Happy is the new skinny. Being happy is cool. Being sad, unsatisfied, depressed, lonely, moody or anxious is totally unattractive. Being bubbly, funny, enthusiastic, imaginative and wild is hot. Everyone wants to be happy, and everyone believes they deserve to be happy. We read books, listen to podcasts and subscribe to blogs all about how to be happy. I’ve listened and re-listened to Gala Darling’s podcast on happiness, and I find it inspiring. I’m even following some of her advice, and I’m starting to believe that it may actually be as simple as choosing to be happy. But it strikes me as odd that as a culture, we Americans claim to believe happiness is a natural right. We even wrote it into the Declaration of Independence. We are pretty dedicated to happiness, and yet, we have an awful time finding it.

Of course, there are the naysayers. There are people who believe we have become happiness addicts. There are people who believe that our obsession with being happy is naive, childish, and a waste of time. I wonder if they are happy.

They have a point, though. Our obsession with being happy can make us unhappy. Perhaps you’ve had a period of depression in which the realization that you are depressed actually makes it worse. It goes from depression to despair. “Oh God,” you find yourself sobbing into your pillow. “I’m a lost cause! I’m a mess. I’m going to end up killing myself one day!” The really nuts thing about it is that you never had any real intention of killing yourself, but the despair over your mental state, and the thought that you might be capable of committing suicide, actually drives you toward it. You start to think things like, “How will I know if I’m really suicidal?” And that thought doesn’t even make any sense. If you actually did want to die, you’d probably know it, Yet, you’ve seen those commercials with people sitting on the couch looking sad as the voice over says, “If you experience sleeplessness, loss of appetite, lack of interest in things you once enjoyed or thoughts of suicide … “

You begin to evaluate yourself as you watch the commercial. You tick off the list: You are, in fact, sitting on the couch looking sad about a sad looking person sitting on a couch. You sometimes have trouble sleeping. You once loved baking, finger painting, paper dolls and anything involving Elmer’s glue, all of which you have lost interest in. Are thoughts of suicide next? And then you realize you’re thinking of suicide right now.

“In fact, I think of suicide all the time: when I’m watching commercials for anti-depressants, when I’m stuck in traffic on a rainy night and no one will let me merge, when I don’t want to pay a bill or when I think about losing all my teeth in old age. Also, sometimes when driving on an empty road late at night, I wonder what would happen if I ran my car off the road. I don’t particularly want to die at that moment, but I’m sort of OK with the fact that it’s possible; so I probe the possibility with my imagination, but I have not yet intentionally swerved off the road. Not even just out of curiosity. So I guess I have no real death drive at the moment. But I could. And for that, I might need Wellbutrin or Lexapro or Zoloft or Prozac. Maybe I should ask my doctor, just in case.”

No one wants to be unhappy. If you’ve ever experienced true unhappiness, you know it’s not only miserable but sometimes terrifying. You feel alienated from yourself and everything that matters to you. Something always seems to be missing. You become insecure. It is not fun times. But the kind of happiness pushed on the public in the form of products, services and medications is not the kind of happiness that treats these wounds. Well, ok, for some, the medications help. But not for everyone. Drug companies know that deep down all of us have a bit of unhappiness, and that’s exactly why they invest in TV commercials. We see the sad person getting happy on TV thanks to some miracle drug, and we identify with that and think “Maybe they can make me happy, too.”

Just like the drug commercials that promise to change you from a sad little blob to a happy little blob (both mostly mindless but one clearly preferable), beauty product manufacturers promise to enrich your life by bringing out your natural beauty. I laugh when they end with faux fierceness: “You’re worth it!” Right. Worth what? An hour and a half of bleaching your scalp, poking yourself in the eye with a stick, and razor burn? Oh, those tricksy advertisers, trying to tell me I am worth the trouble of going out and buying their products and maiming myself with them. Oh yes, that is how I express my value.

We have our suffering and our insecurities, and we keep them quiet so that when advertisers at them, we’re ready to buy whatever they’re selling to medicate or mask our secret shame. No one talks about their weaknesses; that would leave them exposed to scrutiny. You don’t tell your boss, “I don’t feel good about my work, and I’m deeply concerned about the direction of my career.” That doesn’t usually lead to a promotion, and a promotion is what we want, right?

A promotion would make us happy … maybe. It’s the kind of happiness toward which we clamor when we come up short on ways to soothe that deep soul ache. If not a promotion, then at least a good bikini body, and if we can’t have that, then at least we can milk all the pleasure there is to be had from a cupcake. But is there a happiness that lasts longer than a cupcake? Something that can stick with us when we no longer want to be ogled on the beach? Is there anything in the world that, unlike that promotion, will ask nothing in return? I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost money, doesn’t go away when I age, and doesn’t require me to be on call to answer to come corporate jerk who cares not a whit for my personal time. And I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost sixty bucks a month because the drug is so new that there’s no generic alternative. Where can I find that kind of happiness?

