Being Happy Is Hard Work
I’ve always had a tendency to focus on the negative — I’m trying to change that
Like many people, I struggle semiregularly with depression — or, as David Foster Wallace so fittingly called it, The Bad Thing. It doesn’t define me, but it does flare up from time to time, a swamp creature rearing out of my mind’s chemical pulp. Recently, amid a surge of badness so forceful it took me by surprise, I found myself wondering how it is that people like me — people who are healthy, loved, so privileged as to be blessed — can feel so sad? So beholden to The Bad Thing? On the surface, it doesn’t make sense.
It’s also worrisome. Aristotle famously posited that happiness — more specifically his eudaemonistic conception, wherein being happy means “to flourish” — is the highest aim of moral thought, a moral goal of the game of life. If this is true, it would seem that I (along with many other people) am losing the game.
How can this be?
In my case, I’ve come to believe it has something to do with my innate propensity for lending negative thoughts more mental space than positive ones. I struggle to recognize and appreciate the beautiful, precious stuff while it’s happening, but I’m hyperaware when things go wrong.
This manifests in interesting ways. Not long ago, I was at the airport in San Francisco trying to catch a flight. It was the day before July 4, and the airport was, as they say, a fucking madhouse. Shuffling like zombies in never-ending lines, pressed flesh-to-flesh with my fellow somnambulant humans, I started to freak. It was hot; it smelled bad. Then I got sad. I wondered if this was how pigs or cows feel when they’re locked up in industrial captivity, the claustrophobia rendering the psychic pain more traumatic.
And suddenly, I understood: There are too many people on Earth. There are too many stupid people on Earth. Cruel, stupid people who do things like fly all over the planet, suffocating it. Hopelessness fell upon me, a new kind of gravity as oppressive as the recycled air. I considered my fellow humans and felt contempt. What’s the point? I thought. Why are we the way we are? Why are we doing this?
My petulance here epitomizes something important: this manner in which we humans take our worst moments more seriously than our good ones — how we are, on the whole, more naturally cognizant of that which is unpleasant. It’s as Timothy Kreider wrote: “We dismiss peak moments… as an ephemeral chemical buzz, just endorphins or hormones, but accept those 3 a.m. bouts of despair as unsentimental insights into the truth about our lives.”
We humans take our worst moments more seriously than our good ones.
There are, turns out, biological and evolutionary reasons for this. Rick Hanson argues in his book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence that human brains are wired to focus on the negative. According to Stanford University psychology professor Laura Carstensen, because we at one time depended for survival on quickly registering the lion lurking in the grass, we today notice negative things more immediately and focus on negative aspects of experience more seriously.
I think of the summer before my 13th birthday, when my parents stuffed my brother, my dog, and me into the backseat of our ’97 Aerostar. They were moving us from the lush and lenient Bay Area to the brutal and colorless Scottsdale, Arizona. I was devastated to be leaving my childhood home, with its backyard proportioned into perfect whiffle ball-playing dimensions. I’d loved that place.
As we crossed the border at Blythe, it was so hot, and our dented van so old, that we had to turn off the AC for fear of overheating. The air in the backseat — already complicated by our bundled cargo, the vestiges of our lunch, and the effluvium of an 80-pound dog’s labored panting — transformed into a turgid bath. My brother and I, unenthused about the life change we’d embarked on, whined as if being tortured. Scott’s complaints remained rooted in our discomfort — “It feels like I’m in Big Foot’s butt!” he proclaimed — but mine veered quickly into the existential.
“Why are we doing this?” I called out. “I don’t want to be moving.”
I gazed tearfully out the window, surveying the angry Mojave. As far as I could see, there crawled an empty lunar nothingness. Scottsdale, so far as I could tell, was no less blasted. It was all concrete and dirt, construction sites shawled in chain link, an incomprehensible lack of the color green. The empty walls of my bedroom, when I plopped my duffel bag inside it, were the gray of dead teeth.
All these things informed my calculus when I walked into my dad’s office the next morning to tell him that he’d ruined our lives.
