18 July 2008

An Unexpected Question

I was doing an interview today and asked if he had any questions for me. We'd been talking about college, and I'd talked about how much I enjoyed my undergraduate experience. His undergraduate experience had been incredible, and was the subject of much of our conversation. "Yes, I have a question," he said. "Are you happier now than you were in college?"

It seems to be a theme lately. When my mom and I were talking this past week, she shared that she and a friend had been talking about me. I imagine it was a very general conversation: "He lives in L.A. He has a good job. No, he's not seeing anyone." As my mom describes it, her friend at this point stopped and asked with great gravity, "Is he happy?"

I spend a lot of time thinking about happy. My parents have always told me that's all they want for me, to be happy. I've always resented that a little. It's a very high bar, and not one that's easily maintained, once achieved. Much easier to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or to get married and have children--all of which are generally uncorrelated to being happy.

I look at my friends, and try to assess whether they're happy. Most times, they appear to be so. Perhaps that's because, unless they say something or look miserable, I don't really consider happiness to be a normal state of being. A state of being 'well' seems good. 'Fine' seems to be another serviceable permanent state. 'Happy' just seems so aggressive. In this age of market meltdowns, lurking inflation, political unrest, housing foreclosures, and ever-higher divorce rates, who has the balls to claim they're "Happy, thank you"?

Perhaps my family is to blame. Ora et Labora is the motto of my Scottish family. Pray and work. There's no happy there. The Italian side of my family has a name derived from "fortified stronghold." Clearly, nothing about happy there either. It was considered a great revolution when our Framers put the "pursuit of happiness" into the Declaration of Independence. We've been arguing about that one now for over 225 years.

So like any adult faced with a question they can't really address in the time allowed ("Mom, why do I like boys more than girls?"), I fell back on a good standard.

"Yes," I said. "I'm happier. But it's a different kind of happiness."

Bullshit. The truth, my reader, is that I'm much happier than I was then. Much of it comes from letting go of the things that were making me unhappy. I could be just as lonely, but I'm working on letting that go a little. I could be just as heart-broken, but it gets easier each time to let that go, too. I understand love a bit better, and find fun ways (like this article) to make it not hurt so much. I have more money than I did in college, which has changed my lifestyle but not my happiness. I understand happiness better too, and its utility, which itself makes me happy. I know that some of the best, most productive, dynamic, and powerful times of my life have been times when I've been decidedly, militantly, brutally, unhappy.

The gyrations this week on Wall Street underscore the perils of happiness or despair. Just when you think one of them is your permanent state, you're served up a big heaping pile of the other one. At the end of this week, I'm far better off than I was on Monday. But I am no happier. I am just not unhappy anymore.

The perils of hitching your happiness on external things has been a life-lesson in the last several years (or lifetimes, depending on your belief system). I have an ongoing debate with one of my close friends about being "connected" with everyone else in a spiritual sense. We are all connected, the philosophy goes, and our experiences are shared by everyone else. When we face something we dislike, it's really a part of ourselves we dislike, since we are all one to begin with. You've already picked up on my orientation to this: I'm skeptical. I'm an individualist, a capitalist, and an objectivist. Such identity precludes a shared experience with others, and prides itself on the solitary experience. You didn't write this blog, dear Reader. I did. See? We're separate.

"But wait," says my friend. "Someone is reading it, and in their mind a dialogue has been created that didn't exist a few minutes ago. They may also comment on your wacky ideas. Therefore, the philosophy of connectivity is cohesive."

Alas, I fear she may be right. This is challenging because I've always imagined happiness to be something I get for myself. It's not so much a state of being as a state of being in possession. This broke down a little this week when I realized in a flash (I was driving at the time) that all of the material things around us can be taken away in a blink. This is not always bad! Sometimes, they're taken away and replaced with even better things. The challenge: they're just things (and I include possessive friendships and lop-sided relationships here) and they will inevitably change. What doesn't change is ourselves. Take away my blog, my eyesight, my wardrobe, my ability to walk, and I'm still me.

In a world like that, happiness isn't something you achieve, it's a state of being--a delicate balance that must be maintained. It has its own autopoiesis, I word I came to adore when I studied for two years with the Aji Network. And if it's a state of being, then asking whether anyone is "happy," including me, must come along with a temporal specification: "Are you happy right now?"

Considering I'm about to get in my comfortable bed, my answer would be "Yes."

And how did my mom answer that question posed by her friend? "I think so," she said. And then called me to make sure.


Diabolina said...

you break my heart with your beautiful writing. break it in a good way. in a way that makes me happy. or happier. or happy right now. or happy for the lifetimes we've shared.

wearing peacock feathers in my hair and looking forward to dancing on the beach tomorrow,

WeezerMonkey said...

I'm so surprised that the NY Times article was written by Ben Stein!

It is interesting to think about whether you're happy. I've never spent too much contemplating it, probably because I am lucky enough to be in a near-constant state of happiness. It is not the same happiness all the time. It varies. It changes. But I've been blessed to have experienced different kinds over the years.

To compare my happiness now to my happiness at another time is difficult. I'm not sure it can even be done. But this is something cool to ponder.

Jean Bean said...

Even if you took away your intellect and your words, you'd still be you. Scary but true. When you were a baby, there was someone staring out from behind your eyes, and that's you. xx

cyberob151 said...

Great writing style, keep it up. Count me as part of your readership. Also, I very much enjoyed the Ben Stein article.

"Ben Franklin summed it up well. In times of stress, the three best things to have are an old dog, an old wife and ready money. How right he was."