I was at the office today, in the middle of a pre-annual review chat with my boss, and she asked me what seemed like a very simple question:
“Are you happy?”
I knew what she meant. And I knew what the right answer was. But things are never quite so simple. Not when you live in my head. Here’s the long version of my answer to her:
(Okay, quite long. Deal with it, Gabbo.)
As the years go by, I find myself becoming more philosophical. This has several effects on my day-to-day existence.
I’m more contemplative, for one. In the past, I’d often observe situations — particularly those fraught with drama — proverbially “watching from the sidelines”. Now I’m even a bit further detached. It’s more like watching from my couch, with a feed from a sideline camera. Also, it’s on TiVo. And I made popcorn. Much better.
I notice I’m also less prone to emotional ups and downs. I mean, we’ve all got the sun engulfing the earth and the eventual heat death of the universe to look forward to. What’s a loss by your favorite team or a big job promotion or the birth of a child in the face of that? It’s all relative. Settle down, already.
“Clearly, the main effect of being more philosophical is also becoming several orders of magnitude more insufferable in conversation.”
Clearly, the main effect of being more philosophical is also becoming several orders of magnitude more insufferable in conversation. You do not want to see me at the punch bowl at your holiday party, let me tell you.
I haven’t always been so bad — though I’ve pondered life’s various big questions for as long as I can remember. I thought I had things all settled, with a personal philosophy I adopted many years ago. As I put it in another post quite some time back:
“But the way I see it is this: if you’re happy with your life — if you really sit down and think about where you are and what you do, and you’re truly, informedly happy about your situation — then you can’t really have any regrets.”
I got by with this outlook for a good twenty years or more. I tried to learn from mistakes, sure — and I made enough that I couldn’t help but learn something, if only new and creative ways to sign apology cards. But otherwise, the sentiment above was all I needed, no problem.
Until there were problems. Like the fact that “informedly” is probably, in fact, not actually a word. So there’s that.
Worse, though, is the gaping hole left in the reasoning. If happy, then no regrets, fine. But what if not happy? Or unsure if happy? Or slightly less happy than that really good time I had last week, but now it’s raining and my favorite team lost and that “heat death” thing is only getting closer every second? What then?
The philosophy says nothing. It implies, perhaps, that one should then form regrets. But when I reached that point a few years ago, I decided I didn’t really want any. Let’s face it, I’d gone two decades without any regrets; I wouldn’t even know how to take care of one. You’ve got to feed those things and spend time with them and walk them in the middle of the night — who has time for that? Plus, they’re like rabbits; you let one or two of them in the house, and suddenly you’re overrun with little regrets, stomping through the living room and shouting and peeing on the carpets. No, thanks.
I needed a new philosophy, but the “no regrets” thing was apparently non-negotiable. So I took a look at the other side of the equation: just what is “happy”, anyway?
That’s where things pretty well fell apart. Quick, flippant little happy “life mantras” were out, and serious philosophical set in. And took root. And put all its little philosophical deodorants and vitamins on a shelf in the bathroom, because it was going to be staying a while.
Not everyone has these problems, of course. Some people go their whole lives without the slightest concern for existential matters, and they seem at least as happy for it.
(Or “happy”, to use a distinction that wouldn’t make the first bit of sense to them.
Happy is as happy does, I suppose. I think Nietzsche said that. Or Grover from Sesame Street. One or the other.)
Take my wife, for instance. I once asked her if she had a personal philosophy — probably because I was ready to adopt the first decent one I heard that didn’t come at the end of a sneaker commercial. Her reply:
“That’s really more your thing.”
I tried to do something with that. “Always pass the buck in life.” Or: “You do your thing; I’ll do my thing.” But it didn’t help. Frankly, her personal philosophy is kind of crappy.
So I went back to “happy”. If I didn’t feel quite as happy, what did it mean? How did I get there? Should I just shut up about it and pick a better favorite team or something?
I turned to books. Lots of books. I’m guessing that everyone who comes to a similar point in life believes that somehow, they’re the only one. Their existential crisis is unique and unknowable and unfathomable to others, especially people just doing “their thing”.
And then they search for books with “Happiness” in the title and find fourteen kajillion volumes explaining the how and the why and the neurotransmitters and psychopathology and evolutionary cross-wiring and social intertwinery that makes it all tick, and sometimes not tick, and other times lose power in the middle of the night and make you late for work.
So I dutifully read a bunch of books with “Happiness” in the title, and I learned some science and a little psychiatry and seventeen kinds of philosophical outlooks, and none of them was quite what I was missing. And eventually, like saying a word over and over until it sounds foreign and odd, “happy” just stopped making any sense.
What is “happy”, I asked myself again. It’s just a ratio — not even that, but an internal impression of a ratio — of pleasurable experiences to painful ones. More pleasure over time, with less pain, feels more like “happy”. And what are pleasure and pain? Responses to certain neurotransmitters. Instinctive reactions. Endorphin cascades. As I began to understand it, “happy” at its core really boiled down to chemistry and physics and psychology and all sorts of other classes I nearly failed in college.
Yuck. I’m not going back there.
Still, the basics clicked. “Happy”, I decided, isn’t really a definable thing. If I’ve felt 51% good and 49% sad — or believe that’s the ratio, at least — am I “happy”? Would one unhappy thing, like an untied shoelace, tip the scales? Do I need a two-thirds majority, like I’m passing a law in Congress? And what’s the time frame — would I say I’m “happy since lunch, but generally miserable since Tuesday”?
Happy got hard. And one thing I know is in my personal philosophy — apart from not caring or feeding for regrets — is that I don’t want to work very hard at it. So “happy” is out, as a concept. Along with an awful lot of other things — but my boss didn’t ask me about those, and this has gone on long enough already.
So, how did I answer her? I don’t say that I’m “happy” these days — not because I’m not, but because the question has lost all its meaning. Still, I didn’t want her thinking I was about to run off to some other job, or thinking of coming in and pulling all the fire alarms and re-enacting Flashdance some day.
Also, I didn’t have time to explain all the above to her. She doesn’t want that.
Oh, sure, I know you didn’t want that, either. But you’re not signing my paychecks. So nyah.
In the end, I answered as positively, as honestly and as philosophically as possible:
“Well… I’m probably not unhappy.”
See? Philosophy can be simple, after all.
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