Happiness does not dwell within you.
Much ink has been spilled on the question of human happiness, what causes it, and how one might find it. At present, the conversation seems to be led by people who would have us believe that a sense of peace and happiness dwells within us at all times and in all places. (I hasten to assure you that a sense of peace and happiness dwells within me only in the most fleeting of moments and that if its presence were constant I would be seeking professional help.) Others tell us that happiness is a result of the fulfillment of a deep need for love or companionship or something of that nature.
Most of the people peddling these theories are also trying to sell mobile applications that allegedly guide you to inner peace or, in the case of the love people, greeting cards and wedding venue security deposits. These ulterior motives have clouded the vision of the happiness theorists of our time. Consequently, I feel that the field of happiness (like most fields) will benefit from my voice on the matter.
It is, in fact, very easy to find happiness. It involves fulfilling what I understand to be the most basic desire of all humanity: to be left alone.
We spend most of our lives receiving horrible cell phone notifications, responding to email surveys about whether the drugstore cashier was friendly enough, and trying to suppress homicidal instincts at the laundromat. All of this, of course, is in service of approximately forty-five minutes on Saturday morning when we can eat a pancake, drink tea, and read a magazine without interruption. What is the human condition but unceasing toil in hopes that we might be left alone for just one godforsaken minute if that’s not so much to ask?
Earlier this month, two men were rescued after spending a month lost at sea. One would expect the media coverage of the event to focus on matters of human resilience or sharks. Instead, a quote from one of the men made the headlines: “I had no idea what was going on while I was out there. I didn’t hear about COVID or anything else. I look forward to going back home but I guess it was a nice break from everything.”
Few of us can be fortunate enough to spend several weeks floating listlessly about with no cell reception. Some of us take the ferry home from work with high hopes, but the East River is a difficult place to get lost and the cell reception is still quite good.
Absent the possibility of a marine disaster, we are left to explore other ways of finding happiness. Those with money find it in travel, which makes it easy to conceal their true motivation. It is fashionable to complain about air travel but — aside from the admittedly objectionable circumstance of sharing a confined space with such a large portion of the American public — there is something to be said for the pleasure of sitting very still without any obligations whatsoever for several hours.
I assure you that the sentence, “ Let us be the first to welcome you to Houston where the local time is seven-thirty” will never be able to approach in its ability to instill joy in the hearts of its listeners something like, “As a reminder, making or receiving telephone or video calls is forbidden on all Delta flights.”
The particularly fortunate travel overseas. “The food and wine are just marvelous,” they will say, hoping that you do not remind them that Trader Joe’s sells Italian wine for eight dollars and French butter for six. They have the benefit of not only having a longer flight during which to be left alone but a destination in which they can plausibly convince the folks back home that their electronics do not work. Even those most devoted to contacting the overseas traveler must learn a new address format and pay additional postage. The food and wine, good as they may be, are secondary to the pleasure of being totally inaccessible.
Back at home, solitude comes in the car. We know cars are bad. They kill people. They ruin cities. They destroy the climate. They are frustrating to drive and expensive to purchase and maintain. They depreciate in value. And still, we love the car. Automotive companies advertise the idea of “freedom” which, according to their advertisements, has something to do with driving on well-maintained roads with no traffic. This is a nice excuse, but we all know what true freedom is: sitting in a soundproof box where we are difficult for others to find and are compelled by law to ignore cell phone notifications.
With no car, the center of peace and solitude in the world as far as I am concerned is my apartment. I live alone. The expense is terrible — I figure I could have twice as much spending money if I would live with a roommate — but the math is easy. My rent auto-withdraws from my bank account at the end of each month and I am delighted to know that I will live another thirty days behind a heavy steel door for which only the exterminator and I have the key.
There is the old cliché that “we should listen more than we speak, which is why we have two ears but only one mouth.” In the same line of thinking, perhaps we can learn from the fact that New York housing law requires apartments to have two locks but only one doorbell. (I, for the record, selected an apartment with three locks.)
As much as the drifting seafarers, drivers in their soundproof boxes, or air travelers with no cell service, the good people at City Hall know the truth: happiness is not present within us. Happiness is present without others.
Things I have been reading, watching, and listening to this week.
“What’s the Point of 15-Minute Grocery Delivery?” by Aaron Gordon in Vice.
For a person who wishes to lead a life of pure convenience and isolation, there is perhaps no worse place to live than Manhattan. This, it always seemed to me, was part of the deal. Recently, however, a slew of companies has set out to eliminate the trouble of leaving the house to go shopping for the well-to-do consumers of Manhattan and certain parts of Brooklyn. This permits their customers to forego the trouble of leaving their homes and interacting with the city, allowing them instead to summon groceries in fifteen minutes. Finally, we have combined the social isolation of the suburbs with the inadequate housing and expense of city life!
It is the rare reader who will be surprised at my aversion to the menace of grocery delivery, which comes at the expense of deteriorating labor conditions, homicidal electric “bicyclists” whizzing around on the sidewalk, and a life of undue ease for those who feel themselves too important to walk the aisles of 86th Street Fairway and do not mind paying what is purported to be a “retail price” of seven dollars for a pint of ice cream.
Does grocery delivery have a place? Sure it does. Does that place overlap with the audience toward whom the slick apps and glossy marketing are targeted? Likely not.
The promise of a future where underpaid workers will deliver a single banana to a fifth-floor walk-up because the occupant does not “feel like” putting on a shirt is not one in which I am particularly interested. As one source in the article says, “Interesting things happen when you leave the house.”
“Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” by Robert Kolker in the New York Times Magazine.
There comes perhaps a few times a year a long read that seems to properly rile up a mighty swath of people. “The bad art friend thing” (as everyone has referred to it in the last week or so on Twitter, text messages, and pre-Zoom chitchats) is one such article. It has sparked a flurry of articles in response, such that my analysis will contribute very little. I feel compelled to remark, however, that all of this trouble could have been avoided if people simply left each other alone.