering to talk things through.

From the author’s atheistic perspective, there’s not much point to marriage except that it’s another tool to make those inside of it happy. If it fails to do that, it can be dissolved without any real guilt or negative emotions, just a cold, chilly law proceeding and signatures on paper. Now my new life can begin! I can be who I was meant to be! I can be happy and get what I deserve! Ugh. So by the time I finished the book, I was depressed. Leaving her husband won’t make Laura happy, as long as she lives with her memories of the past and her regrets about not starting a new relationship with Richard. Situations and people with whom she surrounds herself may change, but she is essentially still the same person, and she should work on fixing herself and coming to terms with her past. It’s no longer taboo to go to a therapist. It’s a great option. (Laura does do this in the book, but the therapist only validates her and doesn’t challenge her much.)

Sorry for the long post, but that book was definitely one of the more thought-provoking ones I’ve read so far this year. I could have written a lot more, but I’ll either save your eyes or write a new post. 🙂

2 thoughts on “What Is Love? What Is Happiness?

  1. I have a lot of thoughts about this, but I’ll try to keep it brief(ish).

    “Talk to someone. Do not let things fester, because even if you don’t believe you will, you will absolutely reach your breaking point and you will crack.”

    Absolutely. And, to perhaps stretch the metaphor further than it should be stretched, the more the pressure builds up, the worse and more damaging the cracks can be.

    “…it seemed like the author didn’t hold marriage in very high regard. If you’re unhappy, and you feel as though you have a good enough reason, why not leave? Why not cheat?”

    This is somewhat controversial, in my experience. When my ex left me, she got criticized by her family for leaving a marriage which was generally okay but not great (and not awful — she just thought there could be something better). (And her family’s reaction was definitely not colored by any affection for me. 🙂 ). But I think she made the right call.

    But I think there’s a huge difference between leaving and cheating. Leaving, as long as it’s done with some care for the other person, is at least honest and can be honorable. As you say, people grow apart. But cheating is neither honest nor honorable. I had a possibility when I was married, with a woman I both liked and loved, but at the last minute we didn’t. Much as we wanted to proceed, we stopped. It would have done too much damage to our ideas of ourselves (and each other).

    Also, I’m very resistant to the idea that people “deserve” happiness in these sorts of situations, especially if they hope to achieve it by making other people unhappy. I grew up listening to a radio humorist named Jean Shepherd, and he used to say that the Declaration of Independence says people have the right to the “pursuit of happiness” — nowhere does it guarantee that anybody will actually get any.


    1. I think that’s what irked me most about the book… the characters feeling as though they “deserved” happiness because of other things that had happened to them in life.
      And I agree, cheating is reprehensible, but leaving can be necessary and civil. A lot of the times, as what happened in the book, “cheating” or a near miss, can actually open the door and raise the possibility that yes, you can leave a bad relationship.


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