Mexican children must be reading Tolstoy. In a recent study titled "The New Definition of Childhood," a global brand agency headquartered in Chicago found that the happiest kids in the world live in Mexico—despite its many social ills and widespread poverty. The study asked 4,000 children ages 6 to12 in 12 countries what it's like to grow up today. According to the first-ever Global Kids Happiness Index, kids in Mexico were the happiest in the world, followed by Spain, Brazil, and Germany. American kids scored fifth. Across almost all countries, the most important source of happiness for kids is close family and friends.
Leo Tolstoy must be cheering from his grave.
The search for happiness is as old as time, and there's no end to where we've looked for it: love, work, home, family, friends, having everything, having nothing. This season, director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) has brought to the big screen his adaptation of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's tale of how two very different people seek happiness.
Tolstoy was a Russian nobleman who shunned his aristocratic heritage for the simple life of a peasant. He published Anna Karenina in serial installments from 1873 to 1877. During this period, Tolstoy was going through a deep spiritual struggle, one clearly depicted in the character Levin. It's impossible to call Tolstoy a Christian in the truest sense; he rejected the miraculous events in Scripture as well as Christ's atonement. He had his own "Thomas Jefferson Bible," scrapping the miraculous events recorded in Scripture and keeping the moral teachings. But his morality finds much resonance with Christian tradition. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Anna Karenina, where the moral life leads to happiness and the immoral life, to unhappiness.
Anna Karenina contains two parallel stories: the story of married aristocrat Anna Karenina and her affair with Count Vronsky, and the story of Konstantin Levin, a country landowner. Both Anna and Levin grapple with pervasive dissatisfaction, but answer it in radically different ways. Anna chooses to be disloyal to her family, leaving her husband and young son for the dashing Vronsky; Levin plunges himself into a life of simplicity and fidelity to his family.
For Tolstoy, there is a certain beauty to fidelity, to a life lived rightly before God, however unattractive and boring it may seem. By contrast, sensual desire, a life lived "by the belly," is irresistibly alluring, but will bring putrefying decay. Nowhere does Tolstoy illustrate this more strikingly than by comparing teeth (yes, teeth): the faithful husband's and the illicit lover's. The teeth of Karenin, Anna's husband, are ugly and discolored but strong, with no cavities; Count Vronsky's are even and white, but cause him excruciating pain because of inner decay.
I expected Hollywood's rendition to minimize Tolstoy's view of the moral life, or to at least portray Anna as the victim of a double standard that punishes women and excuses men for the same behavior. It did neither. Throughout the film, Levin pursues a faithful life while Anna surrenders to sensual desire. The theater sets in St. Petersburg and Moscow physically manifest the hollow façade Anna's life eventually becomes, while Levin's country scenes are simple, stark, and clear, like the moral code he lives by.
At the beginning, Anna tells Karenin that she must leave Petersburg for Moscow to convince her brother's wife that he is truly sorry for having an affair with the governess. Karenin tells Anna as she leaves, "Sin has a price, you can be sure of that." Later, when Vronsky follows Anna from Moscow back to Petersburg, he tells her that "it doesn't matter" if their mutual attraction is wrong. Anna spurns her family and builds a life with Vronsky, while Kitty (Levin's wife) expresses her fidelity to her family by Levin's dying brother and graciously welcomes his girlfriend, Marya, a reformed prostitute.
When Anna asks Vronsky why he loves her, Vronsky replies, "You can't ask why about love!" Levin says, "Impure love is not love, but a form of gluttony. Sensual desire indulged for its own sake is the misuse of something sacred." Throughout the film, we see the escalating nature of sin as Anna gives in to alcoholism, morphine addiction, and eventually (spoiler alert!), suicide. But as I mentioned in the beginning, Anna Karenina is a story about happiness. Anna and Vronsky sought to find happiness in one another and failed. Levin ultimately finds happiness through a simple, faithful life with his family.
Theodore, a Russian peasant mowing with Levin at the end of the film, sums it up well: "Live rightly, for your soul, not your belly." One wonders what would have happened had Anna invested the energy she expended in her affair into her marriage to Karenin, who is not an altogether bad man. As Big Sean raps in Justin Bieber's song "As Long As You Love Me," "the grass ain't greener on the other wide, it's greener where you water it."
Given the constant stream of bad news and global economic difficulties, researchers expected today's children to be unhappy, but they weren't. Turns out Tolstoy wasn't too far off the mark. That's why we still need Anna Karenina. From adultery to workaholism, many are the sins that undermine the strength of our families, and we need the reminder that the best way isn't always the easiest or most exciting. Strong families take work, as most good things do. But it's worth the effort, because our children's happiness—and our own—depend upon it.