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What Aren’t We Happy?

This isn’t exactly a post about writing, but most of us want to be happy. In fact, I’d venture to say that EVERYONE wants to be happy. And many of us write because it makes us happy, or because we think getting our books published will make us happy. I was tutoring a student for the SAT last week, and she had to write an essay to answer the following question: “Do you think that people are capable of finding happiness or are they always searching for something beyond what they have?”

Last summer I read a book called Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. If you’d asked me right after I put the book down, I could have quoted you all sorts of passages, but now the few things that remain with me are:

1. To maximize your happiness, order what you want at a restaurant. Don’t get something different from the person you’re with if you both want the same thing.

2. If the intervals between the times you have something (say Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch ice cream) are not too short, you will always maximize your happiness by getting your favorite thing rather than a variety of things. Only when the intervals are close will you get sick of your favorite thing and get more happiness out of an alternate thing.

3. People who are disabled are just as happy as people who are not, and yet people who are not think they would be miserable if they were disabled. In other words, what you think will make you happy is not always the case. In fact, it is rarely the case.

And that brings me to my epiphany about happiness. Okay, well it’s not a full-fledged epiphany so much as a vague outline of an epiphany, but here it is: Most people do not truly WANT to be happy. Wait. Doesn’t that contradict what I said above, that everyone wants to be happy? Well, I think that everyone THINKS that they want to be happy, but that they really don’t. I think people would rather fit into society than be happy because to truly be happy, you’d have to stop participating in society. And here is what I mean by that:

We’ve all read enough books/magazine articles/poems/zen koans to know that the key to happiness is living in the here and now and appreciating what we have instead of looking toward the future and striving to have more, right? Ways to do that could include:

1. Thinking daily about all that we have rather than focusing on what we don’t have (some people may do this through a gratitude journal or a meditation.)

2. Doing the things that make us happy—reading the books on our shelves, wearing the clothes in our closet, going for walks, gardening, watching a sunset, playing with a pet or a child, all the things we can do now, for free, that make us happy.

But most of us would rather work toward being more than we are and having more than we have than doing the things that make us happy. Rather than settling for the apartment we live in, we want to buy a house. Rather than being content with that house, we want to fix it up or buy a bigger house. We want to make more money next year than last year. We want to buy nicer things, take fancier vacations, invest more money. When/where does it end? It doesn’t. Why? Because if we were content with what we had, if we didn’t strive to earn more/achieve more/own more, we wouldn’t fit into society. We’d be considered unambitious, perhaps lazy, maybe even dumb. I think of the heroes on all my favorite TV shows: The Sopranos, Mad Men, Big Love. They’re all smart, ambitious, and striving to get ahead. One could even argue that our economy would fall apart if people stopped wanting and buying new things. If everyone were happy with what they had, what would make the world go around? And not only that, but what purpose would we have in life? Striving to get things gives us something to do; it keeps us busy. Without that we’d be left to live like our primitive progenitors: feeding and raising families would be our main purpose for existence.

When I think about writing, I wonder how many of us are content to write regardless of whether we ever get published. Most of us want to get published—badly—even though we know we won’t make much money and that it’s very unlikely to allow us to quit our day jobs. My question is why? Do we write because it truly makes us happy? Are we TRULY happier agonizing over dialogue and character and story arc than we would be out watching a sunset or reading a book? I can’t say I am. I do love to write, but if I were going strictly for happiness, I may bail on my book at this point. I have it in my head that getting my book published will garner enough happiness to make up for the unhappiness I’ve endured through countless revisions. But will it? Really? Happiness tends to be short-lived while unhappiness endures. I find that when I achieve a goal—like run a half marathon—I feel good about it for a few days and then I move on to think about the next thing I want to achieve. I don’t relish in it for weeks the way I do after a great vacation. So why are we working so hard and not taking more vacations? I suppose it’s mostly about self-worth—about feeling like we’ve accomplished something and made something of ourselves rather than focusing on what makes us happy. Why is self-worth more important to us than happiness? Is it something inherent—or egos? Or is it societal pressure to not be considered a slacker? Because if it’s inherent, maybe there’s no way around it. But if it’s societal, then removing ourselves from that part of society (Do not read beauty magazines; they will only make you feel ugly) and instead surrounding ouselves by like-minded individuals whose goal is happiness would be the solution. Either way I’m convinced that if we’re not happy—truly happy—it’s because happiness isn’t truly our priority, as much as we think it is.

What do you think? To repeat the SAT question: Do you think people are capable of finding happiness or are they always searching for something beyond what they have?

