Are We Half Awake in a Fake Empire?

By: Kelsey Brown | Mar 10, 2010 | 722 Views Life, Opinion |

What makes us happy? For me, it’s watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean, giving hugs to my mom, and taking walks through the neighborhood I grew up in. Those things make me happy, but it is only a transient happiness. Anyone can list the things that make them smile, give them a warm feeling, as I have just done, but what good does one fleeting moment do? To be able to determine the source of true happiness, one must examine the bigger picture: what makes us happy in life?

My ultimate source of happiness-- a sunset in Newport Beach.

Of course the pursuit of happiness has been an eternal question, but studying happiness in a measurable, scientific way is currently in vogue. The internet is cluttered with blog posts and research on the subject. Even Facebook is doing a study of its own– measuring Gross National Happiness through our status updates. Our lives have changed drastically in just the last fifty years. Advancements in transportation, communication and day-to-day conveniences have given us an unprecedented ability to access the world. But with all of these new advancements come new choices, and somewhere in the midst of all this new-age connectedness, many wonder if happiness has taken a back seat. But what is happiness and why is the pursuit of it so important?

A post by career blogger Penelope Trunk proposes  that the goal of achieving happiness may be overrated. This is a novel thought for me. Trunk upholds that she would rather have an interesting life than a happy one and sets up the two ideals up in opposition to one another. She has lived in both New York City and Madison, WI, and uses the two locations to draw a comparison between living an interesting life and a happy one. Trunk characterizes people from New York as people seeking interesting lives. New York provides the choices necessary to have a diverse and exciting life, and those who choose to live in New York do so because they would rather have a varied life than a happy one. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is the land of contentment. It may not have the limitless opportunities present in the Big Apple, but your average Wisconsinite isn’t looking for that. As Trunk says, “People live in Wisconsin because the lifestyle is easy– family is here, personal history is here, things generally are fine. Nothing is fine in NYC. It’s very challenging. Every single day.”

Being from Wisconsin myself, I am used to debunking falsehoods about my home state. I wish I could disagree with what Penelope Trunk said, but her logic rings true. Before you write me off as a simple-minded Midwesterner, however, you should know that I was born in Newport Beach, grew up in Madison, went to boarding school in Massachusetts, and now have returned to California.  I have a broad understanding of a multitude of lifestyles but as embarrassing as it is to say, I would forsake an interesting life if, as Trunk suggests, it stood opposed to the possibility of a happy one. Don’t get me wrong, I am exhilarated by the limitless possibilities of the big city, but I also feel a visceral loneliness when presented with such a vast array of forking roads and diverging tunnels.

In our world today, it is impossible to avoid a certain level of “interesting” in our lives. For those like me that choose to pursue happiness, life is a constant struggle to balance decisions with satisfaction. The following video by photographer/designer/producer Ryan Lewis is what inspired me to write this article in the first place; he so accurately depicts the daily conflict between interesting and happiness.

I am continually amazed by iPhone apps, but I would much rather hang out with you than with my iPhone. I would rather see a smile flash across your face than read your measured text messages. There are some things that just cannot be said in 140 characters or less. According to Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, social relationships are the key to happiness. Taking the time to sit down and talk is an invaluable source for human connection and happiness. But there is an even more important kind of social relationship that, depending on who you are, may not seem as obvious in terms of your net joy. I’m talking about sex. It should be noted that when researchers note the monumental effect of sex on one’s happiness, they mean sex with a consistent partner. According to David Blanchflower, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College, “Going from sex once a month to sex once a week creates a big jump in happiness.”

So returning to the question of whether to be an interesting New Yorker or a happy Wisconsinite, I would prefer to be the latter. Alicia Keys and Jay-Z may love their “Concrete jungle where dreams are made of” but I’m not quite convinced. There’s a place in my guileless heart for that Wisconsin happiness and I’m going to continue searching for it.

About the Author

Kelsey is a Literature major from America’s Cheese State (via East Coast boarding school). As an Editor for the Life section, Kelsey naturally loves lists. Some things that make it to the top of her "Favorites" list are: her two labradoodles, Criminal Minds, the sport of ice hockey, snail mail, photography, Google Reader, pesto, Moleskine journals, and her big brother, Cooper.

  • False dichotomy

    A NYC resident living there for the diversity of experiences is happy precisely because his life is interesting. A wide array of activities, sites, and experiences provides happiness to that individual, in spite of any emotional hurdles inherent to that lifestyle.

    Meanwhile, a typical resident of Madison probably experiences happiness as a result of simplicity of lifestyle, in spite of any emotional or intellectual hurdle inherent in having minimal cultural resources.

    Interest and excitement are contributors to happiness, in the same way that simplicity and relaxation are. A classic NYC resident is merely choosing to balance these contributors in different ways. I, for one, would likely be bored and unhappy in Madison. Meanwhile, I’d be active, excited, and happy in NYC.

