Keep Your Joy.
May 7, 2012 6:17 PM   Subscribe

Augusten Burroughs on How to Live Unhappily Ever After.

"Still, this recipe of defining happiness and fiddling with your life to get it will work for some people—but not for others. I am one of the others. I am not a happy person. There are things that do make me experience joy. But joy is a fleeting emotion, like a very long sneeze. A lot of the time what I feel is, interested. Or I feel melancholy. And I also frequently feel tenderness, annoyance, confusion, fear, hopelessness. It doesn't all add up to anything I would call happiness. But what I'm thinking is, is that so terrible?"
posted by sweetkid (30 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I hate trashing books. Even bad ones. I get retroactive guilt from tossing something I'm sure was was very special to someone and took a lot of time and effort on behalf of many people to create. I give books away or put them on free book shelves or in someway pass the buck onto someone else.

Burroughs fiction remains the only book I have ever stopped in mid-sentence of, gotten up, walked down the hall, and thrown into the incinerator.
posted by The Whelk at 6:23 PM on May 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

And that says what about his point?
posted by spicynuts at 6:24 PM on May 7, 2012 [12 favorites]

I am enjoying the backlash to our cultural obsession with being happy. Happiness is not a goal, it is a result.
posted by karmiolz at 6:26 PM on May 7, 2012 [16 favorites]

Happiness, like freedom, only works as transitory thing. There are moments (sometimes quite extended) where you've got it and it's a wonderful thing, but as soon as you try to tie it down, define it, OWN it -- it's gone, never even was.
posted by philip-random at 6:30 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Reminds me a bit of this Arthur Miller quote:

"My argument with so much of psychoanalysis, is the preconception that suffering is a mistake, or a sign of weakness, or a sign even of illness, when in fact, possibly the greatest truths we know have come out of people's suffering; that the problem is not to undo suffering or to wipe it off the face of the earth but to make it inform our lives, instead of trying to cure ourselves of it constantly and avoid it, and avoid anything but that lobotomized sense of what they call "happiness." There's too much of an attempt, it seems to me, to think in terms of controlling man, rather than freeing him. Of defining him rather than letting him go. It's part of the whole ideology of this age, which is power-mad."
posted by chaff at 6:34 PM on May 7, 2012 [12 favorites]

I think it is a sign of normalcy or maturity that happiness becomes a not so important part of the examined life. To look around at the insanity that surrounds our lives is to find it hard to accept hedonism as a goal. Ignorance is bliss has a core of truth, if you don't know any better you just might enjoy the trip through mindless consumerism. I'm all for being engaged by our world and getting busy trying to take care of the business of leaving the world a bit better than you found it.

I'm gonna be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
where true love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer for the Pretender.
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender. - Jackson Browne
posted by pdxpogo at 6:55 PM on May 7, 2012

John Stuart Mill:

...I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:58 PM on May 7, 2012 [15 favorites]

I'm happy, hope you're happy too.
posted by Nomyte at 6:59 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are so many schools of philosophy that say exactly this better. Stoicism, Taoism, buddhism, ...
posted by wilful at 7:17 PM on May 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Happiness, like love, is many things and largely subjective. It is a goal or the goal, but a rest stop on the journey. If you are lucky, you will die at one of those rest stops.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:22 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Happy people are boring.
posted by deathpanels at 8:22 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Don't be a dullard.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:27 PM on May 7, 2012

Woody Allen encounters a happy couple
posted by philip-random at 9:02 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

So many people have said this so much more eloquently.
posted by iamck at 10:24 PM on May 7, 2012

This is, perhaps, the first time I've read something by Augusten Burroughs that didn't make me feel like I'd been lied to for several hundred pages when I finished it. It probably helps that it wasn't several hundred pages, but he has a decent point here. Of course, as many others have already pointed out, it's hardly an original thought and many thinkers/authors have said it much better already.
posted by asnider at 10:30 PM on May 7, 2012

So many people have said this so much more eloquently.

That's true of pretty much anything a person can say. It's not really a reason to stop saying things.
Sometimes just giving yourself permission to feel any emotion without judgment or censorship can lessen the intensity of those negative emotions. Almost like you're letting them out into the backyard to run around and get rid of some of that energy.
This is very true.
posted by lunasol at 11:03 PM on May 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

> That's true of pretty much anything a person can say. It's not really a reason to stop saying things.

But it's a reason to not pay it any attention, or post it on MetaFilter.
posted by wilful at 11:36 PM on May 7, 2012

I've long been annoyed with the constant expectation the we should all be happy all the time. The ever-present query "How are you?" must be followed by some variant of "Great, thanks!" lest you be branded grumpy and accept blame for all the ills of the world, as if it were the greatest sin to not be happy and cheerful at every waking moment. It's a ridiculous expectation and one that, ironically, is (I think) responsible for a great deal of unhappiness, because we have set such a lofty benchmark for ourselves that nobody can achieve it. Nobody is happy all the time. Nobody. So why are we expected to pretend that we are? Why are we made to believe that we are a failure in some way if we respond "Pretty shitty actually, how are you?".

