Why Does Happiness Have Such a Bad Reputation?
Assay: One surprising thing about happiness is that it has such a bad reputation.
Yesterday, I was reading to my younger daughter from Shel Silverstein’s classic book of children's poetry, Where the Sidewalk Ends. We came to this poem – which caught my eye, for obvious reasons.
The Land of Happy
Have you been to The Land of Happy,
Where everyone's happy all day,
Where they joke and they sing
Of the happiest things,
And everything's jolly and gay?
There's no one unhappy in Happy,
There's laughter and smiles galore.
I have been to The Land of Happy —
What a bore!
Happiness, many people assume, is boring – a complacent state of mind for self-absorbed, uninteresting people. Consider the scene in Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall, when Alvy asks a happy couple how they account for their happiness, and the woman answers, “I am very shallow and empty, and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say,” and the man agrees, “I’m exactly the same way.”
In fact, however, studies show — and experience bears out — that happiness doesn’t make people complacent or self-centered. Rather, happier people are more interested in the problems of other people, and in the problems of the world. They’re more likely to volunteer, to give away money, to be more curious, to want to learn a new skill, to persist in problem-solving, to help others, and to be friendly. They’re more resilient, productive, and healthier. Unhappy people are more likely to be defensive, isolated, and preoccupied with their own problems.
Some people are argue that it's better to be interesting than happy. But that's a false choice.
It’s true that if you’re trying to tell an interesting story, unhappiness makes a much easier subject. There’s more conflict, more drama. Unhappy circumstances hold our attention. But real life is different.
I often think of Simone Weil’s observation, adapted for unhappiness and happiness: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”
I'm not arguing that a happy life should be free from all negative emotions -- not at all. I think there's much value in bad emotions. Nevertheless, while the Land of Happy might be a boring place to read about, I imagine it would be a nice place to live.
* I love the delightful blog 1000 Awesome Things, and I'm looking forward to meeting Neil Pasricha for the first time when I go to Toronto on January 17-18. So I was eager to check out his TEDxToronto talk on The 3A's of Awesome. Funny, thought-provoking...dare I say it? awesome!
* * If your book group is reading The Happiness Project -- or considering it -- I've prepared a one-page discussion guide for book groups, as well as a guide tailored for church groups, spirituality book groups, and the like. If you'd like either discussion guide (or both), email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com. (Don't forget the "1.")
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