Against Happiness

Against Happiness

Women are less happy than we used to be. But given the state of the world, perhaps if we had a little more worry and a little less happy, we’d be better off.


This just in: according to two new studies measuring the happiness index, women are less happy than we used to be and markedly more disgruntled than men. Speculation has been that this study confirms what most of my friends and I experience as the current state of postfeminist feminism. Between working and our responsibilities at home, not only are we trying to have it all but we find ourselves having to do it all, and we’re pissed off. True enough. But I believe the entire nature of this research is suspect and is asking the wrong question anyway. Why all this quantification of happiness? Is happiness a value that deserves so much attention and study?

What about those of us whose goal was never happiness to begin with? For the record, I hate happiness. I love melancholic novels, depressed poets and pessimistic prognosticators. I like sad songs and weepy movies. I’m a sentimental drunk. My idea of a good time is drinking a double espresso while reading Death in Venice. Venice is my idea of a rollicking-good-time town. I was never a shiny happy person, although I have been both shiny and happy at the same time (to achieve this I once performed an act that we have been informed never happens in Iran, or even in our own military for that matter). Happy meals, happy faces; don’t worry, be happy. Given the state of the world, perhaps if we had a little more worry and a little less happy, we’d be better off.

Furthermore, I don’t count “the ability to be happy” among the attributes I value–although there are many qualities I find laudable and even pleasurable. I admire the steadfastness of Aung San Suu Kyi, the prolificacy of Stephen King, the single-mindedness of the Dalai Lama, the insight of Susan Sontag, the rakishness of Clive Owen. And hey, I am in awe at the unfunniness of Dane Cook: it is so complete, it’s astonishing. But I can’t think of anyone who’s ever won a Nobel, a Pulitzer or even a booby prize for happiness.

That today’s women don’t find doing laundry and dusting particularly pleasurable pursuits shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I doubt these chores made my grandmother ecstatic, but a convincing argument can be made that she did feel satisfaction in the completion of the tasks because she believed she was contributing to the greater good of her family in post-Depression era America.

Is it any wonder we feel discontented when we’ve lost that powerful motivator–a sense of working toward a shared future? In this winner-take-all society, we toil for companies that don’t value us, for families we don’t get to spend enough time with to actually enjoy, in a country with an Administration that purports to value freedom but not our individual freedoms.

I don’t mean to be a killjoy. I like vegging out as much as anyone. In fact, one of my recent happinesses was sitting down on Sunday nights to watch The Sopranos, a series with, it’s worth noting, a central theme that bemoans the loss of belonging to something bigger than oneself, even if that something is a crime syndicate.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this research is not the study itself but that the results were published on the front page of the business section of the New York Times. Surely this is no happy accident. Some savvy editor knows that advertisers eagerly await this kind of information so they can sell us products and services that promise to deliver a little happily ever after. Or maybe I’ve just been watching a little too much of AMC’s Mad Men, which is just the kind of downer entertainment I thoroughly enjoy.

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