Do you overemphasize happiness?

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I think I'm over the happiness thing. I think I am thinking that the pursuit of happiness is, well, vacuous. I don't think people are happy or unhappy. Because I think knowing if we are happy would require knowing the meaning of life, or the ultimate goal, or the key to the world, or something that, which really, we are not going to find outside of blind religious fanaticism.

The first thing I have to grapple with, besides having spent the last three years of my life completely enthralled and ensconced in the happiness research from positive psychologists, is if I don't want a happy life, what sort of life do I want?

I think I want an interesting life. Not that I want to be interesting, but I want to be interested. I’m talking about what I think is interesting to me. I want to choose things that are interesting to me over things that would make me happy. For example, this post. I am not sure if I’m right on this, and I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of telling me I’m an idiot in the comments. But it’s going to be interesting.

I think choosing a life that is interesting to us and choosing a life that makes us feel happy are probably very different choices.

For one thing, people who are happy do not look for a lot of choices, according to Barry Schwartz, in his book, The Paradox of Choice. People who want to have an interesting life are always looking for more choices and better choices, and they make decisions for their life based on maximizing choices.

I think this because I've lived in NYC, where people value having a wide range of choices and opportunities over having a life that makes them feel happy. When it comes to self-reporting happiness, New Yorkers report being less happy than everyone else, and they don’t care. And I've lived in Wisconsin, where, I'm not kidding about this, almost everyone will tell you they are happy. But you can trust me on this, Wisconsin does not offer a lot of choices and opportunities.

Now I'm going to preemptively rip on everyone who thinks they are going to comment here about Wisconsin. Wisconsin does have things that are world-class: Football, beer, cheese, PETA-inflaming bioscience departments. And there is nothing wrong with being fine with what is here. I think it is a nice life, and that's why I moved to Wisconsin.

But on balance, Wisconsin is not a place you go to get the best of everything, which is what optimizers do. New Yorkers love that they can get the best of everything – they want that more than they want to be happy. And if you can't understand this you merely reveal how little you know about the world. I have no more patience for people telling me I can get great eyebrows in Wisconsin, there is great shopping in Wisconsin, etc. There simply isn't. And it's okay. People don't live in Wisconsin because of that. People live in Wisconsin because the lifestyle is easy — family is here, personal history is here, things generally are fine. Nothing is fine in NYC. It's very challenging. Every single day.

The fact that I feel compelled to have a tirade about Wisconsin in the middle of this post is interesting to me: People who value choices over happiness never argue about it. They are proud of it. People who value happiness over having a life full of interesting opportunities get indignant over being accused that they made that choice.

I wish I could tell you I am a person who picks interesting over complacency, but problem for me is that life in NYC is so interesting to me, but it’s just plain too hard for me. When I lived in NYC with two kids the year I had $200,000 coming in, I felt like I was living at the edge of poverty. Whenever I write this, people who have lived in NYC with kids are not surprised at all, and people who have not lived in NYC think I'm crazy. So please, if you have not raised kids in NYC, do not comment that you could easily do it on $200,000, okay?

What this illustrates, though is how different the world of lots of choices is. People will pay a ton of money to have a lot of choices, which is what they perceive as an interesting life. (See the average rent per square foot in NYC) but people will not pay a ton of money for a life with relatively few choices. (See the average rent per square foot in Madison). This makes me think that people put a higher premium on choices, because choices make life more interesting.

I recently spoke to Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University. His book, Create Your Own Economy, is about how the information flow of the Internet allows us to manage our careers differently than before. For example, people who are focused on information (infovores, as Tyler calls them) but not on face-to-face social interaction can flourish in an information economy.

I suggested to Tyler that it's messed up to value information processing over social interaction because I want to believe that it's social interaction that actually makes us happy.

Tyler says that people who are infovores feel fulfilled by processing information. And he thinks that happiness is an elusive, amorphous goal. Tyler says feeling fulfilled actually gives us a feeling of happiness, and some people gain that fulfilled feeling through interaction with information rather than social interaction (makes sense from Tyler – he writes a great blog, full of fun information.)

But it scares me that this also seems true for me. I don’t want it to be true for me because I want to be as complacent as the people I live with, in Wisconsin. And I want to be a socially skilled as the non-Asperger’s people I try to pass for in regular life.

Tyler’s ideas will resonate in the Asperger community. There is a large contingency that sees Asperger Syndrome not as a deficit but as merely a difference, and these are the people who would love to hear that the idea of happiness is myopic and that fulfillment is a more real goal, and people with Asperger's can feel fulfilled through information processing.

I'm not sure I buy that. I want to buy it. Because I have Asperger's and so do many people in my family, and I want to believe there is fulfillment out there for all of us.

