It might seem weird that I'm bringing up David Foster Wallace in the context of happiness. Hopefully, it won't. Because when I say that I am going to try to be happy, I don't mean the kind of happiness on cereal commercials, where you've been eating nothing but cereal for weeks, and you can finally look down at the scale and say, "Yes!" I'm not talking about the kind of happiness that makes you strut around in a pair of heels. I'm not talking about the kind of happiness that says, "I'm sorry, but I'm going to be happy no matter what it takes."
What I'm actually talking about when I say that I want to be happy is that I want to live a life full of meaning. I want to live in a way where I'm not viewing everyone around me as an inconvenience or an accessory to my life. I want to be the kind of happy that says, "Deep down inside, I believe that I am making the world a better place, simply by being alive." I want the sort of happiness that comes from choosing to not be alone on my own island of better existence. I want the sort of happiness that comes from seeking extrinsic goals, from actively choosing and working to reject the idea that a smaller body or more stuff, or a cleaner house, or flattering clothes will make me happier.
Some people will say, "What did David Foster Wallace know about happiness or living a good life? He killed himself."
I believe that what he knew about happiness is that it is a lot of work. In this speech, he said:
"The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d- people."He goes on to talk about how we can choose to hate everyone for being so stupid, or we can consider where they might have come from. The asshole in an SUV who is cutting everyone off in traffic might be trying desperately to get the hospital where his son is dying. It might not be likely, but it is possible, and who are we to decide what is true for the people around us? Are we really so arrogant that the only reason somebody might be behaving in a way we find annoying is because they're stupid idiots who are inconveniencing us?
Haven't we ever behaved in a way that other people might have hated? When we're stuck in road work traffic and it's getting later and later and we're supposed to be picking our four year old little girl at preschool in five minutes and there's no way we're going to make it on time, and she's going to be scared and disappointed, and we start beeping and swearing and driving like a maniac... all anybody knows about us is that we're an asshole driver, right?
The kind of happiness I'm looking for is the kind that doesn't assume that everyone else is an asshole. Do you see the difference? I'm not aiming for those last 5 pounds of yes! I am aiming for a state of mind where I'm not the only thing that matters, because being the only thing is isolating and lonely and it makes brilliant, beautiful people shove knives through their ribcages. Being the only thing makes us unhappy and sick. It erodes away our bones, hardens our arteries, deadens our skin and makes us cry. Being the only thing hurts, and it is at the heart of unhappiness.
Someone commented on my last post, "This post made me laugh because just last week I was just listening to my Anthropology teacher talk about how it is very American to 'try and be happy.'"
I hated this comment. I found it unbelievably condescending and presumptuous. But then, I thought about how we don't even know what we mean by "happiness," anymore. How, believing that we need to keep working to upgrade ourselves and our possessions, that if we just keep working hard and trying, we can achieve that Special K yes! kind of happiness, which isn't actually happiness at all. That is probably a pretty "American" thing to do.
I think that we're probably just not talking about the same thing. I think that teachers who scoff at anybody's attempt to live with meaning and achieve happiness, probably choose to think about how ugly and stupid and annoying people are. I think that people in happy parts of the world aren't annoying to these teachers, and Americans with their cars and $200 jeans and SUVs are... and that these teachers aren't seeing either group as being human beings with their own truths about existing, and that no matter what your truth is, it's been a lot of work.
I guess I might say to this teacher:
The next time you roll your eyes and point out that if we lived in a remote village in Thailand, we wouldn't have to "try and be happy," maybe you'll think about this. Maybe you'll think about how the act of waking up in America is sponsored, how, in the land of opportunity, there are companies, right now who are plotting ways to get you to spend money on the act of breathing, how our self-esteem and belief in what it means to be acceptable is sold to us, you might not be so likely to scoff at the effort it takes to be happy, in a society where companies hire scientists to peck away at ways to manipulate you, and sell you a new version of yourself that you can't attain, because it isn't you.
What does it mean to be sold a new version of yourself? It means that no matter who you are, you could be better. No matter what you've accomplished, you are still not good enough. It means that you feel powerless and flaccid. It means that, by default, you hate yourself and believe yourself incapable of making decisions about your body, health and happiness.
It also means that corporations are waiting with their arms out to comfort you and provide relief against the desperation they, themselves have have created for you. They build faulty structures you can prop yourself against, to keep your face out of the mud, to keep suicide at bay, to convince you to keep trying to buy salvation. They teach you that you are a failure, but they also perpetuate the myth that it's your fault. They tell you to keep trying... you are simply a temporarily embarrassed version of a better you. You are perpetually one membership, diet, rack of clothing and meal at Subway away from happiness.
Happiness research suggests that, once our basic needs are met, having more of anything, especially money, doesn't actually make us any happier. That is a hard pill to swallow, as an American. That someone who lives in a two room bamboo structure and gardens and fishes to survive could be as happy as we are with our cars and homes and delivery pizza and giant televisions.
Americans have to work at happiness because society is actively working against their happiness. Society is profiting from their unhappiness. Society is built on the faulty belief that more money, more possessions, more opportunity for growth, more status and more acceptance will equal more happiness. Waking up in the morning and not giving into the temptation to hate what we see in the mirror is an act of unabashed bravery. It has gotten to the point for many women that EATING FOOD is an act of bravery. That walking around in the world in their own bodies takes courage and will beyond anything we could imagine.
Americans have to work at happiness because eating food is scary to us. Having just enough money to feed our families and fuel our cars and make payments on our possessions and pay for cable and internet and eating out at a restaurant only once or twice a month is scary to us! Not having money and possessions squirreled away for an imagined future threat is scary to us! Nobody is scared of the fact that we hate ourselves and we view everybody around us as an annoying obstacle to our fearful, depressive existence. Being an American, or a citizen of any highly industrialized society, probably, means that our default setting, thanks to a lifetime of being bought and sold, is isolated, scared and always seeking more.
When I say that I want to be happy, I mean that I want to pass people on the street and see them. I want to be able to say, "I acknowledge that you are more than an inconvenience to me, and I love you in my own small way for being whatever you are. Because I am human, I know that you've been through a lot of shit, to get to where you are and to become what you've become. I don't want to pass judgement on you, because I know that you're lonely and scared and feel like you're lacking, just like me."
I don't want to be mad and in a hurry all the time. I don't want to weigh myself. I don't want to be afraid of breakfast. I don't want to stare at a screen full of meaningless crap all day. I don't want to stockpile a hoard of fear around me. I want to be happy because I love the world and want it to be an okay place. I want to be happy because I want to mean something. That's why I'm trying.