The professor’s wife loved sweets but the professor didn’t really approve. He was worried she might become diabetic.  Although she wasn’t exactly overweight, she always had some sweets about her person, particularly boiled sweets and jelly beans. He’d catch her rummaging around in her handbag pretending to look for something else and, having located the sweets, surreptitiously popping one into her mouth.  Sometimes, she offered him one, but not often because she knew he disapproved.

The professor and his wife had been married for 47 years and, as their 48th wedding anniversary approached, he decided to go to his wife’s favourite sweet shop and buy her a jar of jelly beans.  He entered the shop with considerable trepidation, only previously having ever crossed the threshold as her companion. She knew exactly where her favourite sweets were and, without hesitation, would go straight to them as if they had built in homing devices.

The professor, on his own in the sweet shop, felt overwhelmed.  Despite being a professor of philosophy, with numerous publications to his name and honorary awards from many universities, the sight of so many shelves, heaving with row after row of jars containing different coloured sweets, discombobulated him.  His strong preference was to mull things over, to ponder unhurriedly in his own time, to carefully weigh up the pros and cons of a course of action.  He hated situations that called for quick decisions or confronted him with too many choices.

It wasn’t that the professor was against choice as such, just too much choice, calling for too many fine discriminations.  How, he asked himself, could his local supermarket display so many subtly different Ryvita biscuits − Dark Rye, Multigrain, Sesame, Pumpkin Seed, Black Pepper, Sweet Onion − when all he wanted were the straightforward, ordinary ones?   Suffering from choice-overload, he’d invariably decline to make a decision and flee the scene empty handed.

He had the same problem with Netflix. Too many films, too much choice, would plunge him into an unwelcome state of dissonance.  He’d recently invented a rule that had eased the problem somewhat: he’d only countenance watching films that lasted less than 100 minutes, preferably less than 90. Since very few films met this criterion, he’d found that strict adherence to this rule had reduced his choices to manageable proportions.

The sweet shop, stocked from floor to ceiling with brightly coloured sweets, was in gross violation of the professor’s preference for limited choices. He stood there, in the familiar grip of indecision, and was about to depart when the young woman behind the counter smiled at him sweetly and said, ‘How can I help you?’

The professor, looking around the shelves desperately, replied, ‘Jelly beans, where are the jelly beans?’

‘You want to buy some jelly beans?’

‘Well, yes, but not for me, they are a present for my wife. She loves jelly beans.’

The young woman beamed. ‘I’m partial to the odd jelly bean myself.  How many would you like?’

For the first time the professor looked at the young woman.  She was wearing a bright blue apron over a green T shirt.  On the bib of the apron, emblazoned across her chest in white letters, were the words ‘100% happiness guaranteed’.  The professor blinked and read the words again.  Happiness guaranteed?  100%?   His mind was racing.

‘Excuse me, but where did the slogan on your apron come from?  Is that something you dreamt up or is it official?’

‘Oh no, it’s the company’s promise.  It’s on all our aprons and on the ribbon we use to tie parcels.’  She indicated tidy reels of coloured ribbons all saying, in endless repetition, 100% happiness guaranteed.

‘You’re promising 100% happiness?’ asked the professor, staring fixedly at the young woman’s bosom.

‘Yes,’ said the young woman looking down at her apron. ‘No one has ever queried it before.’

‘Incredible, quite incredible,’ muttered the professor, shaking his head in disbelief. ‘I’ve never before seen such a brazen claim.’

‘Well, that’s as maybe,’ said the young woman, keen to change the subject. ‘Did you say you wanted jelly beans?  How many? We sell them by weight or you can buy a whole jar.’

‘Oh,’ said the professor, a touch irritated at being pulled back from his musings, ‘it’s our wedding anniversary.  I’ll take a jar.’

When the professor got home, he hid the jar of jelly beans in the bottom drawer of the roll top desk in his study and sat contemplating the receipt.  After a while, he stirred himself and Googled ‘Happy Sweets Ltd’ and clicked on ‘About us’. There it was again, ‘100% happiness guaranteed’.  He read, ‘If you’re not 100% happy, we guarantee we will immediately put it right  refunding, replacing or issuing you with a Gift Card as appropriate.  We never want you to lose faith in Happy Sweets and we will always go the extra mile to ensure you are happy.  All the members of our Customer Care Team are trained and empowered to help.  You can always be sure of a prompt, helpful and friendly reply.’

How, he wondered, could a sweet company guarantee happiness?  He had always subscribed to John Stuart Mill’s belief that happiness was a by-product and that the pursuit of happiness was a fool’s errand.  He likened happiness to a crab: it always approached you sideways and often when you least expected it.

The professor made an uncharacteristically swift decision: he’d email Happy Sweets Ltd.  He clicked on ‘Contact Us’ and wrote:

Dear Customer Care Team.  I have recently bought a jar of jelly beans from your shop in Covent Garden and I was astonished to see that you are guaranteeing 100% happiness.  Since the time of Aristotle, philosophers have had much to say about the concept of happiness but, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever dared to suggest it could be guaranteed, least of all by procuring sweets.  Could you please clarify precisely what sort of happiness you are guaranteeing?  I look forward to hearing from you. Professor Alex Funnell (retired).  PS My wife loves your jelly beans.

