The Pursuit of Happiness

Local researchers are on the hunt for the scientific underpinnings of human joy. Our writer enters a world where the formula for unending bliss may be just a click away.

I’VE JUST SQUEEZED my way into a pair of black jeans. They’re a relic from a million years ago, when I shared an apartment in Allston with an indie guitarist and couch-surfing would-be rock stars. Now the jeans are so tight I can breathe only in little gasps, as if continually surprised.

While sausaged in the pants, I get an e-mail notification from Killingsworth’s survey. I know the drill: I’m supposed to act immediately in order to record my precise mood before it vanishes. I realize that I’m sad right now, but in a deliciously self-indulgent way — wallowing in a grainy-art-film, Jean-Paul Belmondo tristesse. The fact is, I’ve dressed myself up for a night at the Rat in 1995, as if the jeans will let me fly back into my lost youth. They won’t, and so I have to give myself a rather low happiness score, using my mouse to move the slider to the sad end of the scale. As I do, I experience a prickle of shame. Actually, every time I make a negative report on my mood, I feel that I’ve failed somehow.

Perhaps I’m merely picking up the spirit of the age. In the past decade, corporations have begun hiring “happiness consultants” to fly in for weekend boot camps — on the theory that if employees’ moods can be jolted, productivity will skyrocket. And who’d ever heard of a “life coach” 10 years ago? Now thousands of them practice in America, promising to help us sparkle, triumph, excel, and perform. Happiness has become a competitive sport, with goals and huddles and strategies. We’re sure the Joneses are more vivacious than we are, and we’re desperate for some kind of an emotional edge on them.

In this fraught atmosphere, the discussion of happiness is dumbed down and turned into pap. Oftentimes, the gurus decant advice that is based on bad science — they grab at studies to “prove” a one-size-fits-all solution. Their “tips” come in crazy-making lists: Attend regular religious services! Get married! Sleep for eight hours! No, sleep for seven hours! Make a list of your blessings! Forgive!

If there’s any real wisdom in those tips, I’m screwed — destined for a life of misery. I simply don’t do spirituality: I’ve avoided churches ever since I was 13, when my best friend started speaking in tongues and ended up in the madhouse. Because of a cursed streak of independence, I have no desire to marry my longtime boyfriend. And the worst of my failings isn’t even under my control: I can’t sleep. I wish desperately I could transform into a champion slumberer, sawing logs for eight hours. But, alas, it’s never going to happen.

As an insomniac from a family of insomniacs, I have come to think of shut-eye as something other people do, like going to church. In fact, entire sections of this article have been composed in my head while I was staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. In these moments, when the dark room blisters in the red glow of the alarm clock and I’m positively itchy with my need for REM, I find myself thinking of that commercial for a popular sleeping pill: A luminous moth flutters through a window and settles on the shoulder of a dewy woman — she’s not just sleeping, she’s luxuriating in a creamy bath of slumber. And then she wakes up and stretches in a state of relaxed ecstasy. It’s an image that haunts my sleepless nights, when it seems like everyone else is gliding on white-chocolate rivers in the land of dreamy-dreams while my brain sizzles and decays.

  • Sean

    I really liked how you talked a lot about yourself as a person, I think it made the article sound more “real” when you put in facts about your life and relate them to how this study relates to it. I