Are you happy?
I ask myself this question a lot. My answer, for the most part, is yes, but after I read a profile on Marie Kondo in the New York Times Magazine last week, I got to thinking more acutely about happiness. If you’re unfamiliar with Marie Kondo, she is a Japanese tidying expert who has become phenomenally famous in the last three years because of her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The book, as you would expect, is about tidying up. But this is only on the surface. When you get into it, what you find is that it’s really a meditation on how to get happy. I knew this when I read it, but what I didn’t quite realize until the Times piece was that Kondo didn’t get famous because she can teach you how to organize your pantry. She’s a global sensation because of what she promises beneath that: a happier life, a happier you.
Kondo’s success, that of other books like hers and box office hit singles like Pharrell’s “Happy” indicate that culturally, no matter how many of us answer yes when asked if we’re happy, chances are, we’re not. I’m all for consistent and radical self-improvement, but not at the cost of what makes us happy. And what makes us happy is the thing of it. I don’t think we actually know what happiness is — how to make it and then keep it.
This might be a problem indigenous to Metropolitan cities, where it is stressful to merely exist. I can’t speak to an experience that is not my own with full conviction but know that if you work many hours a week, feel looming terror overcome you when the sun sets on a Sunday and wake up with your heart beating at 98 beats per minute on a given weekday morning — no matter how much you love your job, no matter how fulfilling you say it is, no matter how frequently you meditate, love your partner and talk to your mom — you’re not happy.
The reason I know this is because it is not a rhetorical narrative; it’s one plucked from my own experience. For the longest time, I thought I’d figured it out: that there’s no such destination as happiness, its a “journey” replete with many speed bumps. But I don’t think that’s right anymore, either.
I was leaving my parents’ home in Southampton on Sunday evening like I do at the end of every summer weekend. That morning I had woken up and felt jealous of the former me, who 48 hours prior woke up in Southampton and still had the whole weekend ahead of her. By 5 p.m., when we were leaving, I had just completed the Times’ Kondo story and finished washing out my empty wine glass. My heart felt especially heavy when I went to hug my parents and I broke down. I don’t know why or what set it off. I looked forward to the week that was getting ready to confront me and, before that, I so looked forward to dinner at dusk, in the East Village, when you start to see stars fighting to shine through what’s left of the daylight, and you’re not that hungry, but so eager to be outdoors with someone you like.
No time like high summer will remind you with pestering persistence that if you don’t soak in the moment, you’re going to open your eyes and feel your limbs covered in snow. And that observation (the fear of snow), coupled with my reality (the sun setting on my back, the heat kissing my face, the sweat running through my elbows as I hugged my parents), indicated to me that I’m never gonna get happy until I start living. Because that’s not what I’m doing, you know? Yeah, I’m going through the motions. I’m working really hard. I’m laughing when stuff is funny, but mostly, I’m looking forward to getting this done and that started, to getting there and leaving here. Those details above — of the fantastic weekend, of the dinner at dusk — they’re recollections. I never feel them when I’m in them because I’m never actually here. But what’s wrong with here? I’m enjoying doing “this.” “That” can wait.
My life, it seems, occurs in two phases: past and future. I haven’t figured out how to live in the present even through meditation, and frequent exercise, and eating the right stuff and seeking advice because I never knew I wasn’t here in the first place. I blamed “the speed bumps” I had identified on my misinformed “journey” called Happiness and living in New York, and a conflated American dream that placed severe emphasis on capitalism and taking advantage of opportunity and attempting to institutionalize those windows of opportunity and our tendency as a population of over-doers to go from 0 to 100 in under a minute. Moderation, you say? What the hell is that? But now I know that it — the royal It — has nothing to do with any of that. It’s all in me and about me and shit, that is so relieving.
I sent a text message to my younger brother, an eternal (sometimes idealistic) optimist and asked him what he believes is the key to happiness. He replied immediately, “It’s simple, just be it.”
So as I feel my finger tips hit the keys that create these words and I stop myself from wondering how putting this out into the world will be received and instead acknowledge the window to my left, overlooking a vast ocean from over 5,000 feet above ground and I feel my brow furrowing further and further and I breathe in through my nose and back out through my mouth, whispering these words as they appear on the page, I’m it. Happy.
Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.