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.


15 thoughts on “Happiness, Guilt, and Capitalism

  1. Yep! This is so true of me. I wear my curmudgeonly dislike of people like a badge of honor, but it is a defensive strategy I have had since childhood and has become a huge part of my identity. I don’t know who I am without it, but since I moved here, I have felt completely weighed down and overwhelmed by negativity. So I have started doing yoga and trying positive thinking and all sorts of things I usually mock. I will be interested to see how some of these things work for you.

  2. I’m an optimist who is inclined to believe in reality. There is a capitalism of happiness. That means that we have to work for it, and we might not see returns on our capital investments for years.

    I dislike people, but I love individuals.

    And, like you, I distrust the self-professed happy ones. Mainly because I don’t share my curmudgeonliness with everyone, so why are they compelled to show me the beauties of their life? I assume that they are insecure above all, and the reason they talk/post so much about joy is that they want to believe in it. They have doubts, too, and a social network is an addictive affirmation of their prayers. Facebook is better than an imaginary friend. Just post a happy photo and people they’ve barely seen since college will comment on “how wonderful they look” and “how fun their vacation appears”. The photo becomes a testament to good times. And it is. But photos can be staged.

    I hope that your year of positive thinking works out, and I’ll be one of the first people to tell you if your joy is bothering me. hehe…

      1. Just don’t adopt a perky Valley Girl accent and you’ll be fine with me.

        Huh. Scratch the VG accent idea. We’re email buddies. For all I know, you’ve been speaking in chirpy tones for a year. Shivers.

  3. So far I feel extremely uncomfortable, and weird as it might sound, I am afraid that people only like me because I am sarcastic and curmudgeonly. So I am afraid that a more positive me would lose friends. I constantly slip back into my usual negative self when I start to feel awkward. Also, it is extremely hard to stay positive when you’re in grad school, because grad students bitch 24/7. I like yoga but struggle with the whole meditative mind/body connection part of it. So, not a rousing success so far but I am committed because I do not want another year like 2013.

    1. We’re soul sisters. I get ALL of this and feel the same way often. Let’s stick with the discomfort for awhile: I promise to accept the new happy you if you accept the new happy me. Here’s to a different 2014.

  4. Uhhh this blog is my life story. Perfect. Except you’re a little more evolved than I am cuz I’m still in the mocking evil sarcastic fifteen year old phase. . . It just feels easier to be a downer, which is a terrible philosophy but one I’ve stuck to more than any other..

  5. Hello. As a hopeless bibliophile, I tend to look for good books when seeking wisdom or advice. Plutarch has a nice essay on being content, and Montaigne is always helpful. Wagner’s A simple Life is also great, if you’ve had enough Thoreau. Hope there’s something useful for you in my suggestions.

  6. Late comment, but I relate to this a LOT. I didn’t realize–or didn’t acknowledge–that other people who are older than me have those same feelings of pessimism or negativity, and I too feel like if I change my sarcastic-cynicism, I’ll be different; i don’t know what that version of me would be like, so I avoid. Thank you for posting this, I think it’s helped me get one step closer to climbing over that bridge.

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