16 comments to What Aren’t We Happy?

  • I too read Gilbert's book and really enjoyed it. There are lots of answers to the question you pose. One might be that other things are more important than happiness (however defined). Another, probably closer to it, is that the happiness comes in the striving. Relatedly, the activities in your #2 are something some people strive to have more of (or more time for)…say, by getting to a place where they can quit their day job.

    I would separate, as you do, the creative act of writing from the striving to be published. I would also say that feelings of self-worth and happiness are highly interrelated. If writing is about an author connecting with readers (as opposed to just setting down words for themselves), then we strive to get those readers to fulfill us creatively. The more people who read our words, the more people who are exposed to our art, the more satisfied we (think we) will be.

  • Wow, big post/topic.

    "Happiness tends to be short-lived while unhappiness endures."

    Hmm, I don't think that's true for me. A few dramatically unhappy moments stand in my memory, but for the most part, I have forgotten large chunks of unhappiness in my life. Instead I have very fond feelings towards things (like different years in school or different people) — sometimes fondness that those times/people don't deserve, if I'm being objective. But I'm a naturally forgiving (and forgetful) person. So perhaps it's dependent on personality.

    I do think there is something in human nature that leads us constantly to strive for more. But I think that makes some people happy. And I don't think it means that we *don't* appreciate what we already have.

    But of course, striving doesn't make everyone happy, and I wish the ones who were unhappy about it could just stop. That's where I'm with you in terms of people wanting to fit in. The unhappy people keep striving, even though it makes them miserable, because they think they're supposed to. That's where society needs to make change. I mean, it really is Death of a Salesman, you know?

    As for writing, I do love it. Even when it sucks, lol. And I feel fortunate to live in a time where, even if I never get published, I can at least share my work with a small audience via the internet. Reading something of my own gives me *some* satisfaction, but it's not nearly as great as the feeling I get when people enjoy my stories. Will I keep writing even if I never get an agent or a book deal? Absolutely. But would I write if I were the only one who would ever read my words? That I don't know…

  • Its hard to look at that kind of thing objectively. I know you know that when you have babies it all shifts. Mostly what you want is for them to be happy. And you have no control over that after a certain amount of time. It's a hard thing.

  • (Well, certain things I already write just for myself, but those are more like when I'm upset or puzzling over something personal.)

  • I have had happy times. And unhappy times — a lot more of them. Happy is definitely better.

  • Kristan – I guess for me the distinction is between achievement and unhappiness more than happiness and unhappiness. Achievement affords me short-lived happiness, while doing something that TRULY makes me happy endures. And yet I am very goals/achievement oriented.

    Lt. Cccyxx – I think that's why I'm goals/achievement oriented more than happiness oriented – because although the high from the achievement is short-lived, the self-worth is long-lasting.

    Anastasia – yes, kids change everything! Because then you realize that maybe fulfillment is more important than happiness. Gilbert said that people who have kids are happiest once their kids are grown up and move away! I think that's true in we're measuring happiness by the amount of sleep we get, the amount of vacations we take, etc. But if we're measuring fulfillment and not happiness, I get a LOT of fulfillment out of having kids. And that's way more satisfying and long-lasting than fun, happy moments (although we have a lot of those, too).

  • first of all, let me say – I don't believe the conquest of happiness will make us happy – I believe in being content.. not happy..

    If life throws some curve balls at me – I wish to overcome it, but also be content about that it threw a curveball, and that I need to overcome it – I won't be delighted with the curve ball for sure, but in the larger scheme of things, I won't be miserable (well, depending on the curve ball – he he).

    So, do I really want a bigger house, more things etc.. to make me happy – no. Does it mean I am not going to buy more things? No. We just bought a big ass TV- but I wasn't unhappy with the old one (well, may be my husband was). Do I want new clothes? Yes. Am I unhappy with my old ones? No. Its just a change – to break the monotony of life.. I wdn't be miserable if I didn't buy clothes for the next few months – but that doesn't mean I wdn't desire them.

    Having said that.. do I bitch/ vent/ complain? Yes. he he. Am I truly miserable? No. Then, why do I bitch or vent… sounds lame -but its just something to do – makes me feel normal, clears the air, releases the steam..

    Bottomline – am I content with everything I have right now? Yes.

    Am I truly blissful? No..

    I get frustrated, angry, down… all those things… but it doesn't take away from being content – in the larger scheme of my life.

