Wednesday, January 13, 2010

We interrupt this program so that Wendy can totally harsh your buzz

I think about happiness alot.

Not so much whether I am happy or others around me are happy, but about our national obsession with happiness as the ultimate goal in life.

We are programmed to believe that happiness is our birthright. If you ask most parents what they want for their children, the response you will most likely get will fall along the lines of, "I want my kid to be happy." There's an assumption that happiness can be and should be achieved by anyone. That the solution to many problems is in positive thinking -- believing that you can and will be happy, that the default position is that things will turn out OK. After all, it's in the Declaration of Independence, right?? (Though I would point out that the Declaration identifies as an inalienable right not happiness per se, but rather the pursuit of happiness -- it's a big difference, though a subtle one.)

Not to rain on anyone's parade, but I think it's a lot of horseshit.

Because for the vast majority of humanity -- including the majority of Americans, especially these days -- life is not, has not, and never will be dominated by a overarching sense of happiness. I think, historically, if you asked most peasants struggling to put food on the table, and to avoid death by invading hordes of barbarians, if they were happy, they'd look at you like you were crazy. To them, the Hobbesian characterization of the natural state of the life of man as "solitary, poor, brutish, nasty and short," was undoubtedly more apt.

And does a guarantee of happiness and the reassurance that things will work out, somehow, have any real meaning to refugees in Darfur, who have seen their women raped and their families hacked to pieces in the name of ethnic cleansing? Or to people in North Korea, starving to death because of the whims of a dictatorial regime? Or to women smuggled over borders to be forced into prostitution and drug addiction?

I bring this up today because of the earthquake in Haiti, which is heaping death, destruction, poverty and misery on a country that has already been the victim of "piling on," in the karmic sense. Haiti is not a happy place, certainly not today.

Even setting aside people whose lives can only be characterized as overwhelmingly unhappy - groups beset by famine, victims of oppression and persecution, lepers begging in the streets of Calcutta and the like - for many people, life is basically muddling through, doing the best that you can under difficult circumstances, dealing with the stresses of trying to feed your family and keep your job and pay your bills and have enough time to take care of the mundane details that dominate our existence.

Which is not to say that even the most miserable life doesn't have snatches or glimpses of happiness -- celebrations, moments of joy with your children or your loved ones, playing a game.

But I have a hard time looking at the reality that is the conditions under which most people on this planet live (recognizing that, statistically, being a white, sort-of-upper-middle-class American in the 21st century basically means I and most of the people I know hit the genetic jackpot, and that's not even taking into consideration the fact that not only am I relatively prosperous, but my family is stable and healthy, both emotionally and physically) without feeling like all of the emphasis on life being an happy state is essentially meaningless.

Even for people like me, who don't know real suffering in any material sense -- I have a job, I'm healthy, my family is healthy, we live comfortably, etc. -- happiness is sort of an ephemeral thing. Most people I know spend much of their time stressed out, worrying about the husband who is out of work or dealing with divorce or heartbreak or trying to keep the house from going into foreclosure or grieving for sick or dying loved ones. We do things that are fun, have experiences that are pleasurable, but don't live in a state of consistent happiness. We wouldn't characterize our lives as unhappy, but not necessarily as happy, either. We get by. We endure. We might have moments of joy along the way. And that's about the best we can hope for.


As for the Haitian earthquake victims, help them out, to the extent you can. Click here for a list (with links) of reputable organizations assisting with relief efforts, or text "HAITI" to 90999 on your cell phone to make an immediate donation of $10 to the Red Cross's relief efforts (the $10 will show up on your cell phone bill). It probably won't make anyone truly happy, but it just might relieve some of the unhappiness.


  1. Anonymous12:29 PM

    You can also text "YELE" to 501501 which is Wyclef Jean's organization. The donation there is $5. He is a native Haitian & has been tweeting updates since the earthquake.


  2. Yikes, Wendy. Definitely an appropriate title. The thing about modernity is that it gives us the time and energy to think about how happy we are or aren't, and there's a whole lot of emphasis on it.

  3. Yeah, I know, I'm Debbie Downer today.

  4. I read in the paper today that former politician an televangelist Pat Robertson claims that the Haitians have brought this upon themselves - because the have a pact with the devil. That really makes me mad!!!

  5. He did say that - he is a repulsive human being, in my opinion.