What do I even mean when I say I want to be happy? I want to be healthy. I want to be skinny and pretty and smile a lot. I want to make enough money. I already make enough money, but I would really like to make a little more money. Or a lot more money. Enough money to buy a bigger house and not have to DIY all the renovations. That would be enough. Oh, and enough money for a new car because mine is getting old, and a pair of diamond earrings because every girl needs a pair of those, and one pair of really good expensive shoes. And a job that’s closer to my house so I don’t have to drive so far, but it should still pay me well and involve doing cool stuff with cool people. I want to spend more time with my family and friends, but not too much because most people annoy me after a while. And I want another drink, but I don’t want a hangover, and I don’t want to cross that line into being an alcoholic, although I’m not sure where that line is, and I’m not sure anyone else is either.

We seem to think we can’t live without happiness, but we’re not even sure what it is, so how would we know? Was Mother Theresa happy? What about Michael Jackson? George Washington? Your grandmother? My grandmother was extremely poor. She dropped out of school after the seventh grade, married young, had six children, and raised them all in a house the size of my first apartment with one bathroom. Her husband died 20 years before her, and she never dated again. She didn’t have a dishwasher or an air conditioner. Was she happy? Did anyone ever ask? I think it’s a safe bet that “happiness” was not the priority for her that it is for me, and for this, I feel rather foolish and selfish. Her life is anathema to me — tiny house, no money, no education, a boatload of kids — but perhaps in avoiding what I view as her pitfalls, I am denying myself a certain organic kind of happiness. After all, her kids grew up to be good people, each successful in their own way. All of them married and had children. She became matriarch to an ever-growing family who loved her. But I don’t know what that meant to her or if she was happy.

In a recent interview with Oprah, Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hahn said, “It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.” That thought is profound and genius, but a bit over my head. I instinctively reach back to the experience of my day and think, “Is he trying to say I can be happy even with a full time job? Even without my new running shoes? Even stuck in traffic?”

When Oprah asked him to define happiness, he said “Happiness is the cessation of suffering. Well-being. For instance, when I practice this exercise of breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes; breathing out, I smile to my eyes and realize that they are still in good condition. There is a paradise of form and colors in the world. And because you have eyes still in good condition, you can get in touch with the paradise. So when I become aware of my eyes, I touch one of the conditions of happiness. And when I touch it, happiness comes.”

Reading his words stops me in my tracks. It makes me forget what I thought I knew. It pours the thoughts right out of my head and leaves me sitting in my skull like a lightening bug in an empty jar. I’m just blinking around in the emptiness.

And then I remember this: I was searching for happiness, and I was motivated by fear. The fear of unhappiness. The fear of unhappiness causes unhappiness and sends me on a wild search for that which is not my fear, but because I don’t know what it is, I can’t see it even when it surrounds me. The search is dizzying and distracting, fun and frustrating, and thoroughly intoxicating. The search is elating because it sometimes leads us to art and orgasm. Other times, the search is a bad trip and leads to sobbing into pillows, terrified at the thought of what we might do to ourselves if we had the courage (and we are quite glad we don’t have the courage).

Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet on Flickr

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MARY HENDRIE (formerly Mary Richert) is a writer living and working near Annapolis, MD. Her blog is missdirt.net. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College. You can also find her on Twitter, @MissDirt. Mary really likes it when people comment on her blog or talk to her on Twitter so she can meet new people and get new ideas, so feel free to say hello any time.

63 responses to “The Fix”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Funny, but I have been thinking about this very thing lately.
    I think some people are just lucky enough to have a cheerful/happy disposition. I know that even at my most unhappy, I am still able to laugh at things and more importantly, laugh at myself. But even given my usually cheerful demeanor, my body has a way of turning on itself when I am unhappy and I develop all sorts of phobias and anxiety even though I’m still smiling on the outside.
    I know other people, who are always unhappy, no matter how good their lives are. They always want the next thing: the pay rise; the new girlfriend; the better job – and even when they get everything they want, they’re still not happy. I don’t think they ever will be.
    I think the key to happiness, is to not to have too many expectations. Disappointment leads to unhappiness.

    • Mary says:

      Thank you for reading, Zara. I think expectations fall into that category of attachment if you use Buddhist terminology. I don’t call myself a Buddhist, but I think they are pretty right on about an awful lot of things.

  2. Becky says:

    Happiness, like kindness, is a fashionable thing to affect lately.

    And one might say happiness was always a fashionable thing to affect, but I offer the grunge movement and its disaffected, mopey, apathetic pathos to counter that.

    In the past, it has been very fashionable to be miserable.

