The March 2022 edition of The Atlantic features of trio of articles that explore different angles of “How to Find Happiness.” After two plus years of pandemic, the issue is welcome, since its topic appears to be in such short supply.
Arthur C. Brooks, Harvard Professor and generally contented soul, covers the usual happiness bases in “The Satisfaction Trap.” Money cannot buy happiness. Success is fleeting. You can’t get no satisfaction. The half-life of desire satisfaction is short, and escalating desire floods the void. There’s a Buddhist sensibility, espousing the way out of the trap through shedding desires, seeking contentment, tamping judgment, forsaking comparison. The article’s a bit odd in the end, as Mr. Brooks admits to fervent Catholicism, a religion that thrives on keeping people in sin and shame by external judgement. Still, in a world that constantly pushes us to want more, it’s always useful to revisit the reality that more actually delivers less.
Jennifer Senior’s article, “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart,” is an intriguing exploration of long-term friendship, why it’s so important, and how devastating it can be when it ends. We have no customs, no rituals, for friendships that whither or snap. Perhaps we should. Most of the relationships Ms. Senior chronicles are female-female. I was struck by how completely different they were, both in health and in demise, from mine own. I’m not a particularly good long-term friend. I go years without connecting with someone important to me. Yet, when we do reconnect, I demand nothing beyond picking up where we left. No explanation or continuity required. Even if the falloff is triggered by a specific event, I’m disinclined to wade through the details. Rather, when wounded, I withdraw; or they do. I let time heal. I never ‘block’ anyone, or disown what we’ve had. I simply hang back until moved to reconnect. Considering my lassez-faire manner of friendship, I was fascinated by Ms. Senior’s descriptions of women who engage in rigorous accounting, text exchanges, even therapy.
Perhaps the most ambitious article was Olga Khazan’s “My Personality Transplant.” Once I suspended disbelief that this witty, insightful, attractive woman, with a steady boyfriend and a plum spot as a staff writer for The Atlantic, possessed an acid personality, I appreciated her journey to be ‘more’ like the person she desired. After months of gratitude journaling, improv classes, and consciously putting herself out there, I celebrated her elevated personality-test scores in extroversion and decreased neuroticism. I have no personal interest in being less introverted, and embrace my neuroses as the turmeric and garlic of my life. But if Olga wants to be noisier, go for it. Will her perceived improvements last? Perhaps we’ll get a follow-up article after the next pandemic.
The pandemic is what piqued my interest in these articles. Like so many, I’ve grown brittle and complainy these past two years. I keep my eyes down, as if avoiding others’ gaze will divert their breath. Yet my blood pressure is up. I am less tolerant of people who disagree with my positions about—well—everything. Don’t they realize they’re wrong?
I’ve fared better than most, in large part because the past two years presented no major life changes. Anyone in transition: graduating; getting married, having a baby; a new job; even retirement; navigated additional challenges during the pandemic. I suffered none of that. Being a home body wasn’t much of a chore, considering I have a nice home, with a pleasant housemate, who’s a phenomenal cook.
Still, these articles made me realize that I need to perk myself up, get out more, look people in the eye. And so I’ve devised a 3-2-1 plan to reconnect with friends, and the world. Every day: three acts of consideration to strangers, two substantive interactions with friends, one bit of self-indulgence. The requirements aren’t all that ambitious. Once I started meeting people’s eyes, granting them a smile, opening a door for them, it became habit; I do it more than three times a day. Once I put the notion of a walk or phone visit on the front burner, connecting with two friends every day became pleasure. As to self-indulgences, they’d already increased during the pandemic. I learned to bake—mostly sweets—so I daily enjoy homemade, frosted delights, and then work them off through yoga or a walk or the gym. A veritable cycle of indulgence.
Will my modest increased actions last? Will they yield desired results? Only time will tell. Already, I’ve noticed one thing true. When I keep my head down, avoid others, scamper through the door, I feel better in advance of brushing them by, but worse afterward. When I make myself engage, however fleetingly, I feel better after we have passed. Almost the opposite of the satisfaction trap: rewards unspool after the act. I can only hope their half-life will be long, and lasting.