    Trunk’s dichotomy is false and extremely oversimplified.

  • False dichotomy

    A NYC resident living there for the diversity of experiences is happy precisely because his life is interesting. A wide array of activities, sites, and experiences provides happiness to that individual, in spite of any emotional hurdles inherent to that lifestyle.

    Meanwhile, a typical resident of Madison probably experiences happiness as a result of simplicity of lifestyle, in spite of any emotional or intellectual hurdle inherent in having minimal cultural resources.

    Interest and excitement are contributors to happiness, in the same way that simplicity and relaxation are. A classic NYC resident is merely choosing to balance these contributors in different ways. I, for one, would likely be bored and unhappy in Madison. Meanwhile, I’d be active, excited, and happy in NYC.

    Trunk’s dichotomy is false and extremely oversimplified.

  • NYer in Claremont

    Good post. I like to see this kind of stuff from the Forum.

    For some of us, it’s NYC where “family” and “personal history” make life easy.

  • NYer in Claremont

    Good post. I like to see this kind of stuff from the Forum.

    For some of us, it’s NYC where “family” and “personal history” make life easy.

  • hellokitty

    hellokitty says that this is the best darn post on the forum right now! impeccable writing, really! give her more stuff to write forum people!

  • hellokitty

    hellokitty says that this is the best darn post on the forum right now! impeccable writing, really! give her more stuff to write forum people!

  • Connor

    Great article, Kelsey!!!

    1) I completely agree with “hellokitty” ^^^

    2) http://blog.ted.com/2006/09/happiness_exper.php
    Dan Gilbert at TED 2004. Amazing video.

  • Connor

    Great article, Kelsey!!!

    1) I completely agree with “hellokitty” ^^^

    2) http://blog.ted.com/2006/09/happiness_exper.php
    Dan Gilbert at TED 2004. Amazing video.

  • Ryan

    a very thought provoking article Kelsey, great job!

  • Ryan

    a very thought provoking article Kelsey, great job!

  • Stephanie

    Nice article!

    As someone who has moved constantly from one place to another, I see happiness and contentment as things that come not from a particular place but from social relationships, environment, and experiences that can be found anywhere, and come in many different forms. It doesn’t necessarily have more value because it is simple and predictable. It takes experience from a fast-paced, diversified life to truly enjoy a slow-paced, simple life and vice-versa.

  • Stephanie

    Nice article!

    As someone who has moved constantly from one place to another, I see happiness and contentment as things that come not from a particular place but from social relationships, environment, and experiences that can be found anywhere, and come in many different forms. It doesn’t necessarily have more value because it is simple and predictable. It takes experience from a fast-paced, diversified life to truly enjoy a slow-paced, simple life and vice-versa.

  • Anonymous

    It’s amazing what a Google News search will turn up.

    Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with CMC, having stumbled onto this article from a Google News search, but as a college student/young academic professional in the Midwest (hint: in the state west of Wisconsin, in that state’s largest city), I have to take issue with a few points in this article and the comments.

    One, the author, while a wonderful writer (and, it would seem, a charming person) reminds me of why I dislike the Eastern prep school brigade – their elitism, while not mean-spirited or even intentional, pervades their writing and their attitudes. To speak of a charming Midwestern “simplicity” in contrast to the “interesting” life in NYC belies the complexity of life in the Midwest, be it in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, or Chicago. True, they are not global Meccas (except possibly for Chicago), but on the other hand, NYC isn’t the center of the globe, either (I tend to believe London has more culture and Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, etc. have more economic opportunities).

    Anyway, I’m probably just overreacting. But having traveled extensively in a professional capacity to colleges and universities all over this country, I’ve found that students at elite coastal schools, even though they deliberately recruit students from all over the country (albeit usually from the same social backgrounds), have a very provincial outlook toward the rest of the country.This isn’t anything new, nor is it even particularly unique to this country (Parisians think they’re the center of the universe, too), but these attitudes can be viewed (rightly, in my view) as condescending and frankly insulting.

    • Kelsey Brown

      I did not mean to say that you cannot have a “happy” life in NYC or an “interesting” life in Madison. My article is mainly a response to Penelope Trunk’s post, so if you are insulted by the comparisons that she makes, you might want to take it up with her.

      Also, if I were actually an elitist, which you so believe, I would not have the initial reaction to try to “[debunk] falsehoods about my home state.” Nor would I have chosen to live the “Wisconsin way” if I felt that I was above it.

      I love the Midwest and that is mainly why I wrote this article. I basically grew up on the campus of UW-Madison, which was ranked third in the nation for public universities (after UC Berkeley and University of Michigan) in the Grouman Report (published by Princeton Review). I am in no way trying to undermind Midwesterners (remember, I am one…), but I believe it is inarguable that there isn’t a difference in ways of life.

