Every so often a story comes out: which country is happiest; who’s happier – men or women; what really makes people happy; would people be happier if happy was spelled with an i dotted with a happy face. Er no, not that last one. But in recent years the study of happiness has taken off, particularly in the newly designated field of positive psychology. This is research aimed not necessarily at the depressed, but at anyone who wants to increase his or her levels of happiness.
This assumes that we want to be happier, that it’s good to be happier. Which means there’s something else to work at, another item for our to-do lists; or rather, while we’re going about everything else, exercising and eating right and flossing and working hard and getting up early, and don’t forget recycling, we’re supposed to be happy about it all. Or at least trying hard.
Happiness, schmappiness, I say. Depression is a terrible thing, and obviously any ways to alleviate that illness are welcome. But within the range of normal human emotions, how about accepting space for some gentle melancholy? Provoked crankiness? Even sorrow at times, unfortunately, is the reasonable and appropriate emotion. I don’t think any of us want to think our passing would be completely unmarked by a single tear, before our loved ones move on and, hey, find the bright side to look at.
This being happy stuff is un-American – it was the “pursuit” of happiness that the country’s founders felt they were entitled to. If they had actually been happy, nobody would have come, not the original settlers nor any group of immigrants after them.
It’s unhappiness that drives changes – who do you think complains? Happy people? You’ve got to be unhappy with something before you can fix it, before you can push for new laws or vote in a different party to govern. Think even about what would happen to opinion pieces were everyone just happy – there’s nothing to write about.
But yes, pursuing happiness and taking it seriously is actually quite an American trait: this new angle of attention fits in with other efforts in our serious, self-improvement drives – the earnest importance of being happy. Europeans, on the other hand, have built whole philosophical systems based on unhappiness. Existentialism? Jean-Paul Sartre, author of a book called Nausea, was probably not a real fun guy to have a beer with. Or surrealism: not developed by a bunch of guys who were content with the status quo.
It’s a basic difference in attitudes. Order a coffee at your local hip U.S. coffeehouse. Even the most tattooed, pierced, shaven-head, black-clothed, sullen-looking server will hand it to you with a smile and an, “Enjoy!”
The other day I got a coffee with the husband at his cafeteria at work here. The husband sees the server almost every day and casually asked how he was. The man, without a bit of a smile, said, “Well, here we are.” The dead flat tone pointed to what it was like to be working inside serving coffee on yet another Monday morning while a beautiful day unfolded outside; even, if you want to extend it, to a fatalism about life’s prospects, about the meaning of life itself. That’s certainly much more of a reality smack than the “fine,” or “great!” you’d get unthinkingly in the U.S. Granted, I hadn’t had my coffee yet when the conversation took place, but I’m not reading too much into it, really. (It’s something to consider too as to whether different responses might also be related to the lack of tip jars here.)
There’s certainly nothing wrong with being chipper and cheery. But it shouldn’t be obligatory. Sometimes, a little righteous unhappiness gives the coffee an extra kick.