    Now, even vampires sparkle. They walk alongside life, like there is no real dark force in the universe. Vampires play baseball. Everything is hunky-dory, except for a few spoiled-sports.

    Cupcakes are a pop culture phenomenon. I wonder if “Stepford Chic” will become a thing.

    Maybe I read too far into Twilight. But I see a certain amount of denial in it, culturally speaking.

    • Mary says:

      Does it bug you when people seem to be faking the whole bubbly personality business? Even when I’m very happy, it’s not natural for me to be bubbly. But it’s also not natural for me to be a total downer (although it’s easier to fake), and yes I totally remember when it was cool to hate everything and not care about anything. Even a couple years ago, I had friends who just seemed set on negativity toward the world. When anything good would happen, they would compulsively taint it by making fun of it, saying it wouldn’t last or otherwise implying nasty things about the people involved. I felt totally uncool when I tried to be positive b/c of the way they would respond. Luckily, I’ve pretty much lost touch with them.

      Also, I can’t help it. I LOVE cupcakes.

      • Becky says:

        I pretty much hate anything that strikes me as “cutesy” unless it’s a puppy or kitten.

        There is currently a lot of cutesy going around, so I was much more comfortable in the 90s.

        I don’t know if this is because I am just a miserable individual or because I find something inherently dishonest about about non-stop cute-n-happy. Maybe it’s just sour grapes. Maybe I wish I had the courage to think/act happy to be happy.

        Or maybe people who talk about that kind of thing are full of shit. Or not paying attention.

        I don’t really know, but I suspect that any extreme of affect, happy or sad, belies some kind of cover-up.

        • Mary says:

          “There is currently a lot of cutesy going around, so I was much more comfortable in the 90s. ”
          One thing I can say is great about all the cutesy stuff going around is that in all this feigned happiness, people like myself are being spurred to question the meaning of happiness and what would really make us happy.

          I think you should never pretend to be something you are not, but that’s not the same as avoiding trying out new perspectives. I never pretend to be happy or thrilled when I’m not, but I believe in trying to look on the bright side in difficult situations.

          But yes, there are a lot of people whose happy face just rings false to me. They make me uncomfortable with their insincerity.

  3. Marni Grossman says:

    The interesting thing about those anti-depressant commercials is that they produced the opposite effect in me. When I an anorexic, self-injuring mess of a person, I resisted trying them because I didn’t want to be one of THOSE people. And every time I saw that Zoloft blob commercial, I decided again that the whole idea was stupid stupid stupid.

    It was a year and a half after my therapist suggested anti-depressants that I finally relented.

    It IS interesting though that we wrote “pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence. I wonder if Jefferson was happy. Or if maybe he just need a third clause to complete the sentence.

    • Matt says:

      “Pursuit of happiness” is not a guarantee of it’s attainment.

      • Mary says:

        True true! But we believe we have the right to have happiness with the same ferocity that little kids like to say, “I don’t have to listen to you because it’s a free country.”

    • Mary says:

      Yes, exactly! The commercials actually damage our perceptions of mental health because we start to view people with depression as funky little blobs or just over medicated fools who will buy into anything. When they say depression is a serious medical condition, they’re right, but they’re doing people with that condition a disservice with the way they commercialize.

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    Wow! Great piece, Mary!

    Do you ever watch The Sopranos? There’s a bit where a one-legged Russian woman tells Tony that America is the only country where people expect to be happy (without taking a straw poll, I can add Australia to the list).

    Happiness = contentment = happiness, seems to be equation that we get from adverts, a lot of the time. What a bunch of assholes.

    And yet, so much of what is pushed on us is nothing, really. Or at least, it’s nothing because we don’t even know why we really want it. And as Aristotle said, he who aims at nothing… is sure to hit it.

    • Mary says:

      When I was a kid, I would get headaches at the shopping mall. When I was really little, I didn’t understand why, but when I got older, I developed this sense that most of the people in the mall were wandering aimlessly looking for something to buy that would fill some kind of void in their lives. There was an overwhelming sense of suction from all these people carrying around their voids and trying to fill them with absolutely anything. I stopped going to malls for a couple years, then I guess I got better at coping, though I still find them pretty exhausting. I avoid places like that now. The concentrated “buy happiness” vibe is just too much.

    • Mary says:

      I think I meant to say, “No, I don’t watch the Sopranos,” but I got side tracked by thoughts of commercialism.

      • Simon Smithson says:

        Ah, the unfillable hole. Delighting advertising companies and lovers of euphemisms alike for a century.

        Do you know what the Gruen Transfer is? Aside for a good name for a band?

