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?
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.