I hate being asked if I’m happy.
I was at the helm of a sailboat for the first time, heeled hard over, simultaneously terrified and exhilarated. Sun shining, wind in my hair, all the usual cares literally blown away into the salt air, I must have been an adman’s image of carefree happiness.
And then the friend whose boat it was asked me if I was happy. He asked because he wanted me to be happy. Because he really wanted me to enjoy sailing as much as he did. And so, rather than get into a philosophical discussion in the middle of a fine afternoon on Puget Sound, I said ‘Yes, I am.’ But even as I said it, I wondered if I really meant it.
The question — both his and mine — stumped me. What he was asking, in essence, was for me to stop being happy, and to reflect about whether I was happy. And I resented it because he was asking me to impose reflection on the moment — to analyze it even as it was happening — which is, I think, an excellent way to subvert any moment.
I might in fact be an excellent candidate for happiness. No matter what I’m doing — writing, reading, staring out the window, helping a friend pull weeds or clean a boat or make a great meal — I can be perfectly (okay, imperfectly) happy until the moment someone raises that question. Which is why I raise it now.
What the hell am I doing writing about happiness given what I’ve been writing about recently — given Gaza and the Gulf oil spill and Afghanistan and everything else I know of, let alone everything else I’m blind to?
The answer is partly as a protest against the ever-escalating shriek of political rhetoric. Partly because I need to change the pace, to stand back from the barrage of news reports and for my own sanity, think about sanity. And partly because over the weekend, I came across a TED talk on just this subject by a former professor of mine, Danny Kahneman,
I knew him back when he was teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the early 70s and I was doing my masters in psychology there. He was just beginning to work on game theory — the whole host of intriguing ways in which actual rationality and self-interest play both off and against apparent rationality and self-interest — work that would later win him a Nobel in economics when applied to market strategies.
Unlike most TED talks, which seem designed mainly to show off how brilliant the speaker is, Kahneman’s is more an expression of genuine delight at how puzzling human beings can be. Using an irresistible example from colonoscopies (yes, colonoscopies, and yes, irresistible), he argues that there are at least two different modalities of experience: the experience itself, and the memory of it. All of which resonated with me, so I’m embedding the video (if I do it right) and if you don’t have 20 minutes right now, just click here and save the link: .
A few things in particular strike me:
1. Kahneman’s findings, as so often with his work, are counter-intuitive and yet somehow intuitively solid at the same time. You trust them not only because he argues them well, but because they resonate with your own unstated experience (or at least with mine). That little detail about the second week of a vacation being less memorable than the first, for instance, set me thinking about first impressions. I’ve been much praised for the strong sense of place in my books, and it’s true that a sense of place is very important to me. But no matter how well I know a place, I realize that when I write about it, much of what I write comes from the first time I was there, when the impressions are fresh and the impact greatest. More time makes the experience deeper, but not more vivid.
2. I would probably not even have seen this video if it hadn’t made the news — not because of the talk itself, but because of the “by the way” question put to Kahneman at the end. The question is about money (it comes at the 17- minute mark if you want to skip to it) and the answer is what made the news — in crude terms, a kind of base American financial desideratum for happiness. The fact that this is what made the news, and not the 17 minutes that came first, makes me peculiarly unhappy.
3. I come up against the (to me) astounding idea that though I have always thought of myself as something of a depressive, I may in fact be quite happy. Both in the moment and on reflection. I love the work I do, even as I bitch about how hard it is (I bitch about the research when I’m doing it, then about the writing when I’m doing that, then about doing neither when I’ve finished a book and not yet started on a new one). The fact remains that there’s nothing I’d rather be doing, and that I cherish the challenge of it’s being hard work. I love the peculiarly non-linear pattern of my life, and Edith-Piaf-like, seem to have no regrets, mistakes and all . But then maybe I have an odd idea of what happiness is. To me it’s not the adman’s image of carefree perfection. I was happy at the helm of that sailboat not despite the terror I felt alongside the exhilaration, but because of the terror alongside the exhilaration. That’s what made it interesting, and so long as I’m interested – much as I may regret having to say it — I’m happy.