Somebody I used to know once told me she thought happiness was overrated. I’ve thought about that statement for going on a dozen years now, and I think she was wrong. Well, I think she was talking about pleasure, about following one’s desire, about gratification–and all of these are different from happiness. Not only is happiness not overrated, I don’t believe it is rated nearly highly enough on our collective list of priorities.
I was recently on a long, 9-hour drive from Atlanta to South Florida when I began running through my usual thoughts: money, work, goals, writing, weight. I was even running scripts through my mind of events that I envisioned happening so that I would have a ready response. For example, I pictured a scenario in which my boss asks me to assume additional duties at work. I was amazing myself at my sardonic, pointed remarks to her. Then I thought to myself, “I have a 9-hour drive and I am going to sit here and make myself miserable the whole time? This is my vacation, what if I only thought happy thoughts the whole drive, heck, the whole trip?” So I practiced. I made myself happy, or so I thought at the time. Looking back, I think it’s more accurate to say, I rejected negative thoughts for positive ones. Happiness, a deceptively simple notion, is more complicated than it seems.
I’m reading a book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Bright-sided: How positive thinking is undermining America. Ehrenreich has nothing against positive thinking per se, but she argues it has become a tool to lull Americans into compliance with a neo-liberal, consumerist culture. It is, according to her, in the best interest of institutions to keep the population thinking positively because it deflects attention off inequities of capitalist society by focusing on ourselves. Be positive, work harder, pick yourself up, you can do it (!), you deserve it, and my own personal favorite, “everything is going to be just fine/work out….” Ehrenreich goes on to present some amazing survey results: even though we Americans have embraced the power of positive thinking, we don’t report that we are very happy. There are plenty of other, frankly, negative countries whose people are happier than we are. Being happy is not the same as thinking positively. Positive thinking is something you can choose to do; and while I’ve heard it suggested that we “choose happiness,” I think it is more of a state of being. I”m sure the two are connected somehow, and maybe I’ll think about that later.
I can be negative. I am often cynical and suspicious (of politics and banks, for example). I get the blues and feel lonesome. I come from a long line of worriers–it would have been a piece of cake to have found something to worry about the whole drive down to Florida. But, I am a happy person. I am not jolly, and I don’t feel euphoric all that often. So am I sure about this happiness thing? Yeah, I’m sure. I haven’t figured out yet whether happiness is situational, contextual, or even genetically influenced. In fact, I have just begun to think about it at all–apart from that comment about it being overrated all those years ago. Lots of thing “make me happy”: music, Taco Bell, marathons on TNT, watching the ocean, people in my life. But really, I think these things bring me some joy; they bring me feelings of happiness. Happiness, it seems to me, is what you are left with if feelings were stripped away. I think it would and should be articulated differently by different people. For me, it is serenity of the soul. But that’s just a way of saying it. Can one “get happy”? What is happiness? How does happiness fit in with the violence all around us? That is, can our own happiness intersect with that of others? What does that look like? What good does being happy do us? That’s a lot of questions for something so taken for granted.
More on this later.
Coastal areas with their sea turtle preserves have nothing on red clay states like Georgia and Alabama.
Yesterday morning I was walking Duncan. The sky was just a little lighter than the gray of the asphalt paving of my apartment complex. It was warm for a January morning, and the rain had just stopped. As we made our way around the buildings, one sniff at a time, I began to notice earthworms. I will always notice a worm. I invariably think back to when I was a kid we would go digging for worms to take fishing. Back then, I almost never found any, so whenever I see them now, I notice.
These were perfect conditions for them to come out of their dirt to…well, to do whatever it is that earthworms do. Except, I think ideally, they would come out of their dirt to explore more dirt–not pavement. I noted to Duncan, who was mostly ambivalent, that there sure were a lot of worms out. We turned a corner and sidestepped a large puddle under a cypress tree, when I looked out into the street between the buildings. There, spaced out across the deep gray like long flesh-colored surfaced submarines, were about a hundred worms. Sadly, some of them had been flattened by early morning drivers.
It was one of those sights I will stop to see. I took hope for a minute when it looked like more of them were nearing the curb, approaching safety. But taking a deeper look, it was clear they were not coming but going–further out in harms way. I hoped again for the best, since it was still early and the college kids had not awakened and headed to Starbucks in their cars. They would most likely not notice the wriggling armada.
Two hours later Duncan and I made our second round of the day. When we got to that same spot, I saw not a single worm, dead or alive. Maybe they were washed away; maybe they made it. I do not know.
Some people take time to smell the flowers or see the beauty in a sunset. I’ll do those things too, but I’ve learned there is something majestic in the resolve of hundreds of earthworms that know when it is time to emerge.
More on this later.