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  1. Maureen Sharib
    Maureen Sharib says:

    I’m not sure about the happiness (don’t know where it is/don’t know how to tell you how to get there) thing but it seems to me if you’re interested in stuff you have a better chance of being happy than not. Here’s what I have believed FOR A LONG TIME:
    You know that song “New York, New York”? I know you do.
    “If I can make it there
    I’ll make it anywhere…”


    There’s so much OPPORTUNITY in New York that it’s really not such a trick to make it there – the trick is in making it in conservative environs like Wisconsin…or Ohio…or Bumbf*ck, Idaho… If you can make it IN THOSE PLACES you can surely make it in NY. Stop kidding yourself. NOW is the time to be happy. NOW is the time to see what you’re made of. NOW is the time to see what you can make out of little. NOW is the time. Not then. Not over there. Not tomorrow. Right NOW. Right where you are.

  2. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    “I'm not sure I buy that. I want to buy it. Because I have Asperger's and so do many people in my family, and I want to believe there is fulfillment out there for all of us.”

    And this is the main question I’ve been asking you for the past two years, and I still haven’t gotten a straight answer. You’ve written how Asperger’s affects your life, your children, your business and what you’ve done to devise workarounds, but you haven’t answered the basic question of whether or not we Aspies can find fulfillment in our lives.

      • tallpinetree
        tallpinetree says:

        I don’t think you need a person with letters after their name to diagnose most learning challenges.

      • Allison
        Allison says:

        You will have to work hard to convince me that it really matters to anyone about who made the diagnosis and when. It seems irrelevant and petty to question. If she said Dr. Smith and last year how would you ever know – and why would it matter?

      • jrandom42
        jrandom42 says:

        The reason why it’s important to know who diagnoses Asperger Syndrome is pretty simple. It’s a neurological condition, where the brain actually works in different ways than it does for the neurotypical. It often manifests itself in many modes of behaivor, but the underlying cause is physiological, not psychological.

        If you know of a psychologist or therapist who can accurately diagnose Asperger Syndrome without the input of neurologists, cognitive scientists, and extensive brain scans, I’d like to know who and report them to the AMA for a paper on their revolutionary diagnostic program. It would be a major breakthrough in neurology and cognitive sciences to be able to acccurately diagnose a physical condition without any physical testing.

      • Shannon
        Shannon says:

        I also think it would add to her credibility if she could cite an official diagnosis. Otherwise, she sounds like my friend who decided she had uterine cancer because her periods were irregular.

    • IamAspie
      IamAspie says:

      “but you haven’t answered the basic question of whether or not we Aspies can find fulfillment in our lives.”

      that answer can not be answered by anyone but yourself. can you find fulfillment in your life? are you willing to look for it and more importantly ARE YOU WILLING TO WORK FOR IT?
      the only one who can find fulfillment is the one who works for it. you are the only one who knows if you found fulfillment in your life.

  3. Rob
    Rob says:

    When issues get overly complex for me, I tend to take a step back and make it as simple as possible. To me, you seem to be complicating this too much. If you want an interesting life, isn’t that happiness to you?

    I think we all have very different ideas of happiness. To say that you’re over “the happiness thing” seems to be a very pretentious, New Yorky way to say, “I’m not happy, not sure I ever will be, and if I stop trying to pursue it, maybe it will happen.”

    Who doesn’t want to be happy and enjoy life? If you’re content being miserable – maybe that’s happiness to you.

  4. Chuck
    Chuck says:

    “I think I'm over the happiness thing. I think I am thinking that the pursuit of happiness is, well, vacuous. I don't think people are happy or unhappy. Because I think knowing if we are happy would require knowing the meaning of life, or the ultimate goal, or the key to the world, or something that, which really, we are not going to find outside of blind religious fanaticism.”

    That’s interesting because you’re sort of mixing our common usage of happiness with some ancient ideas about happiness going back to Plato.

    For Plato/Socrates, it was the pursuit of virtue that was the highest aim of humanity. That is to say, we were to figure out what the meaning of life is, what it is that we as a species are uniquely suited for, and then pursue it.

    This distinction and contrast between emotional, hedonistic happiness against a happiness unique to fulfillment of purpose is one of the major arguments of Plato’s “Gorgias” dialogue, specifically the argument between Socrates and Callicles.

    I think there’s a much more interesting (if that’s your desire) approach to this question of happiness. Understanding Gorgias might be a good place to start even if it’s 2500 years old and won’t get you retweeted as much.

    • jrandom42
      jrandom42 says:

      Chick, great thoughts, and it proves the theory that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

  5. Jen
    Jen says:

    I love this post. I’ve done a fair amount of reading on happiness, but when it comes down to doing the simple activities that various books suggest to increase your level of happiness (spend 10 minutes each night writing down what you’re grateful for, for example), I can never motivate myself to do it. I’d rather spend that time doing or reading about what I’m interested in, which, like you said will leave me feeing fulfilled (at least theoretically) if not happy. And while I’m not ready to admit to preferring fulfillment, it seems to me a more worthwhile goal than the ever elusive happiness. Fulfillment seems more attainable, doesn’t it?

