When I was a young woman in my twenties and people would ask me, “How are you?” I would pretty much always answer, “great!,” because that was what was expected. Nobody wants to hear about your fight with your roommate or your problems with your boss, so I lied. Of course I wasn’t always “great” but I gave the answer people wanted to hear. When I was no longer quite as young, an often harried woman in her thirties who was trying to keep her writing career afloat with two small children underfoot, I would still try and answer positively. Yes, I might be exhausted from being up all night with a two year old with an ear infection or worried about a newly unearthed major mold problem in my basement. But these were small concerns, I was living in a lovely Connecticut town with beautiful, healthy children and a husband who was a devoted partner. What could be wrong? When I think back, apart from some good natured whining, most of my friends would say they were happy or, at worst, would answer the how-are-you question with ,“good” ,which isn’t exactly “great” but is still, well, pretty “good.” This was before the divorces, the cancers, before the children were crashing cars or cutting themselves. This was when we were all pretty much still innocent of the fact that the light in your life could turn dark in the time it takes to come downstairs.
That was a long time ago. Now, when I see an old friend and ask her the inevitable, “how are you?” I often get a sigh. After the sigh she might say, “things are challenging,” which is the PC way of saying, “things suck.” Or, there might be a, “I’m fine,” but the sigh and the look of exhaustion in her eyes has given her away. I honestly can’t remember the last time outside of a yoga studio I asked someone who was more than an acquaintance how they were and got back an enthusiastic “I’m great!” back. And I live in CALIFORNIA, land of “no problem.” (Actually, I am dating myself, now it’s “no worries.” I wish someone could explain to me how these things happen.)
I don’t think, no, I KNOW I am not alone here. There seems to be a whole new genre of book recently, how to relieve anxiety and be happy books. There is one called “The Happiness Project” where the author, Gretchen Rubin, tries out something new every month, some new hobby or way of doing things or looking at the world that is supposed to increase happiness,. After a year of these one month projects or attitude adjustments, all of which she has incorporated into her life, she re-evaluates and asks herself if she is, actually, a happier person. She claims she is happier but I’m not so sure that cleaning out my closet (can’t remember which month that was) is going to do it for me. It’s going to make me feel like I have accomplished something, and I will feel altruistic for donating clothes, but I can’t really call that happiness. But, there is a global bestseller called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” which seems to focus (in truth, I have not read it) on, once again, cleaning out your closet. Maybe clearing up your environment clears and
calms your mind and allows more room for good feelings. Happiness is all the rage, happiness lists (Do these 12 things to increase happiness!) pop up on my Facebook feed daily. There is a book by Dan Harris that I quite liked called “10% Happier,” which is how the author feels after incorporating meditation into his life. This subject in the past would fall under the general umbrella of “self help” but now it is getting a more specific kind of attention. And then there is anxiety. All of a sudden it seems like everyone is suffering from it. (Or are we just now finally talking about it?) We have become a nation, maybe an entire society, of worriers, worrying being a kissing cousin to unhappiness, because if you are worrying you can’t be happy and, conversely, maybe if you aren’t worrying you might actually be….happy? Possibly. It’s hard to be simultaneously relaxed and miserable, isn’t it?
Mindfulness is supposed to make you happy, and I personally think it has more potential than closet cleaning. Middle schoolers as well as prisoners are being taught to meditate. Attendance in yoga classes has nationally gone up 30% in three years. For the first time we now have science to back this up, we can see the changes the brain goes through when it meditates, or prays, or exercises, just like we can see the changes after months of Prozac. (We can also see what it looks like when you fall in love. I don’t know quite why I find this so unsettling.)
In addition to all the books, there are new and old industries to help us with all this malaise. Talk therapy has been supplemented by if not mostly replaced by the taking of Prozac, or Celexa, or Wellbutrin or whatever is new on the market. When I was in college in the late seventies, my psychology professor told us that the way that unhappy or neurotic, not to mention, full-on mentally ill patients would be treated would change radically in just a few decades. He told us that most if not all patients would be treated by taking pills and that fewer and fewer of them would engage in talk therapy. I have to admit at the time I thought he was the crazy one. But what I don’t think I understood is that many more people would be in treatment for depression than ever before, very much partly because it would be a lot easier and cheaper to take a pill when you are feeling blue than commit to a therapist. I know a lot of people who are on anti-depressants. People I NEVER thought would go that route are taking pills. I remember years ago my internist mentioning that his patients seemed to get depressed around age 60. Both my parents, particularly my mother, went very downhill very quickly around this age. Hmmm….
It was a different culture when I was growing up on the west side of Los Angeles. My parents were in show business and their entire social circle was exclusively filled with fellow actors, writers, directors, producers and agents. My parent’s friends, for the most part, seemed to live lives not of quiet desperation but quiet denial. They sure did a great “happy” impression. I remember lying in bed at night, hearing the parties, (and there were SO many of them), the raucous laughter rising up over and over against the background of loud conversation and music. When I think of many of their friends’ lives, the almost constant upheaval of marriages, serious problems with children, worries about money and career in what has always been an insecure profession….I don’t remember seeing any of it. I don’t remember any of them complaining or looking unhappy or admitting to worrying. Did they not suffer from anxiety or depression or did they just not, because it wasn’t fashionable, show it? I have friends whose parents turned to psychiatrists, in many cases formal, five days a week visits to their analysts (remember when they were called shrinks?) in the sixties or seventies, and stuck with it for years. Friends who remember their parents rarely seeming really happy or content, friends who grew up in quiet and unhappy and often literally dark homes. My high school boyfriend had a house like that, and he understandably preferred to spend much more time at mine, where everything seemed light and fun.