      And hey, if you’re so proud of our region, then why do you care what the people on the coasts say? We know we’re the nation’s secret little gem, so what does it matter?

    • Kid Cudi

      I disagree. Having lived in both the midwest and both coasts, there is a simplicity in the predictability of experiences offered in the midwest. This predictability stands in contrast to the variety of experiences available in a city with more inhabitants from vastly different walks of life. Also, if you’re living your life to your hearts content, what reason do you have to be insulted? I’m currently living a pretty unconventional existence, but I’m getting the most happiness out of it that I’ve ever gotten. Some people may look at it as a waste of time, but things like that fall by the wayside when you find something you really enjoy.

      On another note, excellent article! Best writing I’ve seen on the Forum in a long while.

      “if I fall if I die know I lived it to the fullest…I’m on the pursuit of happiness.”

  • Anonymous

    It’s amazing what a Google News search will turn up.

    Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with CMC, having stumbled onto this article from a Google News search, but as a college student/young academic professional in the Midwest (hint: in the state west of Wisconsin, in that state’s largest city), I have to take issue with a few points in this article and the comments.

    One, the author, while a wonderful writer (and, it would seem, a charming person) reminds me of why I dislike the Eastern prep school brigade – their elitism, while not mean-spirited or even intentional, pervades their writing and their attitudes. To speak of a charming Midwestern “simplicity” in contrast to the “interesting” life in NYC belies the complexity of life in the Midwest, be it in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, or Chicago. True, they are not global Meccas (except possibly for Chicago), but on the other hand, NYC isn’t the center of the globe, either (I tend to believe London has more culture and Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, etc. have more economic opportunities).

    Anyway, I’m probably just overreacting. But having traveled extensively in a professional capacity to colleges and universities all over this country, I’ve found that students at elite coastal schools, even though they deliberately recruit students from all over the country (albeit usually from the same social backgrounds), have a very provincial outlook toward the rest of the country.This isn’t anything new, nor is it even particularly unique to this country (Parisians think they’re the center of the universe, too), but these attitudes can be viewed (rightly, in my view) as condescending and frankly insulting.

    • Kelsey Brown

      I did not mean to say that you cannot have a “happy” life in NYC or an “interesting” life in Madison. My article is mainly a response to Penelope Trunk’s post, so if you are insulted by the comparisons that she makes, you might want to take it up with her.

      Also, if I were actually an elitist, which you so believe, I would not have the initial reaction to try to “[debunk] falsehoods about my home state.” Nor would I have chosen to live the “Wisconsin way” if I felt that I was above it.

      I love the Midwest and that is mainly why I wrote this article. I basically grew up on the campus of UW-Madison, which was ranked third in the nation for public universities (after UC Berkeley and University of Michigan) in the Grouman Report (published by Princeton Review). I am in no way trying to undermind Midwesterners (remember, I am one…), but I believe it is inarguable that there isn’t a difference in ways of life.

      And hey, if you’re so proud of our region, then why do you care what the people on the coasts say? We know we’re the nation’s secret little gem, so what does it matter?

    • Kid Cudi

      I disagree. Having lived in both the midwest and both coasts, there is a simplicity in the predictability of experiences offered in the midwest. This predictability stands in contrast to the variety of experiences available in a city with more inhabitants from vastly different walks of life. Also, if you’re living your life to your hearts content, what reason do you have to be insulted? I’m currently living a pretty unconventional existence, but I’m getting the most happiness out of it that I’ve ever gotten. Some people may look at it as a waste of time, but things like that fall by the wayside when you find something you really enjoy.

      On another note, excellent article! Best writing I’ve seen on the Forum in a long while.

      “if I fall if I die know I lived it to the fullest…I’m on the pursuit of happiness.”

  • simulacric_bro

    “Happiness” is just the liminal space of an ideology of mediocrity. Put in the format of your cutsey aphorisms, would you rather watch your favorite TV show or struggle to make a positive impact on the world?

    No, the only thing worth fighting for–the only thing that people have ever fought for–in this world is redemption.

  • simulacric_bro

    “Happiness” is just the liminal space of an ideology of mediocrity. Put in the format of your cutsey aphorisms, would you rather watch your favorite TV show or struggle to make a positive impact on the world?

    No, the only thing worth fighting for–the only thing that people have ever fought for–in this world is redemption.

  • Pitzer Sophomore
  • Pitzer Sophomore
  • Jammer

    I think it’s easy to assume that the midwest seems “happier” than the east coast due to our simplistic lifestyle. Heck, Minnesota has its own tagline for those who are happy and kind- The Minnesota Nice. As a Wisconsinite, I can truly say that I am happy. Is happiness my ultimate goal in life? Probably not. I also want to lead an interesting life, full of challenges and opportunities, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to up and move to the coast.