Within five minutes the professor received a reply.

Hi Alex. Thank you for contacting us. Our happiness promise dates from the foundation of Happy Sweets in 1979.  We are proud of our products and have no hesitation in guaranteeing the quality of our sweets and, should you order them online, their timely delivery.  I hope this provides the clarification you are seeking and look forward to continuing to be the sweet provider of your choice.

Wishing you a happy day!  Felicity, Customer Care Team, Happy Sweets Ltd.

The professor read the email again with increasing incredulity. He considered it inadequate, needlessly flippant and irritatingly cheerful.  He made a cup of tea while pondering how best to respond.

Dear Felicity, Thank you for your reply and good wishes.  Unfortunately, you have failed to provide an adequate reply to my previous email.  Would you be so kind as to answer the following questions:

1 What, precisely, is your company’s definition of happiness?

2 What do you mean by 100% happiness?

Thank you.  Professor Alex Funnell (retired).

The professor’s laptop fell silent.  A reply came the next day.

Hi Professor.  Felicity is on sick leave and has passed your email to me. I am Jessica, the supervisor of the Customer Care Team.  May I respectfully suggest that perhaps you are taking our happiness guarantee too literally?  It simply means we want our customers to be happy with our sweets and with the service we provide.  Please give me your postal address I will be happy to send you a complementary jar of sweets. Would you like more jelly beans or a different variety?  You can find a full list of our sweets on our website.  Just click on ‘Our Products’ and let me know your choice.  Thank you for your interest in Happy Sweets.  Jessica Browning, Supervisor, Customer Care Team, Happy Sweets Ltd.

The professor was at a loss to know what to do next.  Not only had the latest email again failed to provide the information he sought, it invited him to visit a website and choose which sweets he wished to have – the last thing he wanted  to do.  Anxious to avoid experiencing another bout of choice-overload, he decided to send another email.

Dear Jessica.  Please give Felicity my best wishes for a speedy recovery. I hope my email was not in any way a contributory factor to her becoming unwell. Thank you for offering to send me a complimentary jar of sweets, but I remain intrigued by your happiness guarantee.  Having read the text of the guarantee again, I venture to suggest it is too all embracing.  Indeed, I fear it leaves you open to being sued by anyone who is unhappy for any reason, or, if not actually unhappy, just not happy.  Sadly, if one is to believe the latest data on depression and mental illness, this could apply to many millions of people regardless of whether they have purchased any of your sweets.  I think you’d be wise to amend your happiness promise by stipulating that you are not guaranteeing general happiness and wellbeing, but limiting your promise specifically to happiness in relation to the quality of your products.  I urge you to take remedial action as a matter of urgency.  Professor Alex Funnell (retired).

The next day, the professor received a reply.

Dear Professor Funnell. 

Allow me to introduce myself.  I am the CEO of Happy Sweets Ltd and your emails have been passed to me by our Customer Care Team. 

Firstly, may I say how grateful I am for your intervention.  Our 100% happiness strap line was dreamt up by our late founder, Krystian Lewandowski, a refugee from Poland, who had a limited grasp of the subtleties of the English language.  The extraordinary thing is that, for over 40 years, no one has ever queried our happiness promise.   On reflection, I can see that, whilst well intentioned, the promise is too bold and leaves us vulnerable to mischievous legal claims. We are therefore removing the happiness promise from our website and instructing our lawyers to review the wording as a matter of urgency.

Secondly, I understand you recently bought a jar of our jelly beans as a present for your wife.  We wish to reimburse you in full for your purchase and, in addition, offer you a lifetime voucher that will permit you and your wife to have sweets from our Covent Garden outlet entirely free of charge. Please send me your postal address and the voucher will reach you by return.

It only remains for me to thank you again for taking the trouble to alert us to what could have become a considerable problem.

Yours sincerely,

Robert McDonald, CEO, Happy Sweets Ltd.

The lifetime voucher duly arrived.  The professor retrieved the jar of jelly beans from the bottom drawer of his desk and wrapped it in brown paper, held in place with generous amounts of sellotape.  He put the voucher in an envelope, sealed it, and wrote, ‘Happy 48th wedding anniversary‘on the cover.  He smiled to himself when he realised he had inadvertently used the happy word.

At breakfast on their wedding anniversary, the professor’s wife opened the parcel.  She beamed happily at the sight of so many jelly beans and gave the professor a thank you peck on his forehead.  ‘That’s wonderful, Alex.  Jelly beans make me happy.’  The professor suppressed an urge to question the veracity of this claim.

The professor’s wife then opened the envelope and read the voucher.  ‘Free sweets?  For life?  How have you manged that?’

The professor chuckled.  ‘It’s a long story, my dear, but I can assure you Happy Sweets will be very pleased, perhaps even relieved, to know you’re happy.’

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