Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Happiness Files

As a community college student, I once wrote a comparison/contrast essay on happiness versus contentment.

I got a C-, an extreme disappointment for an overachiever.

"What happened to the idea of comparing and contrasting your boyfriend to Romeo?" Pam, the instructor, asked me.

"When I went to write my comparison list, I discovered he had NO qualities of Romeo. And I couldn't write just a contrast paper."

Some conversations seem to live lifetimes in memory.

Recollecting, I am sure one reason for my failure (as I considered a C-) was the distinct lack of scientific proof between definitions, such as I just read in The New York Review of Books, Are You Happy? by Sue M. Halpern. How can we define happiness? What exactly is contentment? How can these conditions be assessed objectively?

What it comes down to is they can't be.

Pam picked this up immediately.

Like any other college freshman in English composition, I immediately repulsed her by introducing my essay with, "According to the Webster's Dictionary...." followed by definitions from that great book of lexicon-ic wisdom.

Happiness: pleasure, joy, exhilaration, bliss, contentedness, delight, enjoyment, satisfaction.
Contentment: the state of being contented; satisfaction; ease of mind.

I then went on to argue something like even though the definitions contained elements of one another, they most certainly were not the same thing (as the current definitions demonstrate above). Happiness can include contentedness, but contentedness apparently does not include happiness. In fact, contentment doesn't even include the word happiness in the thesaurus: comfort, complacency, content, contentedness, ease, equanimity, fulfillment, gladness, gratification, peace, pleasure, repletion, satisfaction, serenity .

Based on these definitions, contentment reads like low-grade, monotonous happiness, while true happiness should be exhibited by skipping through the suburbs, laughing at polite jokes, and grinning at inappropriate times. After all, happiness outranks contentedness, doesn't it? When we are content, we must smile calmly and nod as we sink into the lotus position.

So here, of course, brought on the horror of the C-. Not only had I attempted to write the mandatory comparison and contrast essay, I had taken on definition and argumentation as well, something I would tell my students to avoid at all cost lest they become confused and earn a similar cold prickly. My own essay offered no research (it wasn't mandatory) and only a few examples. Examples, however, are subjective, as Ms. Halpern's article points out about happiness surveys:

"No doubt the conditions in which these 916 surveys were taken, and their methodologies and measures, were inconsistent. In some cases, respondents were approached face-to-face, at home. In others, they were interviewed by phone. Some conversations were mediated by translators, others by village elders. In some surveys, people were asked, 'Generally speaking would you say you are very happy, fairly happy, not too happy?' In others they were asked how they'd rank, on a one-to-seven scale, the conditions of their life. In yet another they were asked to locate themselves on a ladder of self-satisfaction, where the bottom rung, zero, was 'the worst possible life' and the top rung, ten, was 'the best possible life.' "

Apparently, people who report low levels of happiness are either sick or not working hard enough. Halpern reports of the happiness genre, "Individually and together, they suggest, first, that we may not be as happy as we say we are, and second, that if we're not, it may be our own fault." According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, happiness researcher, "individuals can avoid stressful situations by choosing instead to put themselves into constructive environments."

Believe me, if I could avoid stress, I would. But I don't think Lyubomirsky WOULD believe me.

This would not make me happy.

Besides, I doubt I could be happy if I felt guilty about not being happy.

I then visualized answering the telephone in the middle of my contentedness--a dinner of asparagus and boiled chicken breast--to the high pitched aria of a happiness surveyor, other data collectors shrieking the same questions behind our conversation.

"Do you have time to take a quick survey?"


"Is there a better time to call?"

"Yes. Tomorrow morning."

I know I have a dentist's appointment tomorrow morning. In fact now, I am planning to visit the dentist every morning for the next two weeks or boycott the telephone all together.

"Okay, we will call back."

"Thank you." Click.

Silently, however, I rate my happiness at a five.

Probably that means I could give myself a "C," sure progress because I chose to avoid the stress of answering a phone call at dinner and answering questions about my happiness.

A "C" is also better than my college essay grade.

Now that's contentment.
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