Don’t Worry, Be (Un)Happy

Photography by: Gary Taxali
Don’t Worry, Be (Un)Happy

I’m generally not a happy-go-lucky person. I smile often and laugh easily, yes. But my emotional bent is somber. Quiet self-reflection is a favorite pastime. A friend once told me, “Penny, you’re not happy unless you’re unhappy.” I knew what she meant. While I’m not dealing with the all-out darkness of depression, I hated to think that what I’d come to see in myself as depth—soulful melancholy neither inflated with artificial cheer nor belabored with superfluous woe—others saw as doom and gloom. So, I briefly sought out solutions to cure my socially repellent moodiness. A Google search turned up one of those how-to-behappy articles, promising an instant boost could be found if I simply rearranged my furniture. Which I did. The furniture in every room of my apartment was in flux for nearly a year. And ironically, only after I moved my did I resume getting a good night’s rest. In a nutshell, I have tried to be “happy”— and it hasn’t worked. And I suspect I’m not alone, because, in case you haven’t heard, women are getting unhappier. A recent study by two University of Pennsylvania economists found that although our lives have improved in the last 35 years, our happiness levels have declined. What’s more, women in their 30s (like me) reported feeling the least happy compared with women in the same age group 30 years ago. While the culprits of our collective disheartenment are unknown (our jobs? our spouses? our genes?), countless selfhelp books and life-improvement gurus are charging us to reclaim our bliss. The key to happiness? Well, they say, it’s as simple as one positive thought or five-minute meditation. Or moving a bed from one wall to another. Sure, if we followed all the advice out there, word for word, day after day, who knows—it just might work. But I, for one, get overwhelmed just thinking about everything I should be doing in order to turn my frown upside down. The pursuit of happiness now seems like a task-rampant effort that might as well require flashcards. Perhaps our happiness-seeking has become oppressive, much in the same way that our goals to lose 10 pounds or find The One often turn from virtuous effort to vehement self-torment. Besides, rather than chasing happiness— satisfaction, contentment, whatever you want to call it—what if we’re better off yielding to our blues? Should happiness always be our goal? Can’t we still live well, being productive and healthy, despite being unhappy? I wonder.

What is happiness anyway? “It’s rather poorly defined, to say the least,” says Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan Books). “If you ask me, ‘Are you happy?’ ” she explains, “I have to think: ‘Right this minute? Over the last few days or months—or what?’ It’s a very odd thing you’re asking people to figure out.” Philosophers have debated the definition of happiness for ages. Aristotle suggested it was a selfsufficient state of well-being, while Plato described it as a matter of how one performs tasks and solves problems every day. Today’s researchers still aren’t in agreement. There is some consensus, however, that we have a set point of happiness that’s part genetic (about 50 percent) and part circumstantial (about 10 percent), which leaves about 40 percent for us to determine—hence all the directives and how-to-be-happy advice.