You can live a rewarding and satisfying life without being happy all the time and, to be honest, how can you even understand or appreciate happiness if it is a constant condition? You can't. Life is full of ups and downs, moments of happiness counter-pointed with loneliness, sadness, bitterness, rage and all the other human emotions. I'm certainly not happy all the time but, overall, I'm content with my life. I'm as happy as I expect to be and I refuse to set myself up for failure by aspiring to some unattainable goal.
posted by dg at 12:12 AM on May 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

In matters of happiness as with so much else, as the donkey said to the bishop, it is important to first define your terms.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:46 AM on May 8, 2012

I worked many years in sales. The worst kind of sales, over the phone sales. There was a lot of pressure on me and my co-workers to be 'positive'. It was supposed to increase our sales. The funny part is, I personally did a LOT better by simply being polite, talking sensibly with people about why our product was a good thing.
I was often the one called on to deal with upset customers. That might have been because I have a serious voice, and a serious voice makes people feel like their needs are being taken seriously.
Acknowledging that things don't always work as they should is fine.
As far as happy goes, it can't be faked. At least, I can't fake it.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 2:38 AM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Reminds me a bit of this Arthur Miller quote:

"My argument with so much of psychoanalysis, is the preconception that suffering is a mistake, or a sign of weakness, or a sign even of illness, when in fact, possibly the greatest truths we know have come out of people's suffering

I do not doubt that it would be easier for fate to take away your suffering than it would for me. But you will see for yourself that much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.
posted by Wolof at 4:39 AM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

When I was young, my father used to say it didn't matter what we did "so long as you are happy" and I never really knew what he meant by that. It was always said in such a sad tone. He had a very painful childhood, so I guess he was reflecting himself.
posted by wingless_angel at 5:24 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

At least in the U.S., being happy seems to signify a whole litany of things: that you're mentally healthy (depressed people are "negative"), that you are successful in some ambition, that you have friends and family, and, in some circles, that you are in touch with your faith. It's this whole-package happiness that I think people have a hard time grappling with, because it is so subject to random chance and susceptible to the slightest change of fortune.

I find more value in the Epicurean idea of ataraxia. The more calm and at peace I feel, the better able I am to enjoy the simple pleasures that surround me constantly. Food, rest, the company of my fellow human beings, and higher pleasures like books and films.
posted by deathpanels at 6:19 AM on May 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm with The Whelk. This guy is a wretched, wretched writer. Literally unreadable. I also angrily stopped reading one of his books and tossed it in the bin.

What this has to do with his "point" is that if that point is articulately poorly, it is not worth my attention. The HOW is just as important - probably more important - than The WHAT.
posted by Dr. Wu at 7:43 AM on May 8, 2012

Sure, man, but you won't never do it without the fez on, so you may be a little suspect.
posted by Wolof at 7:46 AM on May 8, 2012

Some people here are so negative! You should just cheer up!
posted by echo target at 8:17 AM on May 8, 2012

So many people have said this so much more eloquently.

I liked this part, because I think it illuminates a truth:

In time, to your friends, you will appear to have recovered from your loss. All that really happened, you'll think, is that the hole in the center of your life has narrowed just enough to be concealed by a laugh. And yet, you might feel a pressure for it to be true. You might feel that "enough" time has passed now, that the hole at the center of you should not be there at all.

But holes are interesting things. As it happens, we human beings are able to live just fine with many holes of many sizes and shapes. Pleasure, love, compassion, fulfillment; these things do not leak out of holes of any size. So we can be filled with holes and loss and wide expanses of unhealed geography—and we can also be excited by life and in love and content at the exact same moment.

Contentment, euphoria, hilarity, excitement, orgasm, satisfaction, love, etc. are all pretty good feelings.

Life on Earth is tremendously depressing in so many ways, and yet there is still joy.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:18 AM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I feel like the USian late capitalist, aspirational, self-made kind of thought society that I grew up around is really invested in the idea that happiness is, must be attainable. if not by buying the right stuff then by doing the right stuff. surrounded by messages about how we will be happy if this or that. i am kind of annoyed that most people criticizing the need for happiness as understood in our society don't go full tilt for the economic element to it because hoooly shit
posted by beefetish at 1:32 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is this any different from humanity's long search for what constitutes a good life? A fulfilling life? A worthy life?

And we talk about it because each of us has to find our own answer. One size doesn't fit all, after all.

So I'll keep searching for happiness, because I've been sad, I've been depressed, I've even been suicidal, and frankly me boyos, they all suck.
posted by Bill Peschel at 5:15 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

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