    I think it’s important to note that it doesn’t matter where you are form, as long as where you are makes you happy, whether this happiness means living an interesting lifestyle or a simplistic one.

    Brown, great article.

  • Jammer

    I think it’s easy to assume that the midwest seems “happier” than the east coast due to our simplistic lifestyle. Heck, Minnesota has its own tagline for those who are happy and kind- The Minnesota Nice. As a Wisconsinite, I can truly say that I am happy. Is happiness my ultimate goal in life? Probably not. I also want to lead an interesting life, full of challenges and opportunities, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to up and move to the coast.

    I think it’s important to note that it doesn’t matter where you are form, as long as where you are makes you happy, whether this happiness means living an interesting lifestyle or a simplistic one.

    Brown, great article.

  • lovin’ it

    Great work, Kelsey. I hope you continue to write interesting articles like this for the Forum!

  • lovin’ it

    Great work, Kelsey. I hope you continue to write interesting articles like this for the Forum!

  • cathie pauly

    Kelsey,
    Beautifully written and well thought out;
    your article provided me with immeasurable happiness.

  • cathie pauly

    Kelsey,
    Beautifully written and well thought out;
    your article provided me with immeasurable happiness.

  • Finn McCool

    I’m still not convinced there’s a difference between fleeting moments of transient happiness and “happiness in life.” I have a pretty bad memory, and that’s only going to get worse as I get older, so is life really about building up a collection of things I’ll forget later? New research shows memories change as we age, which means our sense of identity, which can be defined as a collection of experiences, may be an illusion. Isn’t that a scary thought?

    I read once in a Japanese garden: “The butterfly counts moments, not months, and has time enough.” Then I read David Foster Wallace: “This is water.” What’s more real than the present moment, that sunset over the Pacific, hugs with Mom, or mundane conversations with a friend or stranger that we call human interaction?

    Ultimately, I’m not smart enough to understand all this and I’m gonna die someday, so I try not to over think and just Do. Maybe that means living on the edge in NYC, having sex weekly rather than monthly, base jumping, or finding a cute girl from Wisconsin and surrounding myself with family. But appreciation of “This is Water” moments seems like a good place to start.

    Great article, by the way.

  • Finn McCool

    I’m still not convinced there’s a difference between fleeting moments of transient happiness and “happiness in life.” I have a pretty bad memory, and that’s only going to get worse as I get older, so is life really about building up a collection of things I’ll forget later? New research shows memories change as we age, which means our sense of identity, which can be defined as a collection of experiences, may be an illusion. Isn’t that a scary thought?

    I read once in a Japanese garden: “The butterfly counts moments, not months, and has time enough.” Then I read David Foster Wallace: “This is water.” What’s more real than the present moment, that sunset over the Pacific, hugs with Mom, or mundane conversations with a friend or stranger that we call human interaction?

    Ultimately, I’m not smart enough to understand all this and I’m gonna die someday, so I try not to over think and just Do. Maybe that means living on the edge in NYC, having sex weekly rather than monthly, base jumping, or finding a cute girl from Wisconsin and surrounding myself with family. But appreciation of “This is Water” moments seems like a good place to start.

    Great article, by the way.

  • DeeKay

    I think that Berkshire School graduate Kelsey Brown has hit many nails on many heads here. Her former stomping grounds are presently cold and wet — interesting? challenging? fun? And her former advisor agrees that happiness can be a tricky business. But he’s glad to read lots of smart people wrestling with the tough questions out there in the California sun!

    And a note to Finn McCool: if you enjoyed “This Is Water,” you should strap on “Infinite Jest.”

    • Kelsey Brown

      DK – you know that you and your lovely wife taught me everything I know about writing, and most of what I know about life.

  • DeeKay

    I think that Berkshire School graduate Kelsey Brown has hit many nails on many heads here. Her former stomping grounds are presently cold and wet — interesting? challenging? fun? And her former advisor agrees that happiness can be a tricky business. But he’s glad to read lots of smart people wrestling with the tough questions out there in the California sun!

    And a note to Finn McCool: if you enjoyed “This Is Water,” you should strap on “Infinite Jest.”

    • Kelsey Brown

      DK – you know that you and your lovely wife taught me everything I know about writing, and most of what I know about life.

  • Carol Kelsey Lind

    Loved reading your perspectives on what life is all about. Aunt, Carol

  • Carol Kelsey Lind

    Loved reading your perspectives on what life is all about. Aunt, Carol

  • Pingback: Choose to Improve Yourself, Choose to Improve The World « The Forum()

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y2RCXVD4BIUAUGDQN73WV7ZLXU Golam Chowdhury

    The national- Fake empire