The Psychology of Happiness
Learning to be grateful for the ordinary things in life.
Everyone talks incessantly about stress now, and how it has changed our lives and made us so unhappy. Less obviously, I think
stress has also changed the quest for happiness itself, making it more aggressive and occupying more of our time. Ever since
antidepressants and sexual-enhancement drugs hit the airwaves and ever since we were told that we had a right to our happiness,
damn it, and that we could ask for it—no, demand it—from our doctors, spouses, friends, or employers, it seems that the desire
for happiness has increasingly become a source of anxiety.
Which is why I have taken a few steps back.
At this point, being happy is about having the space to appreciate the ordinary things that do in fact make me “happy,” though
at first glance they might not be seen that way. An absence of chaos; an absence of phone calls with disturbing news; an absence
of business e-mails that upend your day and demand attention right then and there; no acutely ill parents; no fragile children
calling shakily from college. Being able to sit down with a glass of wine and some really good, tiny little olives with your
husband; having a nice meal with your kids that’s not rushed or fraught. These seem like small things, perhaps like pedestrian
things, but I protect them fiercely, knowing that on the other side of an imaginary wall waits the possibility that all of
them will soon be gone, and that something terrible will replace them.
But I no longer quake in fear. I used to think that happiness was something a person was so lucky to find that, like Lord
Voldemort (a.k.a. He Who Must Not Be Named), it should never actually be mentioned. Now, with happiness taking on a new, modest
cast, the fear of losing it is smaller, too.
You might think: Good God, woman! This isn’t happiness. Happiness has wild colors and flavors; it involves bodies draped across
a bed, or things that come in gift wrap. Or even, once in a while, Carvel. Don’t you want any of that?
Of course I do. But being allowed to enjoy some of the more modest pieces of my life happens right now to be my own personal
Carvel; my own dachshund, gift-wrapped present, snow day, and secret lover. Perhaps for most of us—or anyway at least for
me—happiness has gotten smaller over time, becoming endlessly and exquisitely refined, though somehow never diminished.
Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Uncoupling, will be published in April. Her previous books include The Wife, The Position, and The Ten-Year Nap.