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

Marketocracy

By Ryan Day

Essay

Unfortunately, I am in no position to refuse $75 for an hour of my time no matter what the the contents of that hour. They could have asked me to drink six bottles of catsup (ketchup?). They could have asked me to have tea with Glen Beck and soothe his uniquely bruised ego with prefabricated whispers about the peaceful forces at the center of the conservative universe (you are a child of the marketplace… the invisible hand will always lead you towards the light of the DOW…). I would have mowed lawns, bagged leaves (though I imagine the going rate of yard maintenance is somewhat lower), run backwards into the weird smelling basin at the end of the Salt River. But, alas, all they wanted was that I watch some movie trailers and tell them, no matter what I really thought, that the Rock was just the actor to breathe renewed life into that excalibur of cinematic roles, the Tooth Fairy.

I got to the industrial park fifteen minutes early and drove, as the instructions dictated, to the Southwest corner. There were others milling about the door aimlessly all with the same green sheet of paper that I had been given.

“You here for the market testing?” Asked a man in an LSU football jersey.

“Yeah.” Answered a girl with a nose ring that seemed misplaced by a few centimeters.

“How we get in?”

“Dunno.”

That static sort of quiet that accompanies strangers in a crowd ensued until finally, LSU man broke it with a loud exhale that was clearly meant to be communicative of a desire to communicate. His lips fluttered from the force of the air he’d pushed out.

“Geez, breathe much?” Said a middle aged woman clinging to her purse as if she’d just cleaned out her bank account and accidently stumbled onto the yard of a maximum security prison. She giggled, indicating that what had seemed like a rude comment had really been intended as playful banter.

“Sorry. Deviated septum.” Said the LSU man.

“I dreamed I was eaten by a crocodile last night,” said the purse clinging lady. “But, I guess that’s not the same.”

LSU man smiled, nodded and waited exactly long enough to seem as though he had made the decision to move away from her subsequent and unrelated to the comment.

Just then another man, a teen really, wearing a fedora and All Stars, approached nervous purse clinging lady. “I dreamed the supermarket was out of clam chowder.”

I switched my attention to another conversation which was midstream. “… Mormon.” This would be good.

“So how many heavens are there, like, for you all?” It was nose ring girl talking to a mormon in a Linkin Park shirt.

“A lot. I dunno exactly like, but a lot.”

“Don’t you, like, believe in other planets and stuff?”

Mars, Venus, Saturn all those fictitious orbs.

“No.”

Just a bunch of average Americans going to rate movie trailers.

The door opened and we were ushered in, given name tags and assigned tables in rooms with two way mirrors, white boards and conference tables. There were pictures of a Phoenix past on the wall. City Hall 1888. It was wrapped in a bow leading me to believe this was some sort of inaugural. There were carriages parked out front. The streets were otherwise mostly empty. Just this one municipal building asserting itself in the center of this arid expansion of sand and brittle fauna that we call desert.

It reminded me of the violence that is involved in creating a shaped something from an amoebic nothing. Forgive my blatant Eurocentrism here (I am, emphatically, aware that there was not ‘nothing’ here), but I am speaking of perceptions, and for the European consciousness (which could be thought of as a lack of consciousness) this motion westward was involved in creating and defining an area that had not existed, almost like making a movie, or painting. Of course, they were painting over someone else’s painting, and painting in Neons that clashed with landscape instead of the more appropriate pallet of their predecessors.

There was a sandwich tray. Nose ring girl quickly folded two slices of square ham, two cherry tomatoes and a Kraft single freed from its cellophane wallet into a Miracle Whip slathered slice of Wonder Bread, and then just as quickly folded all of that into her mouth never ceasing her conversation with the Mormon.

“So, how do you get into the best heaven?” She asked him, her voice muffled by the mass of partially chewed sandwich.

He cringed just a little, but seemed to gauge that this mortal soul related info was more important than his own offended sense of etiquette. “Well, I dunno exactly, but I know you have to be Mormon.”

She stopped mid chew to frown, and her shoulders sagged. “Balls.”

Then our leader, Jan as her name tag indicated, arrived. She asked us to name our favorite comedians: Farell, Sandler, Rogan, Carey, Gervais, Carell, Black, Gallafenekis, Rock… The list went on and was no more or less surprising than you might expect.

We were asked why we thought one was funny and another not… A question that I imagine as more the grounds of philosophers than market researchers.

The point here, I guess, is that this exploration into the why is in itself so cynical, so scientific, so disgustingly clinical, that by the end of the session I had a hard time thinking of any of them as funny. Funny is spontaneous. Funny is the incorruptable corrupt at the center of a humans anarchisticly oriented wildly giggling self.

And the saddest thing: this is a moment indicative of our compulsion to capitalize every last tendril of our giggly human innards.

Funny is putting a big stone building in the middle of the desert, tying a bow around it, claiming that you have somehow carved this space from the meaty mass of reality into the tasty steak of a cultured locale, and convincing people to gather around it. Just look at all the sweaty Phoenicians on a 93 degree November afternoon, walking through one of a thousand recently converted ‘lifestyle centers’, long tracks of spritzers running along the facades of stores, keeping people from panting like dogs as they gait along the window lined corridor as if storefronts were fire hydrants.

That gives me an interesting new concept for debit.

So, myself, purse clinging lady, nose ring girl, LSU fan man, Mormon boy and a few unexceptional others sat around a table and ventured to carve out a theory of humor that could help these people better sell Adam Sandler’s newest excretion of reductive homophobia (Chuck and Larry anyone?).

I kept thinking of the weird Mormon heaven hierarchy, which I have not researched and know nothing about. I wondered if it would be better than Phoenix. Salt Lake City is not such a great place and if it is at all indicative of the Mormon architectural imagination, which could really in some pre-symbolic way be based in nothing but their conception of paradise, then it would probably have pretty crappy transit and be generally unfriendly to the pedestrian.

Jan shook me from my contemplation. “Mr. Day, would you find a film about the Tooth Fairy more or less attractive because it starred the Rock?”

“…Ummmm. I think I would probably scrap the film and invest in public transit.”

“Excuse…”

“Less. I would be less interested.”

I took my $75, multiplied it by 12, the number of people in my group, then by 5 the number of groups that day, then by 14, the number of days this research would be conducted to arrive at the conclusion that I haven’t done math since my Freshman year in college. Nonetheless, I was convinced that whatever number I would have calculated would have disgusted me.

Driving home past downtown Phoenix I didn’t see the lonely City Hall building from the photo. I saw the arching metal beams of a modern stadium, the glossy black windows of high rises, the crawling chrome worm that is Phoenix’s first line in a new rapid transit system, people sitting in front of cafes and bars the walls of which were lined with local artwork.

I thought about how we are still in control of these communities, these ’somethings’ that we are carving from ‘nothings’, from deserts, forests, plains, mountains…

If only someone would have offered us $75 to talk about about that.