        • Mary says:

          Oh my goodness. I didn’t know what it was, but a quick Google search lead me to this definition on wikipedia: “The Gruen transfer refers to the moment when a consumer enters a shopping mall, and, surrounded by an intentionally confusing layout, loses track of their original intentions. Spatial awareness of their surroundings play a key role, as does the surrounding sound and music. The effect of the transfer is marked by a slower walking pace and glazed eyes.” WOW. I am so grossed out by this. This is why I always try to go to the mall with a specific goal in mind and leave as soon as that’s done. I always wondered why malls were so poorly laid out. I thought they just hired bad designers.

  5. Irene Zion says:

    Mary,

    This is interesting to me. I, myself, do not think that happiness is all that it is cracked up to be. I think happiness is ephemeral. I think it becomes so much of a goal that you don’t see your life as you strive to it.
    Contentment is what I try to master. I can live in that and work on it. It’s easier and it’s long-lasting. It’s comfortable. I know how to be there and be aware of my life at the same time.
    (This may make sense only to me.)

  6. Dan Haggerty says:

    What kind of article is this? The sheer, mind-numbing pointlessness of it astounds me. Maybe you would be happier if you stopped thinking so much about happiness, eh? The great thing about happiness is that it happens when you’re not thinking about it. You’re going through life, things are pretty nice, and you sit up one day and say to yourself, “Fuckin’ a, I’m happy, aren’t I.” Of course happiness isn’t money or a promotion or any one thing. And it certainly isn’t the same from person to person. Talking about the fear of unhappiness is just moronic. Everyone should fear unhappiness in a very general sense, in that everyone should be motivated toward happiness. Okay, so what? The kind of ridiculous, overanalyzing junk you’re writing here is just pretentious and, worse, uninteresting. Don’t think I’ll be comin’ back ’round these parts.

  7. Matt says:

    Interesting topic, Mary, and well-handled.

    I’ve would say there are people who chose to be unhappy; it’s a pretty surefire way of getting attention, especially now when so many people are so aggressively affecting happiness. Of course, as Becky alludes to, unhappiness (or the pose thereof) has been just as commodified in the past as happiness seems to be now.

    Personally, I loathe the way we seem to have just accepted the solution of medicating away our unhappiness. As you mention, there seems to be a pill for every possible negative emotion, and every time I see a commercial for Zoloft or one of its ilk I immediately think of the Soma dispensers all the residents of Brave New World carried with them at all times.

    Negative emotions exist for a reason, and it takes a lot of courage to own up to them–especially when we’re perpetually bombarded by ads for goods/services/entertainments that all claim to provide (or provide a route to) the big happy.

    I’m with the Bhuddists when it comes to happiness, I think. Happiness is in the little things. I might be carless, swimming in student debt, with a social life currently under a glacial freeze, but I can still get up in the morning and go for a beachside bike ride or enjoy a few hours out on my balcony with a good book and a cup of tea. And that isn’t so bad at all.

    • Mary says:

      I really appreciate your perspective. The life you describe is so nice. We all need to practice taking pleasure in the little things.

      Of course, this also raises a semantic question for me: What’s the difference between pleasure and happiness?

  8. Amanda says:

    I’m imagining the fat backlash from the mid-1990s, where women decided to shout, “Fuck it, and fuck you for thinking I ought to be thin!” And, I imagine how much less fun and jumpy and DIY and Riot Grrl and hilarious the equivalent “sad backlash of 2010” would be.

    Facetiousness aside, I know of what you speak. Happy is simple, and it is complicated. Elusive and right there. It’s tough to write about happiness, contentment, sadness and the rest without sounding whiny–you have done an excellent job of avoiding that trap while being honest.

    My friend once described her quest for happy as feeling like there was a rock she was towing behind, a big one, bound with a rope, and the rope was over her shoulder and she was lugging that damn rock all the time. And sometimes, a hummingbird would perch on the rock and she knew it was there, but each time she looked over her shoulder, the bird darted away.

    I think that was one of the most tragic images anyone had ever shared.

    • Mary says:

      Amanda, you are on a roll, sister. Everything I read from you (comments included) is full of really artful language. The image of the hummingbird is so tragic, and of course, beautiful. Thank you for reading, and for not finding me too whiny. 🙂

  9. Greg Olear says:

    Nice piece, Mary.

    An interesting idea, that of choosing happiness — that these things are volitional. We just watched a documentary a few nights ago called Beautiful Losers, about these artists who hung out at a Ludlow Street storefront in the early 90s and went on to have some measure of commercial success. At the end, one of their number, Mike Mills (not to be confused with the REM bassist), when asked his advice to aspiring artists, said, in effect, that it’s better to like stuff than to hate everything. I think this is along the same lines as what you discuss. There is some choice in the matter.

    • Mary says:

      I like to review books, but I recently noticed a thing I do that’s pretty obnoxious. I pick things apart and tend to see the flaws. I’m not usually trying to do that, and I think I do it because I’m in school we’re taught to pick things apart. When I do it, I’m trying to understand how the piece works, but I end up just being a downer. The next book I review, I’m going to find some stuff I love about it and try to delve into how *those* parts of the book work. Of course, sometimes, you have to just say something’s not that great if it really isn’t.

