“You never laugh anymore,” my seven-year-old said from the backseat of the car while I was driving. It was early November.
“What did you say?” I asked, though I had heard him clearly.
* * *
I had been thinking about what it meant that Donald Trump had not yet stopped running for president. About the errands we still had to do that night. About the balance of my credit card, and about our new mortgage and all the furniture I couldn’t afford to fill the new house. About the cost of my kids’ college. About the most recent school shooting and the new statistic I’d read that said Americans in 21 states are more likely to die a gun-related death than as a result of a car accident. About heroin overdoses and prescription pill addictions that were hitting closer and closer to home. Food insecurity. Black lives and deaths in America. Overpopulation. Prison overcrowding. The Syrian refugee crisis. Global warming. Dying oceans. My aging parents, and my own mortality. E-mail that had gone unanswered for months because I was simply tired of typing. The state of my marriage. The quality of my teaching. The exercise I wasn’t getting.
If my brain were a computer, its internal fan would make that loud, warm, whirring sound that means it’s working too hard. It probably isn’t a coincidence that adult coloring books topped Amazon’s bestseller lists last year.
* * *
I wash my body each day with liquid soap I squeeze from a bottle that reads “happiness.” I buy this product again and again to no noticeable effect and keep quiet faith in the power of the subliminal.
If that power exists, then it follows that I am also subconsciously affected by the sponsored ads on Facebook. Should I buy that period underwear? I find myself wondering several times in a single day. No, no.
* * *
The most basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy are physiological ones: air, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, and excretion of waste. Eating, fucking, snoozing, shitting. Happiness is not listed among any of the hierarchy’s tiered descriptions, but I imagine it floats somewhere above the uppermost point of the two-dimensional pyramid or surrounds the diagram’s boundaries like a cloud. Perhaps it appears intermittently as each level of the hierarchy clicks into place, and flickers out of focus again when the pyramid fluctuates. Or maybe it is measured differently altogether.
As a culture, we’re obsessed with the search for happiness, desperate for a definition of its formula.
Our independence, says the Declaration of Independence, guarantees a right to pursue happiness and bypasses the needs in Maslow’s hierarchy entirely. Though the document assures life and liberty in imprecise, yet enthusiastic terms, it cites no explicit guarantee of basic needs such as drinkable water or fresh air. Those are assumed here. For now.
I have everything in Maslow’s ground-floor level of needs, some things in the upper levels of needs, and many things that aren’t needs at all. But this assumes happiness relies on having as opposed to being.
* * *
Echoing Tolstoy’s assertion about happy families in Anna Karenina, a therapist wrote that unhappy people have vastly different reasons for being unhappy, but happy people all have one thing in common: They are grateful for what they have rather than being obsessed with what they want.
Through product messaging, I’ve come to believe soap might have the power to make me happy. A pill might make me happy. Stylish clothes might make me happy. Make-up. Skiing. Validation from the strangers of the Internet. Alcohol. Weight loss. Botox. Period underwear.
As a culture, we’re obsessed with the search for happiness, desperate for a definition of its formula. An Amazon search turns up over 92,000 books that focus on the subject. In 2008, a woman named Robyn Okrant embarked on a mission to live for a year according to Oprah Winfrey’s advice on happiness. Okrant changed her sex, her food, her clothing, her makeup, her philanthropic methods, and more. In a Forbes Magazine interview she says of the experience: “It was incredibly draining, and it made me really sad. It made me sad to think of how many hours I’ve lost — even when I wasn’t doing the project — to blindly following advice and listening to what other people tell me I should be doing to create my own happiness.”
* * *
Do you know how easy it is to mask unhappiness? Add exclamation points. That is how I text my mother: I’m great! Can’t wait for the holidays!
* * *
This past fall, Thanksgiving came and went quickly. Before my brother and his girlfriend flew back home, we spent a small fortune on lunch together at a trendy brick oven pizzeria and brewery. While we waited for our food to arrive, I heard a man at the table to my right tell another man about a gay bathhouse he recently visited. “The floor is covered in semen,” he said as he ate his salad. The other man nodded, his expression neutral and joyless. I imagined a place where men empty themselves into and around each other, and I mentally classified it as a combination of a fulfilled basic need and the freedom to pursue happiness.
