Monday, May 13, 2024

Happiness is a Choice

Over at Nicole and Maggie's, there was a recent discussion in the comments about whether happiness is a choice -- whether we can, whatever the situation, choose to be happy. 

This is something I've been thinking about for a while now, since 2014 at least, because my kid's high school principal used to start every morning by instructing the kids that they could "have a good day -- or not! The choice is yours!" As a kid with depression and anxiety, who hadn't yet realized he was trans and was suffering all kinds of ways from that, he was infuriated by this bit of chipper banality.

Is happiness a choice? In the long (long, long) run, a little bit, maybe. When you're caught in external events (a job you hate, financial and health problems, a government which is hell-bent on destroying your rights and also the climate), things are not all right. You can't just chose to pretend they are all right. (Though people do! So maybe you can?) You can, sometimes, work to change those thing, and get to a place that's happier. 

Though can you? Right now, I'm feeling both anxious and unhappy about what's happening in this country, and to the environment. The rights of my kid are under constant attack. The rights of people like me to control our our bodies is under constant attack. Those attacks tells us clearly that our country, our community, our government, doesn't think people like us should even exist, much less have the freedom to make choices about what our lives are like. In the face of constant belittling scorn from those around us, it's hard to keep going, never mind being happy about it.

And there's nothing we can do about the environment. I mean, we recycle. But honestly I couldn't even think about buying an electric car, because there's no infrastructure in my community for such a vehicle. I can't ride a bike to work or to the store because my town keeps voting down bike paths, in favor of building more roads; and the roads we have currently are not safe for people on bikes.

In any case, dutifully recycling my cardboard is not saving the planet and walking to work is not saving the planet. The vast majority of carbon and pollution comes from corporations and manufacturing, and nothing I can do will change that. I can't even vote them out, because here in this solidly red state my vote is pointless.

I do also think "happiness" is at least partly a genetic thing. My mother was happy, all her life. She didn't choose that, I'm pretty sure. I remember once talking to her about my suicidal ideation. She was surprised. "I've never felt like that," she said. "I've gotten, well, down, sometimes. But never like that."

Since I consider suicide when I get a flat tire, this was hilarious to me. 

I don't think that difference has much to do with nurture, since if anything my mother had a much rougher childhood than I did. Though it might! She was given a lot of independence as a kid, cooking for and raising her two younger siblings; and she had a vast kinship network around her, so she had people she could turn to for help. Maybe that matters. 

I think you can choose to do things that will improve specific problems you're having (work towards a new job, for example) but I don't know if you can choose happiness. 

I've built my life to be pretty much what I wanted it to be -- I'm a professor who teaches fiction writing, for God's sake, which looked like an impossible goal when I was 23 years old and I first wistfully thought that would be a nice job to have; I spend most of my time reading and writing, which are the two things I love best.  I have a wonderful kid. I'm even getting enough exercise. I even have enough money, at least right now. These are all things I wanted and worked toward. Am I happy?

Well, I'm happier. But I still have anxiety and long stretches of depression. 

The fact that I now have enough money means that I hardly ever think about the best way to kill myself, or at least for not very long. Instead I remind myself that I have the money to fix the flat tire, (or even just buy new tires if I want!). That's a big help, but is "enough money" something I could have chosen earlier? It really was not. 

I mean, in theory, I could have chosen a job that paid more money, but really, could I have? The job best suited to me, writing and teaching writing, is not one that society values, so it doesn't pay much. If I'd chosen a better paying job that I hated, would I have been happier? 

I could have been a little more frugal, sure, but what made me poor was not buying fresh fruit for my kid, but having cancer when I was 29, a financial blow I've only just recovered from. That wasn't anything I chose. Nor did I choose to live in a country where one single serious illness could destroy my financial stability for the next thirty years. In hindsight, obviously I should have declared bankruptcy right away, instead of paying hospital bills for twenty years. I could have chosen that, sure.

Anyway! My point, and I have one, is that "choosing" happiness is a simplistic way of looking at the complicated mess/morass that is actual life. Most of us are doing the best we can in a tangled mess of circumstances, and telling us we should just cheer up is not a useful tactic. And it can feel like an attack, to be absolutely honest. If we could be happy, we would -- most of us, anyway.


nicoleandmaggie said...

Its interesting how the comments got into happiness being a choice or not, since that was not really the intention of the post, which I thought was more of an exploration of how sometimes things are going ok and people are ok with that... part of a series of us being annoyed at people on the internet who don't believe anything could be ok and everyone is lying about being happy. Also some exploration of how some people wouldn't be happy with our lives but there's a lot to be said for having financial security when you didn't grow up with it, or not being bullied when you spent most of your childhood as a social pariah.

I would encourage you not to think of your political actions as pointless because when we think that, the fascists really have won. There's been a lot of change in a pretty short amount of time in positive directions, not just negative. (I was just thinking about how revolutionary Boy Meets Boy was when I first read it, but now it's not so unthinkable, and even with all the pushback Trans folks are getting, they're also a lot more represented out in life and the media than even five years ago.) We have to keep fighting. Your actions aren't pointless. Your blogposts influence people. Your teaching influences people. Talking to people, voting your conscience... all these things have ripple effects. They may not have major effects that you see right away, but they do help forestall worse things happening (which itself helps a lot of people) and they're making steps towards a brighter future.

I do think there are a lot of well off people who would perhaps be happier if instead of comparing themselves to the Trumps compared themselves to the average person. There's a lot to be said for perspective.

delagar said...

There has been a lot of change, and I try to remember that. Marriage equality was on the Arkansas ballot in 2004, I think, though I may be misremembering that, and I remember how free people felt to disparage gay people, loudly and in public. Now, even conservatives who don't really believe it act as though they were for marriage equality all along and as though they believe Lesbian and gay people are perfectly fine and should have rights. Maybe in ten years, the attitude toward trans people will have similarly changed. We can hope.

I am kind of depressed about my ability to vote change in. My state elected Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Tom Cotton, after all; and my town votes down money for libraries every chance they get. I'm still voting, but it does feel pointless sometimes.