Happiness, Guilt, and Capitalism

I am usually skeptical of New Year’s Resolutions, but this year I knew I had to make some big changes because I have been slowly slipping down a drain of anxiety, restlessness, and discontent. So my resolution was just to be more happy, balanced, and optimistic.

(Just, she says.)

Words like “happy,” “balanced,” “optimistic” don’t enter into my vocabulary often. I’m a self-declared cynic. I practice self-denigration like it’s an art form. I have said more times than I’m proud of that “I don’t like people.” Somewhere around middle school, I decided that complete pessimism was the safest philosophy: expect the worst, and you’ll never be disappointed. Oh, I have a good sense of humor about it all, but it’s a nasty kind of humor: derisive, sarcastic, mocking all that seems positive.

I’d like to believe–maybe I’m wrong–that people who know me well would say that on a spectrum from gloomy to chipper, I would fall somewhere around disgruntled. And, man, I have been proud of that.

Why? Because I also have a nasty little attitude toward the chirpy and confident, the cheerful and buoyant. I often assume they are either less intelligent, shallow, or luckily haven’t experienced the pain and struggle the world has to offer. I also assume that they are happy because somehow they are shirking their responsibilities and that I am unhappy because I am picking up their slack. (In future posts, I think I will need to apologize to some of these people, make amends.)

Lately, I’ve realized that not only have I been acting like a big jerk but that this attitude is ruining my life. I work incredibly hard, but I’m not getting any happier. In fact, for all the work I’m doing, I don’t even feel more successful. Most days, I just feel half crazy. I wake up with all of things I need to get done swirling around my mind, only they’re swirling around so fast that I can’t catch any of them and get started. It’s like I’m in one of those air tubes filled with dollar bills and I have to try to snatch as many as I can, only instead of dollar bills it’s my to-do list ripped into pieces.

At night, I inevitably go to bed feeling like I didn’t get enough done. I try to stay up later, hoping in my last, exhausted moments, I’ll suddenly have a burst of energy and brain power that will allow me to get ONE MORE THING DONE, as if that would be the calamine to my itch.

Right now, in fact, I am filled with so much dread about the day before me that I actually feel too heavy to move off the couch. And what do I have ahead of me except two classes filled with wonderful students who want to talk about American literature? And after that, perhaps a leisurely few laps in the pool. But I am paralyzed.

I have been slowly making some changes. If you’ve ever done any happiness seeking yourself, you can guess what kind. I have changed my diet to include more vegetables and leafy greens! I make sure to get fresh air and sunshine! I try to exercise a little every day, regardless of how busy I am! I’ve even gone so far as to work in positive affirmations and meditation. (I was hugely influenced to do so by this Ted talk on happiness by my pretend husband, Shawn Achor. Watch it: it’s awesome.)

I know it takes time to change, but I actually feel like I’m getting worse. And this is baffling me.

But I wonder if it has something to do with identity and guilt. For so long, discontentedness has been a central part of my definition of self. Being happy? Why, that means I’m no longer going to be me.

And I think, too, that there is something (in me? in our culture?) that suggests that happiness is a limited commodity, that there is only so much of it out there, and if I’m taking more, then I am taking away from someone else’s share. It’s a capitalistic approach to happiness, one that sees gaining joy as a competitive endeavor: in order to get it, we must take it away from someone else. We must be more, do more, and post more happy pictures on facebook to prove that we’ve got it all figured out.

At any rate, I’m not giving up. I’ve long sneered at happiness methodology, assuming it futile and foolish without even trying it. Well, this year I’m going to seriously try it, and I’m going to let you know how it goes just in case you, like me, have been a long-standing affiliate of the disgruntleds, that club that wears grouchy dubiety like it’s a badge of honor, and in case you, like me, are starting to suspect that it might be time to discontinue our membership.