What Makes You Happy?

And why does it matter?

A few weeks ago, when I was looking for new sources of online awesomesauce, Peggy Hoffman pointed me to The Happiness Project, which I’ve since added to my RSS feed.

For those who are not familiar, the author/subject, Gretchen Rubin, in the process of researching a book, is test driving every idea or principle about happiness she can find over the course of a year to determine what works and what doesn’t (shades, of course, of The Julie/Julia Project).

Of course, the very day that Peggy introduced me to this, I was watching the “Word Salad” episode of Boston Legal, in which James Spader’s character Alan Shore comments that he doesn’t want to start taking pills (presumably Zoloft) because he doesn’t want to lose his melancholy streak.

Americans have a world-wide reputation of being unreasonably happy. We smile too much, our political philosophers tend more towards John Rawls and ameliorating the inequities of the natural lottery than to Michel Foucault and the futility of fighting the panopticon, we revere the stories of Horatio Alger rather than the dark, ambiguous films of Ingmar Bergman, hell, our founding documents promise us “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Why do we place so much importance on being happy? Is that really the highest good? In an era of nearly ubiquitous anti-depressants, is there a role any more for the person who doesn’t go through life like a Disney heroine, with a smile on her face, a song in her heart, and helpful animal minions by her side? (Not that I am in any way trying to belittle depression. I’ve seen its serious consequences first hand.) And if you aren’t that Disney heroine, does that mean you’re flawed on some deep level?

Because the thing is, we’re sold happiness, and I use the term “sold” intentionally. If happiness is the measure of success and you’re not happy, maybe you can buy your way to happiness with the right house/car/TV/outfit/vacation/night on the town/etc. The next thing you know, Americans are in debt up to our eyebrows and the economy is in a shambles as a result. But are we any happier?

(Wow. This post is really taking a different direction than I anticipated.)

So, if happiness is the answer, how do we, as a culture, get off the “stuff will make me happy” treadmill? And if happiness isn’t the answer, what is?

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