  • okay – aaargh.. I just posted the following comment – and then something went wrong.. aaaargh.. i am annoyed but it doesn't mean my life sucks… 😉

    anyway, what I said was..

    what u say wrt kids – is exactly what I mean.. I don't think its contradictory – happiness and contentment are different pursuits.. and even if one is entirely content in the larger scheme of things – doesn't mean – we can live without mousse au chocolat for the rest of my life.. but if it ain't comin now – so be it..

  • I think people can find happiness if they are able to recognize it when it happens.

    That was my problem for years – the inability to recognize it when it happened. I would only realize it later, after the fact, and be surprised. "Oh, wait. I was happy t then. Wished I'd known it!" I think recognizing the happy times comes with experience, and also comes when you find know yourself. For me, that's taken a long, long time.

    Great post as always Meghan.

  • Happiness is different from contentment. We need both, in varying amounts on varying days. You can be happy momentarily, but contentment is a feeling of peace within yourself at having (I think) conquered things you didn't think you could do, whether that's live out of your pantry or type THE END in your WIP. While I might be momentarily HAPPY without writing, I could never be content. And while sometimes writing doesn't make me happy (let's face it, it makes me crazy at times), it does make me content.

    Interesting, thoughtful blog post!

  • Aditi – I think there's a fine line between contentment and happiness, but I agree that seeking fulfillment/contentment is more likely to produce happiness than seeking happiness – precisely for the reasons Gilbert states – that what we "think" will make us happy usually doesn't. "why do I bitch or vent… sounds lame -but its just something to do – makes me feel normal …" This, again, relates to societal pressure – that we bitch or vent to feel normal means we do it to fit in, right?

    Sierra – great point. So the key is to recognize happiness WHILE it's happening and not in retrospect – kind of like living in the moment. When I take the kids to the park, rather than focus on wishing I had more time to work on my book, etc. I try to think, "Someday you will look back on these days and think fondly of the times you got to spend your afternoon hanging out playing with kids at a park!"

    Cynthia – You said this so well! As always, life is about balance – and finding a balance between happiness and contentment is exactly what we need. So sometimes I need to take care of my kids and work on my WIP (contentment) and sometimes I need to escape and watch a movie or get a massage (happiness). Amen.

  • I just found your blog via a link on twitter, and I have to say this post really resonates with me. I've suffered from depression since childhood, and while medication helps a lot, it certainly hasn't "cured" me. IMO, I think for most people it is just *easier* to be unhappy. Complaining comes naturally, being grateful for all that you have doesn't. It also seems that when trying to find things in common with strangers, most times you will share the same sort of gripes (for writers it would be things like writer's block, rejection letters, hating to write synopsises, etc) more often than sharing successes. Or maybe this is just what I've seen personally.

    And I completely agree with the writing for happiness thing. I am holding on to the hope that I will one day get published and be able to sell enough books to quit my day job (say after 5 years or so b/c I know it wont happen right away unfortunately). But it's definitely NOT the easiest way to happiness. Writing my first draft has been hard enough for me, I'm sure it will only get more difficult once I start revising. Then comes the dreaded querying and synopsis writing which I'm sure will make me want to hit my head against the wall a few (hundred) times.

    Anyway that's enough rambling from me. Great post, I am going to follow you & go check out more of your blog now!

    P.S. Meghan with an "h" is totally the cool way to spell our name hehehe! 😉

  • Meghan with an H – "I think for most people it is just *easier* to be unhappy. Complaining comes naturally, being grateful for all that you have doesn’t." I very much agree with this statement! I do think that we're all in for a lot of disappointment if we think getting published is going to make us happy (ask anyone who is published), but I also think it will give us some fulfillment/self-worth. The important thing is not to let our self-worth hang on that dream and to find other things along the way that fulfill us.

  • I completely agree w balancing happiness and contentment – becos the way life is we can't be happy or content all of the time / but we can definitely have one of the other some of the time – and be grateful for it. A small change I made recently was that I always hate sweeping the kitchen floor and the truth is that I need to do it everytime I cook – about 5 nights a week / so last week I decided instead of always feeling like I wish I didn't have to

    do this – I told myself I m going to treat it like flossing – not pleasurable, but something that needs to be done / from this morning I m applying to bed making – becos I hate that just as much as cleaning the kit floor / definitely, takes some negative energy out.

  • Aditi – way to turn lemons into lemonade with regard to your kitchen floor sweeping! My problem is that I tend to think that way about everything "don't think about it, just do (the dishes, the laundry, exercise, editing, etc.)" and after a while it starts to get me down that my whole life is a to-do list. Again, it's all about balance!

  • Good Stuff, do you have a youtube account?