      Could I have chosen to like Eat Pray Love, for example? Well, it did have it’s high points, but also some pretty low ones. I probably could’ve been kinder in the review …

      • Greg Olear says:

        If a book is completely lousy and commercially successful to the point of lunacy, it’s cool to rip it to shreds, is my rule of thumb.

        Orwell said that all novels are failures — not sure if he’s right, but all novels have flaws. If not for the good parts, what’s the point of reading at all?

        The few times I’ve reviewed stuff I’ve had difficulty with the middling work. If it’s really great, fine; if it sucks ass, fine. But something middle-of-the-road is the hardest to review.

        • Mary says:

          The trouble with the middle of the road is that an awful lot of work falls there. I mean, the bulk of what you can just pick up in passing while browsing at Borders is middle of the road stuff. The great, however, can be hard to read because they make you work, so middle of the road probably sells better, not to mention there’s just more of it to go around. I was once asked to review a book that was pretty clearly terrible. It read like the author’s livejournal of his travels abroad. The places he went were interesting, but he didn’t begin to do them justice. I felt awful about giving him a bad review, though, because I feel like I’m just stomping on a person’s dreams when I do that, and I don’t even have the street cred (publishing history) to get away with it.

        • Matt says:

          “A critic at a performance is like a eunuch at a harem. He sees it done nightly but is unable to perform it himself.” – Brendan Behan

          I’ve had that feeling myself. I get past it by telling myself how much of publishing success is really just dumb luck. A very good short story can get tossed in the Rejected pile if the slush reader is having a bad day. Plenty of middling stuff makes it onto the shelves not because it’s good but because it’s saleable.

          And some people are simply better critics than they are creators. Roger Ebert wrote several screenplays in the 60s and 70s, and they’re…well, middling. But he’s an excellent film critic and historian. An up-and-coming filmmaker could do worse than to read him.

        • Matt says:

          Ack! I know I coded that right! Damn it!

        • Greg Olear says:

          That’s true, Mary — most does fall there. That also makes it harder.

          And Matt — what coding error?

          Of course it’s luck, publishing. But to some degree, you make your own luck. You have to send stuff out, and keep sending stuff out, for example, to get anyone to read it, even if it is returned — or not even returned — most of the time. Having the success of Rowling of Meyer, similarly, is like winning the lottery. Rowling is worth a billion dollars. Billion. With a B. And those books are derivative and dull.

        • Mary says:

          You definitely have to send stuff out. You can’t just wait to be discovered, and you really can’t sit back watching other people succeed and talking trash about how you think they don’t deserve their success. If you (I) aren’t trying, then no, you (I) don’t really deserve success.

  10. Richard Cox says:

    I love your writing style. I enjoyed this a lot. You ask a lot of good questions, and the Buddhist monk’s comments make sense.

    My feelings about happiness are similar to Irene’s. I think of happiness as an emotion, necessarily fleeting. Full-time happiness wouldn’t be recognizable as happiness. Peace and contentment are what I think of when I imagine a happy attitude, like in the general sense.

    And “pursuit of happiness” is just that. Pursuit. Sometimes you have it, sometimes not. It’s arrogance to think we should be happy all the time. Not just arrogance but ignorance of human nature. In the US our expectations are far too high, and when they aren’t met, we’re angry. Which means we’re angry a lot of the time. A lot of us go around looking for reasons to be affronted. And we’re way too overmedicated.

    I think part of happiness is not looking for reasons to be affronted. Accepting the world for what it is, and finding a peaceful path through it. At least for me it is. For you it might be different. But I think anyone who expects constant happiness is going to be let down.

    • Mary Richert says:

      “I love your writing style” is one of my all time favorite things to hear/read. Thanks. Of course, this may just be feeding my happiness addiction.

      • Richard Cox says:

        I went back and re-read this. I love this paragraph:

        “In fact, I think of suicide all the time: when I’m watching commercials for anti-depressants, when I’m stuck in traffic on a rainy night and no one will let me merge, when I don’t want to pay a bill or when I think about losing all my teeth in old age. Also, sometimes when driving on an empty road late at night, I wonder what would happen if I ran my car off the road. I don’t particularly want to die at that moment, but I’m sort of OK with the fact that it’s possible; so I probe the possibility with my imagination, but I have not yet intentionally swerved off the road. Not even just out of curiosity. So I guess I have no real death drive at the moment. But I could. And for that, I might need Wellbutrin or Lexapro or Zoloft or Prozac. Maybe I should ask my doctor, just in case.”

