image from fineartamerica.com
I wonder if anyone in America is truly happy. Well, that’s too strong: I wonder how many in America are truly happy.
I feel much of what passes for happiness is actually a smiling veneer over a reluctance to think about the question–most likely because thinking about it causes depression.
So I started looking at the various roles in American life to see which could yield happiness. And before I start, let me define it as I’m using it:
- Happiness is being truly content with oneself and his/her life in the current moment, i.e. not based on what may or may not happen in the future.
That seems highly imperfect, but it’s a start. Let’s proceed and adjust as we go on.
Looking around us
Who do we know who is happy in the people around us? Who can I look at and say, “That person gets it.” Most people I know throw off a number of happiness flares, and can deploy them instantly upon being rattled with probing questions like, “Are you happy?”
But I don’t think most are. Let’s look at some examples:
The corporate climber
I have a number of friends (maybe most?) who are climbing some sort of corporate ladder. They’re likely doing the house and fence and kids thing as well, as that’s part of the package. Are they happy, though? Hard to say. I imagine some are and some aren’t, of course, but a key detractor seems to be the fact that most of them are preparing for retirement.
In other words, their focus is not on here and now; their focus is on all the various tasks that must be done to accomplish a goal, e.g. making babies, getting promotions, getting a nicer house, getting jet skis, etc. that will lead to a good home, good schools for the kids, and ultimately them doing what they just did.
I feel this is easy to mess up when pursuing happiness, as often times the person doing this dance feels extremely unhappy–even trapped. They don’t like the life they’ve been forced into, yet the only thing that gives them any happiness is working as hard as they can to give that same burden to their offspring. It only makes sense if you don’t think about it.
The doctor, lawyer, etc.
Strange grouping, I know. But I’m basically trying to say someone making like 250K/year doing something that’s fairly respected in society. Are they happy?
In the case of doctors I often see people basking in the glow of their status, so in that sense I think they could be happy. The credential and the halo effect around it is a constant reminder that they are accomplished, but I wonder how many of them would be happy walking into a room talking not about what credentials they hold but instead what they accomplish.
So imagine a doctor without the ability to wear the garb, or say he was a doctor, or anything like that. Imagine he could only say that he helped others in the way that he does–but he couldn’t say in what position. So, he had to say he was a nurse helping all those people. Would that yield the same happiness? If not, then I think we’ve identified another veneer–a happiness engine powered by the fumes of ego.
I feel like it could be easy for teachers to be happy–especially in situations where it’s easy to see the benefit that’s coming from their work. I’ll not speak of deteriorating education in this country because it’s off topic, and I’m instead focusing on when it goes well.
With teaching you get to see kids’ faces light up. You get to experience wonder. You get to help increase the size of the cup that these little humans will go on to fill. Of course I’m speaking here of certain types of teacher where they’re free to improvise and use various techniques to encourage questions and curiosity–not some person standing in front of the class reading from a script and collecting homework.
But yeah, I think teaching might be a way to get there.
For this I’ll use a mother since they’re more often dedicated parents in the United States. On the surface I see much the same possibility here as with a teacher. You’re building someone, and on even a more basic level than the teacher who only has exposure to certain levers.
But I also see a major pitfall in parenting. With the teacher, it’s just a job. So they get to do that and then go home and be something else. With a parent they are a full-time “supporter”. And supporter is not used lightly there–I think it’s often the polar opposite of “creator”–meaning that there are those who are spending all their energy preparing someone else for life, and then there are those who are living a life.
Unfortunately, they often are not the same. I wrote about this in detail here, but I feel nurturing someone and being creative are both equally taxing on an individual. It’s almost as if you have to make a conscious choice of which to do, and if you want to do one but end up doing the other (or trying to do both) it may lead to unhappiness.
We often hear from mothers who are deeply unhappy despite being a parent. People feeling as if they’re not a person but instead someone who supports others. They seldom use this language, but this is what I hear. I wonder if this is someone who should have been a creator instead of a supporter, or someone who is a supporter but isn’t getting the respect entitled to them as a supporter. I mention it in the article, but I think in the future a parent/supporter will be venerated as an ultimate sacrifice, and will be revered, due to their sacrifice of individual achievement for the achievement of others.
I think artists may have the clearest path towards happiness, as I think a primary key to happiness is creation and the feeling from having people enjoy what you’ve created. That’s just my theory.
Of course, in a world as hostile to artists as ours, it’s hard for the positives to outweigh the negatives. Mentioning you’re an artist at a table full of corporate people gets you socially demoted, and mentioning it to the father of the girl you’re pursuing gets you an introduction to the front door.
So that can put a blanket on the happiness piece there–despite the creation component being present.
I see scientists much like artists and teachers actually. It’s all about how pure your form of the art is. Are you wrapped up in red tape trying to get grants, fighting colleagues for money, and dealing with the most mundane of considerations, or are you on the brink of a major discovery with the adulation of your peers and free reign to pursue your findings?
That distinction can’t be overstated.
I feel that this sort of discovery is nearly identical to the artist’s creation, actually. Which is strange since the science I’m talking about (hard science without the goal of immediate commercial application) isn’t really “creating” as much as it is discovering how things already work.
But it’s the same because of the wonder factor.
Still, does this satisfy the criteria of being happy in the current moment without worrying about the future. Would the artist fit that either? Or the scientist? I don’t think so, because they’re always thinking about their next creation/discovery.
I think my definition of happiness needs tweaking.
As I’ve said here many times before, what makes me happy is consuming and creating thought and then sharing it with others. In some cases I’m admiring art (literature, film, whatever), and in other cases I’m trying to create something akin to it–an idea or a concept that helps others.
I also like helping others, which is somewhat nurturing (vs. creative), and I’m fine with that. It too brings me happiness.
As a more hollow yet effective pick-me-up, I derive enjoyment from creating more tangible and practical resources, such as technical guides, etc. that people use. This seems to straddle the line between supportive and creative, and I’m ok with that as well. The key is that I don’t identify with that content whereas I do with the other type.
On the primary criteria–being happy in the current moment–I think I’m usually failing in that. But this is because I’m usually not in the present moment. I wrote here that I am actually happy with my life as it has been–not just as it could be–and that’s the step that matters.
But because I live so much outside that world, in the world of my work, I am often separated from that happiness. And that brings me to my next example.
Perhaps the answer is simply disconnecting.
I’ve been wanting to incorporate disconnection into my daily routine for a long time now, and I think the shower is actually a weak form of this that people cherish without realizing what it is.
But monks get to actually be happy, on purpose, all the time.
So, why don’t I do this? I think the answer is that I am too entrenched in this life. I have too many friends here. Too many relationships. Perhaps a monk would say that these ties are precisely why I’m not happy.
And perhaps I’d agree.
But I’d also be unhappy if I were to break those ties. Or at least this person I am right now would be. And I’m not willing to depend on the chance that I’ll become the person who won’t care about them. The prospect isn’t even attractive.
So I guess the question is this: what can we learn about happiness (and how to achieve it) from all these various types of people?
I stand by a few statements:
- Most people aren’t happy
- Most people don’t think about happiness, because it makes them unhappy
- Most of those who claim to be happy are deceiving themselves and others
- There are ways to be happy, but they’re often discordant with our society
- We need to build a society that is more conducive to true happiness
In closing, I’ll ask the question:
Are you happy?
Why or why not?
You can use my definition or fix it with one of your own. And if you see any issues with any of my commentary I’d love to hear about that as well.