To my left, beyond my brother, a large flat screen television broadcasted a continuous live video feed of a Ugandan village’s water pump, which the pizzeria had funded. I was the only person in the restaurant who watched it for longer than a few seconds. Between bites of thin crust pizza topped with speck and Brussels sprouts, I saw a young boy in red t-shirt carry a plastic jug to the pump and fill it. I saw a barefoot girl toddle across the screen, then bend over to rake her hands across the ground, her face placid and oblivious to the camera. A man crossed the screen somberly and approached the pump, filling his two jugs. Then a woman filled her jugs.
Beyond the pump was a row of homes. A telephone pole rose above them, presumably delivering electricity to the village from an unseen source beyond the camera’s lens. The area in view was free from debris, free from conflict, and nothing I could see in this tiny slice of rural Uganda echoed the violence of a twenty-year civil war. I was unsure whether to take this a sign of recovery, as I only saw what I saw, and nothing more. But whatever the context, this village remained. It moved me, though I could not articulate exactly why.
For a moment, I coveted the simplicity the live feed seemed to depict. I don’t really want to live in a world where lunch for four costs $100 and restaurant staff refills my glass more often than I need, where emotions are advertised as bath soap and adult coloring books are offered as tools for unburdening our saturated minds, but here I am.
During the 43 minutes or so that I witnessed their lives from the comparable extravagance of my own, none of the Ugandans that passed before the camera laughed, but none cried either. They drew their water from the well, and then they returned to their homes, aligned on either side of a narrow road, to clean and cook and live. I wondered whether they knew they were being watched by relatively well off and overwhelmingly white people in Vermont, day after day, and whether the cost of that water was their exploitation and subjection to an American pizzeria’s marketing plan during the restaurant’s business hours. Altruism doesn’t need a camera. Neither do the thirsty.
Carl Sagan said that there are no dumb questions, but I read an article that went one step farther. It said that happy people all ask dumb questions. Here’s one: who is the camera for, then?
* * *
Over Thanksgiving break, I graded my creative writing class’ personal essays and memoirs. Their nonfiction writing revealed wide-ranging pursuits of happiness and setbacks along the way. I never said, “Write about how you struggle,” but they did. Three women battled eating disorders. One of those three was also a cutter whose words about blood sloshing from her wrists read like intimate correspondence with a lover.
(Recently, I read a suicide prevention handbill that said the term committed suicide was offensive. Died by suicide is the preferred term. I made a mental note to remember that. But what is the appropriate term for a person who enjoys hurting themselves? Who obsesses over the color of blood and loves the pain associated with extracting it from her own veins? Who, for reasons I will never comprehend, cuts herself in pursuit of happiness?)
There were two other women whose mothers had died too young. Another student’s chronic illness forced her to withdraw from school. One young woman wrote mainly about other people’s heroin use, others’ sexual abuse, as though she was recasting a truth she couldn’t quite admit as her own. All semester, I cheered silently for her.
A young man with autism recently came out of the closet and didn’t want to be called brave for that. Another young man with ADHD was allowed, by the grace of a formal accommodation, to leave the room and use his phone whenever he felt like it. He employed this choice only when he became frustrated with the less talented writers in the class. At times, I wanted to walk out with him.
A young woman wrote a chronicle of her meaningless tattoos, detailing how being able to get inked up for no reason makes her happy. She ended her essay with the line, “This skull, if you have to believe it stands for something, means I’m dead inside.”
Though some basic needs are assumed in the United States, safety is not necessarily one of them.
One young man couldn’t be bothered to do the classwork I assigned. He assumed I’d let it slide without consequence. “I’m just really into dance right now,” he said when I asked why he wasn’t doing the work — not any of it. “Are you sure my grade is right?” he asked after grades were posted.
I need an extension, they said. I need you to repeat the assignment requirements, they said. I need an electronic reminder for homework or it won’t get done, they said. I’m overwhelmed, they said. They cried when printers jammed and when they were late to class. They cried when they were given an earned poor grade. They would write me to tell me their weekend was “just too much” and they wouldn’t be able to haul themselves into the classroom.
They would stare at me like guppies, open-mouthed, waiting to be fed, and I would often have the wrong kind of nourishment. I’d read articles about trigger warnings and about millennial attitudes and about millennial parents and millennial fear of failure and low tolerance for stress, and I still couldn’t completely formulate a way to educate them effectively.
They were happiest when I brought food to class.