It wasn’t, of course, all light and fun, but for the most part my parents, trained as actors, went by the “as if” philosophy. (There is in fact, a new book out on the virtual and real shelves, called “As If.” The central thesis goes back to William James who made a compelling argument that we might all be a lot better off if we just acted “as if”, “as if” we already had the job, or the girl, or the all around amazing life. I actually wrote a short paper about this in college, by acting “as if”, you can convince your subconscious that you are, for instance, in fact, happy.) When I and my fellow yoga students are in the uncomfortable “chair” pose one of my teachers always has us smile, believing that by doing so we convince ourselves that we are happy, or happier, or, maybe, not quite so pissed off at him for making us get into and stay in this
awkward position. My parents acted “as if” they were happy when some of the time, particularly if you looked just a bit past the surface of things, they weren’t. My father had migraine headaches so severe he would spend weeks in bed from attacks and other times he would unaccountably lose his temper, often at my brother, for doing things like spilling his milk. Maybe you shouldn’t cry over spilled milk, but in my house if you were my dad you got to yell. My anxious mother, carrying around some really Dr. Phil-worthy family secrets, spent most of her waking life pleasing everyone but herself. Years later she would turn to alcohol in a way that would cause herself, her family and her dearest friends a crazy amount of pain.
But for a while, quite a long while, things were pretty fun at my house, or I at least thought they were. We had a pool, the California sunshine, two affectionate golden retrievers, a lenient TV watching and junk food eating policy and a virtually non-existent bedtime. My younger brother Chris and I had friends over all the time. If houses, along with people, were popular, we had a popular house. And I can’t help wondering, well, if it was all smoke and mirrors, maybe the smoke and mirrors weren’t so bad? A few years ago my father, who was then in the early stages of his dementia, told Chris some weird stories about walking in on a friend forcing himself on his date in a back bedroom at a friend’s party, a male tennis friend making advances on him to the point that he (my Dad) left the tennis game, an affair he may have had (he’s a bit cagey on this one) with an actress who was cast in one of his plays. Can’t help but notice a sexual theme here. We have no idea if any of this is true, but it is all somewhat believable, and I wonder whether, decades later, it even matters. But it does beg the question, was it all some kind of mirage? Those years of supposedly happy family life?
I guess I am thinking a lot about this for a couple of reasons. One is that my parents have had a pretty miserable time of it the past, oh, twenty-five years. (They are both eighty-five..) As I mentioned, my mother, around sixty, started to succumb alarmingly quickly to depression and alcoholism. She disappeared before our eyes, her once sunny personality altering seemingly over night into someone who was negative and critical, even hurtful. She went from someone known for her boundless energy to someone who couldn’t get out of bed for days, partly because (we later discovered) she had a bottle of vodka under that bed. Mostly she just lied and lied and then lied some more. Oh, and she fell down a lot. There were many rehab stays, as well as a couple of long weekends in psych wards. But I digress. My father, who, apart from the scary way he would lose his temper at times around mostly just us, did, as I said, SEEM happy for years, acted AS IF he was happy, surrounded by a circle of friends that meant as much or more to him than any family (including, I can’t help but conclude, ours). But then he lost his three closest friends within two years of turning sixty. Professionally, he quickly came to realize that his best years were most likely behind him. The worst parts of his personality took over, he was judgemental and dismissive and behaved around his children and even grandchildren like he couldn’t stand them. He probably couldn’t.
I wonder, as I look around and see so many of my peers really struggling, if at some point we just can’t fake it anymore. To others and even, and this is much bigger, to ourselves? I am thinking that defenses come down after a certain point. Some of it could be simply that the friendships are so long, we all know each other so well, that we can’t lie to each other anymore. But then I also think about running into a fairly casual friend and how she’ll melt down right there, at the ATM machine, about her dad who just had a stroke or her video game addicted kid or her dead marriage. Maybe the secrets just boil over at a certain point. And as awful as this sounds, there is something kind of wonderful about these confessions. To tell and to hear the truth can be such a relief.
I often think of that Thich Nhat Hanh quote, “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.” Kind of goes back to Dorothy’s red slippers, and, while well worth contemplating, it still might be too simple (and therefore difficult) a slogan for some of us. But the idea that happiness is already here in us, we just need to let go of all the layers of ego and the crazy and destructive narratives we often tell ourselves to discover it, is more and more attractive to me as I get older. I also wonder about the real differences between the similar meanings of the words happiness, contentment, joy. I sometimes wonder if we also confuse any of these states with fun, or pleasure, which are temporary bursts of happiness. And I can’t help but recall how one of my Uncles often referred to his time in the army in World War II as amongst the happiest of his life, when he spent three out of his four years of service in a Japanese Prison Camp. You can’t help but laugh at this statement, but maybe it speaks to the idea of purpose, not to mention the camaraderie he experienced, as key ingredients to making us happy.
I do have some ideas about this whole happiness thing which I will continue to explore and, as always, want to hear from anyone out there who has found if not the path, then a path toward it. I mean, it’s kind of the key to it everything, right?
But for now please know that I am not saying we should pretend to be happy when we aren’t feeling it, nor, on the other hand, should we whine and complain too much when we aren’t, because frankly that’s a drag. Nobody wants to be friends with someone who regularly brings you down. But a little honesty can be refreshing. To say to a dear friend, “things are hard right now,” can make everyone feel, conversely, better. Because when you share a sadness or worry, even just a bit, it can alleviate the burden. But you don’t get to dump. It’s a question, like in yoga and so much else, of balance. Tom Stoppard, a playwright and screenwriter whose characters are often flailing and stumbling around in their quests to find happiness, had this to say about it. “Happiness is equilibrium….shift your weight.” I just love that, because it’s achievable. And mostly true.