Attitude

What I Learned About Happiness From Interviewing Famous People

From Elvis Presley to B.B. King to Buzz Aldrin to Clint Eastwood and so many more, I had the pleasure and opportunity visit with some of the most influential people of our times. I always asked questions about happiness.

by Jack Dennis

Rudy Giuliani

Rudolph Giuliani is best known for being mayor of New York during the September 11, 2001 attack. In 2008, I had the opportunity to meet Giuliani in San Antonio. The American leader expressed his thoughts on his personal change, compassion, hope and faith during the disaster.

“Most people are surprised to know that I changed more from having prostate cancer than from September 11,” Giuliani stated, backstage at the Alamodome, where he was to give a speech later. “Dealing with the cancer forced me to gain the wisdom about the importance of life and the lack of control we have over death.”

“I needed the confidence and character I gained from coping with the cancer to prepare me to deal with, and even survive, the trials of September 11,” the former mayor said.

Giuliani found himself surrounded by firefighters, police officers and emergency workers on that fateful day in 2001. The worst attack on American soil became the most successful rescue operation in our country’s history under his leadership.

That evening, as Giuliani prepared for bed, he found solace in the words of Winston Churchill and “realized that courage doesn’t simply materialize out of thin air.”

Giuliani attended hundreds of funerals and visited Ground Zero daily.

“I grew physically and emotionally exhausted,” he recalled. “When I saw the families of the victims, I was revived knowing if they can do this, I can do it.”

“Courage begins years before, sometimes in our early childhood, as we develop our character,” he spoke. “Every choice we make in life can strengthen or weaken our character.”

Here are highlights of Mr. Giuliani’s views.

“When I was in my teens, I seriously planned to become either a priest or a doctor as I have always been faithful and enthusiastic about my faith in God and helping others. Religion was a favorite topic I enjoyed talking with my teachers about. Prayer and faith in God provided me with the strength I could not acquire from any other source. When things are tough, it’s always a good idea to pray for the guidance and strength necessary to get us through.”

“Most of my time as mayor was spent under the maxim that it’s better to be respected than to be loved. September 11 unlocked compassion in me that I typically reserved for my family and very close friends. I discovered that revealing your love and compassion does not weaken leadership. It makes it stronger.”

“Allowing doubt, fear and worry to overtake us is an inevitable path to failure. I could not afford failure after September 11. It was very necessary to reach inside and push the doubts away, and even out, of my thinking.”

“I’ve spent much of my reading on learning about how great leaders that I admired grew up and forged the character each had to deal with different substantial challenges. Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt came to mind. ‘Then only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’”

“Love can spark deep moments of profound goodness. When I saw the love of our heroes in New York who looked beyond their own safety or what was best for themselves and focus on the lives and safety of others, I learned that love can help us push aside differences to share our humanity and those things that we have in common.”

“I prayed with these brave men and women. I became very close and was able to learn from these firefighters, police officers and emergency responders, not to mention ordinary every day civilians. At the root of all of this, it was love, and not so much the sense of duty, that caused those firefighters to run into the flaming towers to save those he or she had never met. Love can so powerful it can help us be kind to even those who are cruel to us.”

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis, “one of the 5 most recognizable people in the world,” according to Newsweek magazine was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for his efforts and results with the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

The “King of Comedy” died August 20, 2017 at age 91. Millions know him for helping the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 1950 and helped raise more than $2 billion for almost 60 years.

He teamed up with Dean Martin at age 19 to launch their careers to the top of the movie charts and worldwide stardom. 

 In 2008, I had the opportunity to meet Lewis in San Antonio. The American comedian, actor, and director expressed his thoughts on happy and the key to success in life before he went on stage to address a crowd of 18,000 people in the Alamodome.

“No one gets through life unscathed,” Lewis told the audience. “Pain, rejection and sorrow have been obstacles in life, but they have also been a source of inspiration.”

“My parents were performers on the road and were never home, so relatives raised me. I missed them so much,” he recalled. “Comedy, and being the center of attention and making people laugh, began as a means to fill the emptiness. It became my life.”

“At first I didn’t know what I was doing,” Lewis laughed. “I kept going on and I found the key and that was to squelch the fear!”

“Don’t let fear rob you of opportunities,” he pointed up. “Take risks. There is no limit to what you can do, but you have to take that first step past fear. You can make it work for you.”

Here are highlights of Lewis’s views, both backstage and onstage:

I had met Jerry Lewis briefly behind the Majestic Theater in San Antonio in January 1995 where he was performing the play ‘Damn Yankees.’ It was after a matinee show, his throat was hurting and his voice was hoarse to the point he had to be relieved of showing up for the evening performance.

He was staying at the La Mansion hotel on the River Walk just across the street from the theater but was unable to meet. It was a pleasure to get to go backstage at the Alamodome years later and talk with this great American entertainer.

Lewis had been watching the monitors backstage to see those going on before him onstage. Dressed in a back suit, with a red shirt and handkerchief in his front pocket, Lewis smiled from his electric mobility scooter as I approached. (Note: I had just won a dance contest by process of elimination from the audience crowd roar among 21 contestants. The prize? A free trip to Walt Disney World for my family.)

“Mr. Energy, come shake my hand,” he offered his hand to me. I was exhausted and happy to win, but especially excited to meet him. He laughed when I asked what was his key to happiness in life.

Looking at me square in the eyes, Jerry Lewis grabbed my arm with his right hand and pointed to me with his left. He was serious. Then smiled again.

 “The key to happiness and maintaining joy in your life is easy,” he grinned. “Do you remember when you were nine-years-old?”

He paused.

“If you can remember that time and always be the person you were when you were nine, you will have a happy life.”

“Applying that same sense of humor, the childlike humor of a nine-year-old, as I see it, is the secret to getting through life and getting the most out of it,” Lewis explained. “Laughter is healing. Many doctors now know that it is the truth that laughter is a terrific safety valve.”

“When I see how serious people are, it becomes automatic for me that I must stop this seriousness,” Lewis spoke. “Immediately, I become mischievous and do whatever I can and whatever it takes to lighten the mood.”

“The smiles and laughter that follow make me happy and make me know and remember I’m doing exactly what I was put on this earth to do.”

Jerry Lewis’s legacy includes more than 60 films (including 18 he wrote, directed and starred in), concerts, radio, television, and standup performances since age 5.

Interviewing Others

Over the years I made it a habit to always ask the question, “What makes you happy?”

If they answered and had the time, I would ask for elaboration. I didn’t always get it and some where reluctant to pursue that line of questioning. The biggest surprise was from Merle Haggard (I will write about later). But here are some notable personalities who were enthusiastic about the subject of happiness.

The age they were when I asked them.
Jerry Lewis83“…remember when you were nine-years-old? Always be the person you were when you were nine.”
Elvis Presley41“Knowing and appreciating what God has blessed me with.”
Gene Krantz72“Always reach for the stars.”
May Pang60“John said it best: IMAGINE.”
Clint Eastwood46“Working hard, and long enough, to pay my dues and earn the right to do what I want to do.”
B.B. King85“Well, Son, it music of course. Singing and playing.”
Buzz Aldrin76“Continuing to learn and continuing to have opportunities to apply what you learn.”

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