“Dad,” I said, voice warbling. “Scottsdale sucks.”
While my dramatics were likely fueled partly by your standard teenage angst, there was something else there, too — a deep, seemingly physical unhappiness that felt sort of intuitive and reminds me of Hanson’s findings. I adopted the unhappiness naturally. And in time, it fed on itself, eventually morphing into a kind of nascent nihilism. As I grew older, I became more attuned to all the aspects of the world and of my life which seemed to suck. I started dwelling with Talmudic intensity on injustices, evidence of the lack of God, and even harmless inconveniences. It was exhausting, the opposite of happiness — the opposite of flourishing — yet it felt obvious and right.
This, partly, is why nihilism is dangerous. Living life hypercognizant of shitty things does not a happy person make. It’s also dumb: That our existence is meaningless and filled with shitty things — which it is — doesn’t mean it isn’t also incredible, a beautiful and blessed accident.
The problem is, remaining cognizant of this fact, such that you’re able to live life with self-awareness and perspective, is challenging — especially when “living life” means navigating a crowded airport or sweating in the back of a sweltering, dog-scented van. But that challenge is, ultimately, the crux of the game of Living a Happy Life. Being happy — flourishing — is hard work. That’s why Aristotle conceived of it as a moral aim, something to strive for.
Happiness, in other words, is practiced.
But what, then, does that practice come down to? How does one start? I don’t portend to be an expert on the matter, but lately — as I continue struggling to escape my swamp creature’s slavering, tentacled grip — I’ve been thinking that the answer might begin with rejecting the siren song of nihilism and looking instead for signs that life is precious. There are just as many transcendent moments that evince life to be worthwhile as there are those that illuminate its meaninglessness. Maybe the thing we need to practice is working harder to notice them?
Personally, I’ve been endeavoring to more purposefully appreciate that which, although perhaps not meaningful in an existential sense, is otherwise good and important: the people I love; the beauty of the landscape stretching out the window; the patience of the beleaguered gate agent who managed a smile amid the airport’s holiday-weekend chaos.
This feels important and necessary, and sometimes I even feel like I’m getting better. The catch, of course, is that it isn’t easy. Sylvia Plath once wrote, “The loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering,” and that pretty much captures it. For some of us, depression is less a Bad Thing than a black hole, a biological predisposition that can’t be beaten with practice. This Thing comes in many forms. We’re right to fear it.
I do believe, however, that the human mind is dexterous in its ability to in one moment commiserate with Nietzsche — the mustachioed godfather of nihilism — find inspiration in Aristotle, and bleed with sympathy for Plath. We are capable of reconciling ourselves to the nihilistic facts of our existence while also striving to create our own meaning. Or at least we’re capable of trying, of wanting to. And so far as beating back The Bad Thing, the swamp creatures swimming in our neurochemical channels, that feels like an important place to start.
The human mind is dexterous in its ability to in one moment commiserate with Nietzsche, find inspiration in Aristotle, and bleed with sympathy for Plath.
As does striving more consciously to live in the damn moment, by the way. A few days after my incident at the airport, my dad, brother, and I spent the afternoon on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Both my dad and my brother have struggled with depression in some form over their lives. But on this day, the sky was free of fog, and the Golden Gate winked in the sun, and as we stood in the lapping tide, beers in hand, I’m pretty sure we were all about as happy as we’ve ever been.
We started talking about old times, the beer prompting a bit of jocular nostalgia, as it tends to do. The subject of our move to Arizona came up. My dad tossed a conciliatory arm over my shoulder, gestured with his beer toward the bridge in the east.
“Still think I ruined our lives?” he said, grinning.
“Nah,” I said reflexively, with just a small hint of condescension. “Those were the good ole times.”
This, in a way, was actually true. But what I should have said instead, looking back, was, “Dad, man, these are the good times right now.”
Alas. The game of happiness, of flourishing, of living good lives — it’s ongoing. Next time I’m with my dad and my brother on the beach, I’ll grab a palmful of the moment and pocket it so that I can return to it later, so that I can use it one day in the future as Bad Thing repellant.