I’ve spent the better part of my life asking too many questions. Why don’t sharks live in Lake Michigan? Why was JFK assassinated? Why are there so many religions if there is only one God? Why can’t there be peace in the Middle East (see previous question)? Sometimes, the answer is simple, and other times, the answer naturally produces more questions. Subjective questions are my favorite, as for a brief moment you’re given a snapshot of how another human’s mind works; how they relate to the world around us. But the most disturbing question we ask each other, without a sense of what is truly at stake, is whether or not we’re happy.
The state of our happiness gets questioned so frequently that I’ve become somewhat obsessed—it’s a healthy obsession, I swear—with how others, myself included, answer. When I run into an old friend in a coffee shop or am catching up with family during the holidays over a traditionally strong vodka drink (DM me for recipe), I feel urged to keep the conversation positive and save the questioner from enduring a rant about my bipolar boss’ passive aggressive Post Its and how, on most days, I long for moments of silence where I can sit comfortably on my couch and stare at a blank wall. I say that in jest, but also, not. So, I tell them I’m happy to shut down further inquiry. And once you tell someone you’re happy, there’s never a follow-up to that. No one ever asks, “Why? Why are you so damn happy?” And while this tactic is somewhat deceiving, it makes me wonder if this is something everyone does to stave off real conversation or connection.
I’m a liar—self-admitted—but only with the best intention. Realistically, how much honesty can our fragile, human self-image tolerate? In my experience, a little honesty goes a long way, but not all of the honesty, you feel me? Like, when a friend sends me a picture and asks which filter will make them look better, I could reveal that no filter can hide the 15lbs they’ve gained since their divorce, or I could simply do as they’ve asked and choose the filter that’s most flattering. Give them the truth in the kind, packaged dose they desired (and asked for), rather than forcing my unwanted criticism. In light of that, when someone asks how I am, or if I’m happy, I’ll eagerly exclaim, “I’m great! Soooooo happy!”, even when I feel lousy, unaccomplished, or plain old uninspired. But why do I do this? After all, they asked, so they should be prepared for any varying response, but I still need to pretend, as a way to make them, and maybe even myself, feel better. And what type of lying is that? When we lie about ourselves and pretend that we’re so damn happy?
This illusion of happiness surfaced regularly through my early and mid-twenties, rearing its ugly head as friends began their careers, marriages, and families. Everyone was scrambling for a piece of it, this magical state of being that’ll prove our lives are meaningful and worthwhile. Whether it was jobs, cars, salaries, engagements, promotions, weddings, homeownership, babies—getting your hands on these things was definitely going to give you a slice of happiness and if you didn’t feel grateful every goddam minute after getting all of the things you thought would make you happy, then guess what? Must mean you aren’t happy, right?
I struggled with this for a long time—I still do—and there never seemed to be a time where I identified with the world of beautiful smiles that I scrolled past on social media, not because I didn’t want to be happy, but I really didn’t know how to hold onto that fleeting feeling like everyone else. It’s all over television and films and books. “Are you happy?”, the biting question frequently asked by a male protagonist to his old girlfriend, or a father to his estranged son, or to a childhood best friend that went down “the wrong” path; it’s everywhere. And we’re somehow comforted and satisfied when the response is yes, they are, after all, happy. And then I began to wonder, when did happiness become the barometer for our quality of life?
Like others my age, I started marking items off of the “How to Live a Happy Life” checklist that society doled out to us around the age of five. We’re asked in kindergarten, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, and, after given examples by our teachers, we naively chose from professions like fireman or doctor because that’s how we’re set up early on to join the workforce (get ‘em while they’re young, right?) and ensure that we’ve got it engrained in our tiny, developing brains that when we do, in fact, grow up, we have to have a profession, and that without one we have no identity. No one ever asked if, once grown up, we wanted integrity, or compassion, or courage, or resilience. Why?
Here I am, 27 years-old and recently unemployed, lacking purpose and identity because who am I without my career? I spent years of schooling and discipline—well, some discipline— and essentially my entire life preparing to be an adult with a career that would eventually lead to constant, lifelong happiness. Who am I without a title and calendar filled with meetings and a place to be every day that needed me and my, albeit limited, skills? Who needs me now?
Me. I need me now.