Happiness is relative

Every once in a while a writer says something that has you nodding like a madman in unalloyed agreement. I’ve been reading essays by Meghan Daum, and much of what she writes strikes a mean, piercing chord. Far from negative, Daum trades in an admirable candor, some of which is rimmed with bile but is mostly benign and boldly human.

Take this paragraph from her collection “The Unspeakable.” It could have — should have — been written by me at my most exposed. And though it makes her sound morose and malcontent, she is not. She’s merely describing how some people see her — including, sometimes, herself.

“Clearly, I am a killjoy. Clearly, I have problems with pleasure, with letting go. Surely, I am an unhappy person. I do not enjoy most activities that are commonly labeled ‘fun.’ Moreover, I’m weary of ‘happiness,’ both as a word and a concept.”

Daum grazes dysphoria (a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life) and hints at anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure). But, like me (mostly), this isn’t quite accurate. Daum lives big and loud and gulps life, in all its pitiless unpredictability. She’s a humanist, not a pessimist, even if unhappiness creeps in with unsettling frequency.

Optimistically pessimistic

Recently while I was reading Jim Crace’s extraordinary novel “Being Dead,” a friend of mine passed by and glanced at the cover. 

“Oh, that’s uplifting,” she sniffed.

“Actually, it is,” I replied. “And anyway, life’s not all lollipops and teddy bears.”

That stuff kills me, that kind of blithe, brainless inanity. This is the same person who once offered me some blueberry muffin and, when I declined, huffed, “Oh, come on, have some fun in your life,” and clomped off in a mist of unaccountable umbrage.

I’ve never thought fun resides in a muffin, or any baked good for that matter (especially macaroons). But there you have it: the intrusive fatuity of the aggressively upbeat. 

Afraid of life’s moody side — squeamish, square, and excitable — these individuals are all strenuous sunshine and shellacked smiley faces. Lame humor is a font of ready giggles, birthdays a cause for sloppy exuberance. Willful ignorance is worn like a shield. They ironically bask in the light while being firmly in the dark. 

Call me a cynic, I don’t mind. The first defense of the pessimist is to brand himself a realist, someone wise and sensitive enough to embrace life’s gloomy aspects, its inescapable horrors, from dentists to death, and realize we’re all kinda screwed. The key is to carry on through the muck without seething too much.

While I bend toward the pessimistic, I’m not quite the full-throated morose, misanthropic fatalist some see me as. I grouse more than your average person, and my glasses are more smoky than rosy. But I’m also surprisingly empathetic and possess a squishy sentimental streak. I like puppies and “La La Land.”  

What I don’t like is the arrogance of the chronically positive, that whiff of  superiority that clings to them like a cloying cologne. “Why aren’t you more like me, like normal people?” they seem to always ask. As if “normal” — selfies and singalongs, charades and Champagne — is something to aspire to. Some of us like to brood a bit, reflect and go deep and dark. Self-awareness is kryptonite to the slaphappy extrovert.  

I’m not a morning person; I thrive at night. So first thing in the morning please don’t ask me “Are you pert and perky?” with a blinding smile. I know someone who made a habit of this. The optimist’s chirp — why are they so gregarious, so chatty, so loud? — chafes like a chainsaw. 

I’m sounding curmudgeonly indeed, grumbly instead of gushy, but that’s sort of the point. It’s a matchup: the pessimistic vs. the Pollyannaish, the easily disappointed vs. the easily amused. I am of course employing coarse, sweeping generalities to illustrate a common dichotomy — the glass half-empty or the glass half-full. 

Me, I’m pretty content where I stand, shadows and all. Though I’m no apple-cheeked optimist, I’ve constructed a complete life without skimping. My glass? It runneth over.

Quote of the day

To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.”

 — “In a Lonely Place,” the classic noir novel by Dorothy B. Hughes

In-a-Lonely-place