        Not that it’s about suicide but the way of thinking about it and the way you wrote it. It just hits me the right way. Really the whole post does. Just wanted to say that again instead of just thinking it to myself.

  11. Thomas Wood says:

    I have an awful lot of thoughts about this, mostly because it touches on a lot of discussions I had as a Philosophy major. I’m trying to decide if I ought to have-
    1. A massive reply in the comment section here.
    2. A massive reply in the form of a new TNB post, giving a brief look at “Happiness” from a strictly Philosophical standpoint.
    3. Merely summarize a few points in a comment reply and leave a link to a full reply in my own blog.
    4. Rant about happiness in my podcast until money or woman are sent to shut me up.

    Thoughts?

  12. There’s a book out now– I think it’s titled The Happiness Project– and this book and its author are everywhere talking about the author’s decision to be happy and the resulting book. I am, by nature, a skeptic, a cynic, a bit dark, a bit too ready for the quip, the curl of the lip– half snarl half leer. Sure jerk, I think, it’s that easy. Just make the choice to be happy and magically- -you will be happy.

    And because I am fast to sneer ( and I always, usually, think I’m happy until someone like this comes along and makes me question whether I really am) I think to give this author the benefit of the doubt. I think in essence the author might be saying that we make too big a deal about the concept of being happy. That somehow we think that all the stars must be aligned in order for us to achieve nirvana or orgasm– so yes, I’ll give her that– maybe the approach to happiness should be more simplistic, more child-like. More orgasmic.

    But then it circles back to the fact that as adults– we have just absorbed too damn much to be simplistically happy. So one can make the argument that we– because of the normal stresses of day to day adult-hood– we have been robbed of the ability to be simplistically happy.

    What if we all have different levels of happiness? What if my happy is your depression? What is the litmus test for mandatory happiness? Is there a “happiness” average? My god: when did happy get so complicated? Do you think that might be part of the problem?

    Great, great piece, Mary–

    • Mary says:

      These sorts of things always make me laugh. An author says we make too much of a big deal about being happy, yet here he/she is writing a book and making a living off people’s craving for advice on how to be happy. That is so American.

      I honestly think perhaps happy got complicated when we got used to being rich and spoiled. Because our standard of living is so high, we’ve made that one of our conditions of happiness, and when it dips even momentarily, we go into a tail spin.

      Maybe for me, happiness is a state of stability and feeling OK about life. I should try not to confuse happiness with giddiness, pleasure, excitement, hilarity or anything else. Those are all heightened states, and I really couldn’t sustain that for an extended period. But simple, stable happiness is, well… simple.

  13. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Hmm,

    I think it’s telling that some societies are happier than others, at least to whatever extent happiness can be measured. Nigeria is often cited as one of the countries with the greatest degree of happiness, and indeed my impression of people throughout Nigeria is that they tend to stay carefree, fun-loving and exhuberent, and above all content regardless of privations that most Westerners will never experience. Personally, I can’t see how I haven’t been ludicrously privileged in my life, despite clear memories of having suffered grave injury and long, painful recovery, having starved (for days, even), having been humiliated, having been very poor, and having suffered extraordinary personal tragedies. I guess it really is hard for me to appreciate so much cultural anxiety about happiness. I’m just happy because, well, why would I want to be any other way? Maybe I’m just bred that way. Aaaaaah. Breeding. There I’ve found exactly where to leave off 😉

    • Mary says:

      Uche, your comment is fantastic. I don’t know how to respond aside from quoting the whole thing back to you and saying, “yes.” Thank you!

  14. Don Mitchell says:

    Nice job, Mary, as usual. Clearly laid out, nicely put on the page. Screen.

    I’ve been happy and I’ve been (clinically) sad, and I’ll take happy any day.

    What was it the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers said back in the sixties . . . something like “Dope gets you through times of no money better than money gets you through times of no dope?”

    I quote that because I tend not to think about happiness and sadness as context-free entities. They are all about context, I think, and so when I discover myself to be happy, I sense it in what I’m seeing, or hearing or doing, or where I am in the largest sense. Same for sad.

    As you, and many commentators have said — the idea that one should be happy all the time is beyond silly. Sadness has many benefits, so long as it doesn’t grab ahold of you and not let you go, and so long as you’re willing to think carefully about why it’s there, about what’s going on.

    It’s not simple, though — an obvious thing to say. A couple of days ago I was out on a high green coastline, looking out over the Pacific, whales, forest . . . and felt, in sequence, the happiness of being there in 2010, nearly 67, and a sadness that crept up from my youth, recalling how as a boy I would see the same sight and think, “I have to get out of here, it’s too remote, I’ll always live somewhere else, but I love this place . . . . ”

    A friend of mine, working on a memoir, sent me a piece today that included this: “. . . a place that assumed that what was valuable was sent away, that if you did well, you would have to leave.” That might be a familiar feeling for all of you small town or rural folks.

