The tyranny of happiness

Posted on September 28, 2011 by


After my conversion to Christianity, and especially since my reversion to Catholicism, I’ve been comforted by the idea of Redemptive Suffering. This basically says:

“Yes, your life may suck, and you will eventually die, but then you get to go to Heaven and be with Jesus, so it all works out in the end. For now, enjoy your suffering and know that it brings you closer to your Savior, who died on the cross. Here’s a crucifix to inspire your meditation.”

This always cheers me up, which gives you an idea of what my moods are generally like. I am not a happy camper. I never have been, and I never will be. I suspect this is actually a secret to my success, as I can always find something to improve about everything. My glass isn’t just half-empty, I’m fretting about the water slowly evaporating at room temperature. At the same time, I’m grateful to have any water at all. I could be dying of thirst instead. It happens. (See how I managed to be both despondent and optimistic? It’s a gift.)

Growing up and living in Germany, this was never a problem. In fact, most Germans consider me to be a cheerful, “think positive” type. But I have nothing on life-long American residents. Americans’ constant Hyper Happiness is depressing to me. Everything is always “fine”, they smile constantly, every setback is a “change for the better”. The facade is fully in place, the teeth in their perma-grin are perfect (must be the fluoridated water), and they are chipper to the dying end. They take the phrase “grin and bear it” to a whole new level.

This was not very clear to me when I first moved here. When Americans would say, “Hi, how are you?” I initially thought they actually wanted to know how I was. Sometimes I was “fine”, sometimes I was “great”, and sometimes I was “okay” or “not so great”. Nothing horrifies Americans like hearing someone answer a “How are you?” with “Not so great.” They’ll quickly blanch and look for an exit. They’ll run for the exit.

But over time I have come to realize that Americans aren’t actually more satisfied with their lives. They are not more content. They are just more preoccupied with projecting “happiness”. This is because of a little-known fact about Americans: They consider happiness to be a virtue, rather than a blessing. They’ve even enshrined the expectation of happiness into one of their founding documents. It’s right there, at the top:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Actually, now that I read that, it says that we have the unalienable right to pursue happiness, but not to have it. And I am not sure that they equated happiness with pleasure, but there you are. Regardless, it’s a typical American mindset that unhappy people are Losers, and if there’s one thing Americans live in fear of, it’s being a Loser. Everyone’s a Winner, or should be, or should at least pretend to be. Everyone gets a trophy after the game, everyone gets a star-sticker on their homework, and everyone — absolutely everyone, even the guy who will commit suicide tomorrow, or the woman whose husband just left her for the babysitter, or the couple drowning in debt — is “fine”.

But even that is overly simplistic, and I’m at risk of painting Americans as emotionally plastic here. In truth, Americans have varying degrees of “fine”, that they differentiate with tone, mimic, and pregnant pauses in their speech. It is like in Asian languages, where tone and inflection change the meaning of words. Americans have a happiness language, full of hyperbole, exaggeration, and chirpyness-factor, and if you do not speak it you will assume that you are the only discontent person on the planet. It is as if the water in your half-full glass had begun boiling over.

Don’t take it personally. Realize that it’s a cultural thing, and you don’t have to understand. And realize that the Christian message and the secular American message are actually at odds. That the same “pursuit of happiness” that brought us the debt-bubble also brought us the prosperity gospel. No, you’re not always “fine”. Sometimes your life will suck. Oh well. That’s the natural state of humans, and any elevation from that — even for a moment — is a true blessing. Enjoy it. It probably won’t last. It might come back, though. Or it might not. You might be able to make some adjustments so that you experience greater happiness. Or you might not. Either way is alright. Life isn’t fair, after all.

Complain and vent for a bit, and then go suck it up. Make do. Get over it. It won’t kill you. Actually, it might kill you, but then you get to go to meet your Maker so that’s alright too. (See how I spun that right into irrational exuberance? It’s a gift.) At least you know you did what you think is right, you did your duty, and you can meet Him with a clear conscious. How’s that for happy? Dude, your cup runneth over!

In orthodox Christianity, you see: the Losers become the Winners, the Last will be First, and the Suffering are Saved.

Posted in: Religion