* * *
Though some basic needs are assumed in the United States, safety is not necessarily one of them. During the prior semester alone, there had been seven shootings on American college campuses. Just after the Thanksgiving break, the following headlines populated my Facebook feed:
“Your Opinion on Gun Control Doesn’t Matter” (Daily Kos)
“‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” (The Onion)
“On Guns, We’re Not Even Trying” (The New York Times)
Toward the end of the semester, I had been stumbling about my house, talking nonsensically to myself instead of writing or grading. “Refrigerator. Frigerator. Fridge,” I said while walking through the kitchen. Then, as I entered my office, fragments from Horace’s Ars poetica: in medias res. Ab ovo. Which mean, respectively, “into the middle of things” and “from the beginning.” The poet never implied that endings exist. Only that poetry is somehow perpetually on its way from one understanding to another, altered understanding. It is in pursuit.
* * *
Recently, I tried for the hundredth time to explain the concept of infinity to my five-year-old. “No. It has to end,” he sobbed angrily, and then stomped away.
How do we begin receding from too much? As individuals, as a generation, as a nation?
The first sign taught in baby sign language is “more.” There is no sign for “less.”
Once, the average person only had words for a handful of colors. In 1903, Crayola crayons were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, and black. By 1949, there were 48 colors available; 64 by 1958; 72 by 1972; 120 by 1998. We learned more names for colors than we ever dreamed: magenta, fuchsia, copper, periwinkle, cornflower, ochre, onyx, royal blue, sienna, peach, beige. A box of eight crayons becomes 16 becomes 24 becomes 48 becomes 64 becomes 72 becomes 120. A child who has had a box of 48 crayons is never again satisfied with only 8. Or maybe they don’t know how to ask for less in a society of more.
Not having more was a relief, a reprieve I hadn’t experienced for years.
In 2003, Crayola officially added the colors inch worm, jazzberry jam, mango tango, and wild blue yonder and they retired the colors blizzard blue, magic mint, mulberry, and teal blue.
By that same year, it is estimated up to 20,000 children had been abducted and forced to enroll as soldiers in the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army.
* * *
I admit I have an adult coloring book. I limit myself to five colors for each picture to keep the process simple, but it takes forever to choose five from my kids’ 64 pack. I’m stressed before I even begin the supposedly meditative activity.
In the phenomenon referred to as Russian blues, we discriminate between colors faster when linguistic organization presorts them.
There must be more colors to discover than we have named. There must be a Crayola 286-pack in our future, containing the shades between fuchsia and magenta, cornflower and periwinkle. Or the purple that bees see in the space between yellow and ultraviolet light.
Can we want things that we do not know about?
* * *
After the semester ended, I attended a grant-funded writing residency in Massachusetts. The Cape in winter is nearly deserted. Many of the good restaurants close for the season, and a majority of the homes sit empty. I welcomed the stillness, the solitude. For a week, there was less of everything: less motion around me, fewer people with whom to interact, less to accomplish, less to buy. There was less noise, less mess without two children. Fewer distractions without Facebook and Amazon and political headlines. I had most of what I needed — food, water, shelter — and not much more. Not having more was a relief, a reprieve I hadn’t experienced for years.
I took daily, silent walks to the vacant shore, meditatively listing to myself the places and things around me named for shells. Shellpoint Apartments, Shellhouse, Shell Inn, Shell Street. Repeat. I knelt in the cold sand and looked out across the bay. I examined the lifeless things that had washed ashore, raking my hands across the ground like that Ugandan child and gathering what the sea had discarded. A peace swept over me whenever I was near to the ground. I caught myself smiling for no reason.
At the Cape, I passed hours sitting quietly, needing nothing, wanting nothing. Pursing nothing but a few more words on a page. On the final night, four friends stopped by, including a couple with their new baby. The baby laughed and I laughed and soon we were all laughing together. All the fine dining restaurants were closed, so we ate at a Ninety Nine chain restaurant and did not make polite apologies to one another for it. We squeezed into a booth for four that was too small to accommodate our group of six. A hockey game played on the television in the bar, but we didn’t watch it. We had wine, but not water. We talked of punk music, but not war. Of banned books, but not guns. A comment about the unusually warm winter, but no mention of global warming.
I returned home the next morning, restored by fractions and of somewhat sounder body and mind. I threw away the happiness body wash. I deleted Facebook from my phone, deleted task managing apps, deleted emails, deleted unnecessary streams of information from wherever they made contact with me. I made a point to laugh in front of and with my children, and hoped it was not too late to unlearn all that I didn’t need to know.
* * *
This essay first appeared in the “Joy” issue of Creative Nonfiction, the print quarterly founded by nonfiction writer Lee Gutkind in 1993. Our thanks to Angela Palm and the staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.