    I do think that, presumably because of genetics and upbringing, some people are more cheerful and, well, happy than others. Those differences are amplified by circumstances.

    • Mary says:

      The particular type of sadness you experienced up on that hill seems to me tinged also with love and nostalgia, which is not entirely sad. It’s one of those moments when we realize the nature of our lives for a moment. Like moving away from my parents, whom I love, and feeling so sad to leave them yet so ready to get on with my life. When times are tough, I think about how I could always go back to my parents, and I know they would give me a place to stay, etc., but I know that the person I’ve become would not thrive in that movement, and that I need to challenge myself to keep moving forward. Inevitably, love brings heartache. Love of home, family, and even love of self. It always involves leaving something behind in order to grow.

  15. jmblaine says:

    THere’s a crazy survey that just came back
    stating the happiest states in America
    are Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

    Either this survey is for an Onion headline
    with pictures of tar shacks and government cheese
    or there’s something really mysterious
    about how we define happy.

    Maybe they’ll invent X that doesnt rot your brain.
    All Serotonin all the time.
    I want to be as happy as I poosibly can
    long as I possibly can.
    But the real question is
    Am I happy right now?
    Denis Leary got it pretty right a few years back
    and besides the Buddhists
    King Solomon and certain sects of Judaism.
    And the Jains. They’re happy people.

    • Mary says:

      I’ve heard two reports: One says people in Louisiana (where I’m from) are the happiest while people in DC/Maryland (where I live now) are the saddest. Another says the exact opposite. Of course, the first report seems based on the idea that people in rural areas lead slower, more relaxed, more peaceful lives and that people in cities are very stressed out. The second report is based on the idea that people in rural areas tend to have less money, less education, and fewer opportunities while people in cities feel more fulfilled by the same. The contrast of these two reports (I wish i had links for reference) convinces me that they are both more or less bunk.

  16. Lorna says:

    In my pursuit of happiness I believe that everyone else should be on the same level of the pursuit. Everyone should realize its a choice no matter what the circumstances. Everyone should always be happy, so that I will be happy. That isn’t working out so well for me. I sometimes feel guilty to be happy when people around me are not. But who am I to judge another persons happiness anyway? Maybe being grumpy does make them happy. I think that I am wise enough to realize that happy does not come in a bottle or a pill. I struggle with the concept of things and goals as pursuit of happiness. I want things and I have goals and I think they will make me happy when I have them but there will always be the longing for more things and goals once the I achieve the ones I seek. It’s an endless cycle this pursuit. Which is fine with me as long as I’m not the person whose grumpiness makes me happy.

    • Mary says:

      Your comment really made me laugh. On a slightly different but related note, I tend to want everyone to be happy and upbeat, and I so easily mistake other people’s silence or quiet moments for a reflection on me. If my husband is being quiet and doesn’t want to hang out, I wonder if he’s mad at me or if something is wrong. No, it’s not me. Nothing is wrong. He’s just … being quiet. Go figure.

      • Lorna says:

        I hear ya Mary. I too tend to take other peoples emotions too personally. I am learning though, not to be such an emotional sponge. It’s not easy for me. I prefer a harmonious atmosphere. I consider it a lesson I need to learn. Some people are just negative vampires though and I don’t have the time or patience for them.

  17. This is a provocative and interesting piece. It seems very culturally significant. Yes, as we’ve exited the grunge culture of the 90s, and maybe most of us have now aged out of the self-consciously jaded hipster culture so to speak, it seems that there is a strange pendulum swinging towards “happiness” being a badge of success in adulthood.
    I think of myself as pretty happy, and I admit to being one of those people who is friendly and smiles a lot (which I recommend against: it gives you wrinkles.) But the aggressive culture of happiness does kind of get on my nerves. If taken too far, it can definitely make people seem fake or simple minded. Weirdly, I tend to prefer moody, cynical, introverted people, even though I myself am more of an optimistic extrovert, at least most of the time.

    • Mary says:

      Well, I honestly hate to be around people who complain a lot. I’ve got my own problems, and I don’t need to hear all about everyone else’s. Also, occasionally I want my own turn to complain. As much as I try to look on the bright side, sometimes things get to be too much, and I really just want to vent to someone, but then I remember that the moment I start complaining, most people tend to think it’s an invitation to a bitch fest, so my complaints get lost in the crowd of negativity, and it doesn’t do anyone any good, so I just keep it to myself most times… This is not the same as pretending to be happy, though. I just keep quiet, write about it, or call my mom. Eventually, I feel better, and life goes on.

