Switzerland is the happiest country in the world, according to the headlines. Headlines like the word happy, but if you get into the report, the word the researchers use is satisfied. Happy implies Disneyland and sleeping in (because, many pardons to Disneyland, my bed is actually the happiest place on earth). Satisfied is something else.
What does happy even mean? I’m happy riding one of those concussion-inducing rides at the county fair. I’m happy–irrationally, irrepressibly so–every time I hear Raspberry Beret. I’m happy when I turn a corner and see my house and think “mine” like Golum and his precious. I’m happy when the DMV comes to my work. I’m happy in the water. And these are all very different feelings. They happen, at least for me, in bursts. Bursts that come and go. The background, the majority of the time, I’m alright. I have some things that are going great. Some things I’m working on . A handful of frustrations. But overall, I’m okay.
Maybe being 100% happy, 100% of the time is the equivalent of eating ice cream for every meal. Do I love me some ice cream? Sure. Ben and Jerry make up two parts of my favorite threesome. But I’d stop wanting ice cream if that was all I ate. Maybe wanting to be happy all the time would ruin happiness.
There is this idea that we are supposed to be happy. The pursuit of happiness is written into the Declaration of Independence. It might as well be constitutional. But it doesn’t say that we ought to achieve perfect, everlasting happiness. Just that everyone should be free to chase it.
A while ago, Louis CK had this bit about how everything is amazing and no one is happy. You can buy a computer or a smartphone for what my dad spent on his first calculator and connect to anywhere or find any bit of information available. And yet no one seems to be any happier. It seems like our favorite topic of conversation is when that really annoying thing happened and ruined our day. Well, since when was I promised that nothing annoying would ever happen to me?
Where is the study linking satisfaction (or happy for the headline) to expectations? Can we look at the broadening gap between happy and expectations. What do I think my life is supposed to be like? Seriously? I’m sponsoring a kid in Sierra Leone. What does she think her life is supposed to be like? Subsistence farming. Early marriage. Genital mutilation. That’s about standard for a 4 year old girl in Sierra Leone, assuming she misses out on the myriad of childhood diseases that have a good chance of killing her. What do I think her life should look like? Education. No mutilation. The option to choose who and when she marries. Food. Water. Do I think she should have two cars? Do I think she should have Prada shoes? (Okay, but these are kind of awesome.) Do I think she should have 1,000 thread count sheets?
So why do we think we should have those things? Or maybe it isn’t that we should have them, it’s that we *could* have them. But why should the distance between me and owning Bill Gate’s house, or Mariah Carey’s shoe closet, make me dissatisfied with the world?
In relationships, if Titanic is the ideal… remember the part where Jack dies? Yeah, it is easy ot have an epic love when no one has to wash the dishes.
No, I take that back. One half of the relationship would have to be dead. Look at celebrities. I bet Ivana and Donald Trump never argued about who was going to wash the dishes, and yet unlimited resources and 1000 thread count sheets didn’t make that work. Or any other “fairy tale” marriage of the rich and famous.
I’m wandering here. The point is this. Happy is a rotten goal. If that’s what I’m chasing, I’m never going to get there. Satisfaction is doable, but it seems like this country has, starting with the Declaration of Independence, gotten some fundamental things mixed up. Somewhere along the line, we started associating happy with stuff. Big house, fancy speakers, loads of money. And because the pursuit of happy is written into our cultural DNA, we think that chasing the big house, fancy sound systems, and loads of money is going to get us where we want to be.
But you look at what makes up satisfaction: stable employment, allowing yourself to feel awe, connection to friends and family… Qualifying for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous isn’t on that list. Frankly, I’m lucky. I have strong, meaningful connections to friends and family. I have a steady job. And there is Raspberry Beret any time I want to listen to it. I’m about as happy as it gets. At least as long as I refrain from telling myself that Mariah Carey’s closet would make my life better.
It wouldn’t. In fact, it might make my life worse.