Happily ever after

I read a fascinating article recently in the Wall Street Journal. (That in itself is remarkable considering what this rag has sunk to.) It’s all about happiness.

Happiness, finding your bliss, is something Daniel and Welsey talk about a lot, either directly or indirectly, in Entertaining Welsey Shaw. In fact, the original idea for the novel was simply that, a series of conversations about happiness, with someone whom we expect to be happy—a super-successful celebrity. Happiness is something not quite in the grasp of either Daniel or Welsey. Not that they’re miserable, moping around and eying razor blades. But they’re not the sort of people who just go through life without questioning, without doubting, without feeling that maybe, just maybe, that grass on the other side of the street is a little softer, a little greener, a little less contaminated by doggie poop.

Happiness seems to be one of the main goals of American life. I have a theory that we only obsess about the things we don’t have or get enough of in real life (sex, money, happiness, sportscars). If we were content with those things, we wouldn’t spend all our spare time thinking about them, after all.

And one thing we sure seem to want is happiness. Non-stop happiness.

The somewhat more traditional European and Asian outlook, that pain teaching us something, that unhappiness is as critical to a complete life as happiness, is alien to most of us. Our stories must have happy endings. Our heroes must triumph, above and beyond what we expect. They must save the day, get the girl, receive the treasure, and live many long happy years after. I was in Salzburg during the Mozart 250th birthday celebration, and there were exhibits and “appreciations” everywhere. They largely consisted of people babbling about how eternally happy Mozart’s music made them, or how eternally “gay” and “happy” the music was itself.

It made me wonder if people today even listen to Mozart. (Okay, in all fairness people didn’t listen to him 200 years ago either.) Those slow movements that everyone speaks of so glowingly aren’t happy. They’re achingly sad. Mozart spent much of his life melancholy. His music, despite the commercial spin of today’s marketers, is not about boundless joy.

But for so many of us, endless happiness seems to be the goal. Not a goal. Thegoal. A therapist friend of mine confesses that most of her patients are really just ordinary people who at one time wouldn’t have thought to have any unusual problems, they were just in the midst of life, with all its riches. But today, they come to her seeking happiness, guaranteed and unconditional, and they stay with her until they get it, which of course they never do, because they can’t, because there’s no such thing. As the WSJ article says, “…in our super-positive society, we have an unspoken zero-tolerance policy for negativity. Beneath the catchall umbrella of negativity is basically everything that isn’t super-positive. Seriously, who among us is having a ‘Great!’ day every day? Who feels ‘Terrific, thanks!’ all the time?”* (Actually there’s a wonderful scene that illustrates this in the Sofia Coppola film Lost in Translation. She shows us people—played by Anna Faris and Giovanni Ribisi—who are blissfully, manically, you might say almost stupidly content with everything. Not so giddy are the film’s main characters, Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson, and Bob, who of course is Bill Murray. They see things differently than everyone else, and that’s what draws them together.)

And this makes me think of another great film of recent vintage, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The point of the film is that without the bad memories, we can’t appreciate the good ones, that if we’re happy all the time, happiness has no meaning.

I came across this blog recently wherein the author states her goal of being happy all the time. All 365 days of the year. Every year. That would call for a lot of lying to oneself, and ignoring unpleasant aspects of the world, living in the realm of total imagination rather than seeking out reality. Think of how life would be for African Americans today if Martin Luther King and Malcolm X decided to just ignore all bad things and be happy all the time.

Welsey and Daniel wouldn’t agree with this philosophy. Maybe that’s why they need each other. They know that too much happiness is simply meaningless. It’s like winning every ball game because you’ve taken steroids. What’s the point of playing?

*Actually I have a relative who’s like this. He’s in sales.

One response

  1. Thoughtful post, John. I agree. I think happiness is over-rated and something advertisers have hijacked in order to get us to buy stuff. Real life is a mixed bag. Like the sea, happiness–or I prefer the word contentment–ebbs and flows.


    June 14, 2012 at 6:36 am

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