The (Un)Happiness Project


IMG_0813_2My husband and I have been in the same apartment for more than four years. It’s a truly lovely place — spacious (for New York) with high ceilings, stained glass, and parquet wood floors. Each room has the appropriate furniture and many of the walls have been painted a color of my own choosing. We have plants and table linens and martini glasses. We’ve settled in.

Yet I can’t help but think longingly of leaving. This is the longest I’ve lived in one place since I left home at age 17. And lately I’ve been feeling antsy. It’s not just the apartment. My life has begun to feel stagnant.

When I graduated high school, I went away to college. When I graduated college, I joined the Peace Corps. When my service was over, I moved home and got a job. And when the job lost its luster and that Midwestern college town began to stifle me, I packed up a U-Haul and moved east to start grad school. A new town is at least a temporary antidote for chronic ennui, I’ve found.

But the cut-and-run cure is no longer an option. Now I am half of a team. We make decisions together. We have a waffle maker and an accountant named Brian. My husband has a good job, a dream job. A job that requires him to be in this particular place. We are very lucky, I tell myself. But sitting on our new microfiber couch, I can see far into the future. And it looks depressingly similar to yesterday. “We might die in this apartment,” I think.

Since I can’t pack my bags and leave, I strive desperately to make the place seem new again. My poor husband lives in a state of constant flux. On any given day he might open a cupboard to find that the bowls now live where the plates once did. The mugs reside on the second shelf now, not the third. The art moves freely from one room to the next. Occasionally it lives on the floor while I ponder some new arrangement or color scheme. If only I could find the perfect curtains, the perfect throw pillow, the perfect brass bookends, I’d be happy, I think. And I almost believe it.

My particular brand of discontentment hasn’t made it into the DSM manual yet. But my husband offers this description of my condition. “Some people are satisfied just being,” he says. “But you’re only happy when you’re becoming. That’s why you liked school so much. You were in the process of becoming something.” Could that be true? Can the whole world be divided into those who are content to be and those who are driven to become? If so, it seems I’m doomed to a life of restless discontent.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Americans have become too obsessed with chasing happiness. A whole industry has grown up around it. Happiness gurus promise that contentment is attainable! (for a small fee, of course). Their books offer vague advice like 1. be grateful and 2. be optimistic and 3. do jumping jacks. If I were the kind of person who was grateful and optimistic and did jumping jacks, maybe I would be happy. But I certainly wouldn’t be me. I’d be someone else — some annoyingly enthusiastic and bouncy lady who is always eating bananas. (I imagine happy people eat bananas. I don’t know why.)

Some research suggests that the more doggedly we pursue happiness, the more miserable we are. So I’ve decided to embrace my discontent and cohabitate with it for awhile. I may sew pom-poms on the kitchen curtains and move the silverware to a different drawer, but I won’t run. And if that doesn’t work . . . well, U-Haul is only a phone call away.

Amongst all the bullshit positive thinking self-help books, I did find one book on happiness that seemed intriguing. Here’s the adorable trailer for The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

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9 thoughts on “The (Un)Happiness Project

  1. I love this post, Cassie.

    My mother moved the furniture every few months with enthusiastic assistance from my sister and me. I thought this was normal until I grew up and discovered that other people put the furniture where it goes and that’s that. I’m going to keeping moving the furniture and maybe eat more bananas.

  2. I’m restless as well. I’m 20 years old, graduating college this May, two years early, visiting New York this summer for the jazz scene, then road tripping for a few weeks to end up in Ohio, where I will spend the next two years with my girlfriend at Oberlin, a small music conservatory in a tiny town.

    I don’t picture myself living there long before I start taking short trips to Chicago, New York, and national parks. I’m working as a freelance web developer, pursuing parallel lives as a jazz musician, artist, novelist, and hacker. And trying to do four things at once means it takes a lot longer to get good at any one of them. But maybe, like you, I wouldn’t be satisfied with “being” any one thing. I suppose if I fit into a category, it’s the “becoming” category.

    I’m a freelancer because I don’t want a job in a place that I have to go to and live near. I don’t want to depend on people. My girlfriend is pursuing a path to become a professor. Which means that if we end up together, I will be mostly in one place. I don’t know if my wanderlust will diminish when I hit my thirties. Most likely not. Luckily, we’ll have the summers off. So it’s not so bad.

    But despite all this, I would say to anyone who asked that I have indeed “found” happiness. Perhaps I’ll lose it once I graduate; I’m aware of the gradually decaying parental safety net. My happiness is, incidentally, dependent on my flexibility and my desire to constantly change. I gave away a lot of my belongings a few years ago, and now I wear maybe 15% of the clothes I used to wear, and generally own a lot fewer things. This has made change a lot easier, so easy that I don’t notice I’ve changed unless I read my journal entries from a month earlier.

    But I don’t know, it could be entirely different because I’m young. Maybe everyone my age is changing as much as I am. I’m just one of the few that’s keeping track of that change and examining it.

  3. A social psych lab I’m familiar with studies the personality differences between “maximizers” and “satisficers.” They used to say “it sucks to date a maximizer” 🙂

  4. Thanks, Jennie. And thanks for sharing, Delwin. Best of luck to you.

    Jason – I had to look this up, but you probably won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a maximizer. I am SOOOOOO a maximizer. (And, yes, my husband is a satisficer.)

  5. This is a terrific post. I think about this kind of stuff, too. My father had *one* job. He started it as soon as he finished grad school, and kept it until his death. I’m not yet 40 and I’ve already had more (“permanent”) jobs than I can count on one hand.

  6. I know exactly what you mean, though for the longest time I kept telling myself that all I want is a career and house to settle down in but at some point the place just starts to make me itch. So furniture gets moved, things get thrown away and I quit my job, move, then do it again. Unlike you, I’m not married, I’m not weighed down in anyway and so I’m moving to the Philippines next month.
    I think a lot of my discontent is due to mental boredom. There’s just not enough ‘interesting’ in day to day life (thank goodness I have you guys to weather the storm of mundanity). My suggestion, get busy enough that you can’t think about it. Get a dog, have some kids, and/or get a hobby. Play your cards right and the afore mentioned (dog or kids) will give you and your hubby the perfect excuse to move to a different place ^_^

  7. I completely understand, Cassie. I too, am a maximizer, married to a satisficer. I always felt restless too, ready to move, ready to do something new. Until I moved to Portland. We bought a house, I settled into my job, hubby settled into his, we added a few animals, and now I feel content. I am very happy here and not wishing to change things. That said, my restless spirit has manifested in a few minor things to fret over: I have to cut or color my hair every couple months, something quite different than the last time; I have to engage in new challenging and different activities – new races, new plans; I have to change up my diet/nutritional planning frequently; I clear out my closet every few months. But otherwise, for the first time in my life, I don’t have a five-year plan, I don’t have someplace I need to move to. It’s lovely! I wish you the same contentment. 🙂

  8. I think like Megan, I’ve somehow become a satisficer when I used to be a maximizer. I’m not quite sure how it happened. Although a nice cut and color sounds wonderful…

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