  18. angela says:

    mary, like everyone said, a very interesting piece! especially since i just read an article in the ny times, “depression’s upside,” about how short bouts of depression may actually be good for you – you become more introspective and cut off from the world, which helps to solve or at least get through whatever problem you’re having. i probably simplified the hell out of that, but there you go.

    what you wrote about being aware of unhappiness leading to more unhappiness is so insightful and true. i have a giant fear of public speaking, and what makes it worse are my negative feelings about it, not just the act itself. my heart is pounding, i’m sweating, etc. then i got even more nervous. a vicious cycle.

    i remember hearing that buddhist monk speak on NPR many years ago, and to this day remember what he said about suffering, that it exists not because of a particular situation but because of one’s perception of the situation. when i was dealing with my husband’s infidelity, i kept thinking, how can i change the situation so that i can feel okay about staying in this marriage? i finally realized that what needed changing was my perception – i don’t have to stay in this marriage – not the situation.

    uche’s comment really struck me too. i have a good friend who had a horrific childhood, and yet he’s the most balanced, peaceful person i know. maybe it’s like the monk said, that happiness is simply the absence of suffering. for those in my parents’ generation – not only older, but immigrants who once lived in poverty – whining about happiness is simply not an option. do you have a house? money? a job? food? then you’re good to go.

    as for all the antidepressants, i do believe there is a place for them, for those who are chronically, can’t-even-go-to-the-bathroom depressed, but they’re prescribed much too easily. in the end they don’t solve your problems, only numb you so that you don’t care about them.

    okay, rant over. 🙂

    • Mary says:

      Angela, THANK YOU! You are so right about so much in your comment. I will respond in reverse.
      1) medication for depression: Yep. There are people who need these, and there are times when we need these, and times when we don’t. I was once on antidepressants, and now I’m not. I’m not sure if I really needed them when I was on them or if I could’ve found a different way to cope with my depression. However, they helped me for a while, and then eventually I figured out I didn’t need them anymore.
      2) I wish I’d responded better to Uche’s comment but really he seemed to say it all for some reason. Is it insane to wonder if perhaps most Americans need a little *more* suffering in their lives in order to understand the happiness of simple wellbeing? Not that I wish suffering on anyone, just that… I wonder if it would improve our grasp on reality.
      3)YES to realizing that it’s in your power to leave an unhealthy relationship. Right on.
      4) I think I read the same article you did, and you pretty much got it right as far as I can see. That always makes me laugh when researchers come up with statistical evidence of things most of us sortof instinctively understood.

  19. Judy Prince says:

    You laid it all out in this article, Mary: the classical search for well-being as well as the age-old question about whether we *should* aim for happiness. You did it simply, thoroughly, and with verve at all points, fresh and “home-ly” in effective images.

    That part of my brain that prickles at awesome musical moments prickled at your saying your search for happiness had been motivated by fear…..and then that you actually experienced happiness when you searched for what was *not* fear. Brilliant! Seems that in your *awareness* of the fear component, you faced fear down; i.e., you evaporated the thing that stops joy. It’s been said that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear, and that the two can’t at the same time co-exist in one’s mind.

    Most of the folks I’ve known have gone through deep depressions, and most of them have felt impotent to control the “comings-on” of the depressed state. In short, they *fear* depression because they fear that *it* has power, but that they themselves have no power over it.

    Except for Cognitive (behavioural) Therapy, I know no therapies that foundationally insist that people have power over their depression, that illogical thinking causes depression, and that logical thinking can lift the depression.

    David Burns’s workbook *Ten Days To Self-Esteem* (a really pitiful title) helped me lift my depression a few years ago, and it has stayed lifted. I worked the exercises despite not wanting to, and within days my illogical thinking became obvious to me, as did my ability to see how I was causing my own depressed state. A simple example: “I’ll never be able to write good poems.” (An example of illogical “all or nothing” negative thinking.) To counter it, I’d ask myself: “Have you ever written a good poem? Have you ever written a single line of good poetry? Has anybody ever told you that they liked or were touched or enlightened by any part of one of your poems? Is it completely impossible that you will ever write a good line of poetry, or even a good poem? Is there nothing that you will ever read or learn or practice that will help you write good poems?”

    You (I mean the generic “you”) would likely ask these kinds of questions to a dear depressed friend. Hence, it’s wise to ask yourself such questions, and to write down the answers in order to “get” how you might shift your thinking, open up possibilities. Before reading David Burns’s books I’d assumed that my emotions were the cause of my depressions. Working his book’s exercises, though, I found out that my illogical *thinking* was causing my spiralling-down emotions and ending me in a depressive sink.

    On a somewhat related topic, I believe that you and others would really enjoy a YouTubed wonderfully optimistic, fascinating, and well researched talk by Helen Fisher about the brain’s drives for lust, romantic love and long term attachment. Her often surprising analyses and conclusions are unquestionably heartening:

    Helen Fisher’s YouTube talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-ewvCNguug&feature=related

  20. […] ….with Mary Richert […]

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