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      I agree with you completely! I just spent all of 2008 and the majority of 2009 miserable and said that my new measure of success was a level of happiness. But I love this spin on it. I love the quest for finding things that interest me- maybe that is what leads you to happiness or maybe it never makes you fully happy- but at least you have fulfilled because you seek after your own interests. Love this idea.

  6. Winnie
    Winnie says:

    You are far from being an idot and who cares what people say, I have gotten so much bad feedback from people I think they need a life, or have nothing better to do than put people down for making something of themselves, reaching out sorta speak….interesting? ABSOLUTELY!!!! Whatever life is it is certainly that. THanks. you’re a peach

  7. Alex @ Happiness in this World
    Alex @ Happiness in this World says:

    I think you’re confusing a (weak) correlation with causation. Why would happiness and being interested in things be mutually exclusive, or even inversely related? As one commenter noted above, if being interested is important to you and fulfills you, wouldn’t you say it makes you happy? Happiness may be hard to define, but I disagree that it’s different for each person, as another commenter noted above. Different things may bring happiness to different people, but the experience of happiness is likely the same. Happiness isn’t just an emotion but a complex state that shifts from moment to moment. Even the Greeks who argued happiness comes from virtuous action still recognized happiness as the end of all our activities.

    Rather than focusing so much on nailing down the external conditions that make us most happy (which never remain constant or even under our control) why not focus on cultivating a strong inner life state that remains resilient in the face of all the pain life typically throws at us? Finding pleasure is typically easy, and certainly adds to happiness, but resilience against pain is much harder. And then there’s the issue of value creation–hard to be happy if you feel your life isn’t meaningful in some way.

    Finally, I don’t agree that the pursuit of happiness is vacuous. Happiness rarely comes to people who don’t work at it. You could even say we’re all studies in the use of various strategies to become happy, some far more successful than others.

    In any event, this is a big discussion. Looking forward to the opinions of others.

  8. Tzipporah
    Tzipporah says:

    Also, I don’t get your distinctions between “happiness” and “fulfillment” and “an interesting life” – you seem to be equating happiness with complacency, which seems like bullshit to me.

    Every person has different things that make them happy. For you, it’s keeping things interesting. For others, it’s keeping things consistent and easy. That’s all about happiness, just different criteria for what makes you happy.

    • Pirate Jo
      Pirate Jo says:

      Right, I think some of the defensiveness Penelope encounters is due to the use of the word ‘complacency.’ To me, that equates to laziness, a lack of motivation, or dullness. It suggests the person is ‘settling’ for less than what they want in life because they lack the spine to pursue something better. Maybe ‘tranquility’ would be a better word to use. Think of hobbits, enjoying the pleasures of a simple life.

      Midwesterners grow up thinking they’re hicks, and not as bright or ambitious as people from the coasts. Although coastal dwellers do sometimes dismiss the rest of the country as ‘flyover country,’ a lot of this inferiority complex comes from other Midwesterners themselves. It’s just silly.

      • amy in chicago
        amy in chicago says:

        I was born and born and raised in Illinois and Wisconsin, educated on the East Coast, lived a dozen years in Los Angeles, and am now back in Chicago and I can unequivocally state that the Midwest is full of hicks. Wisconsin is full of deer hunters, farmers, cheesemakers and Harley riders who refuse to look outside their box. My relatives still make fun of me because i don’t eat meat — in 2010!! They act like its blasphemy. Illinois might as well be Kentucky once you leave Chicago. Forget about being jewish — people will look for your horns to this day. You say you are Jewish and they (Cheeseheads, Minnesotans, Michigan, Illinois) act like you said you were an alien from Mars. “Harold, did you hear that gal Penelope was a JEWEEEEEE?” That will lead the conversation for the next 5 years. People in the Midwest are provincial, close-minded and simpleminded for the most part. Madison has the Univ. thank god, but leave that county and there is nothing. I have a lot of family north of Milwaukee and they do not read a paper, they do not watch any news, they are purposefully ignorant and they like it. Just dont mess with the deer killing.

      • S
        S says:

        You certainly are following the family tradition of ignorance & closed-mindedness. What a bunch of over-generalized cliches. I’m from the S.F. Bay Area, but have lived in Alaska, Wash. State, Oregon, Georgia, Indiana, Arizona & New Zealand (so far). I find intelligent, fulfilled, interesting & even “happy” people wherever I go.

    • Rachel
      Rachel says:

      If having an interesting life makes people happy, then how do you account for the New Yorkers who rate their happiness lower than average? Perhaps there’s a problem with our definition of happiness. Maybe it’s OK to be ‘unhappy’ and if you are leading an interesting and fulfilling life.

  9. Dana
    Dana says:

    Interesting premise. But why do “interesting” and “happy” have to be either-ors? Why can’t one be truly HAPPY by staying engaged and interested? I am the mother of an Asperger’s child and I can tell when she is anxious or angry, and I can tell when she is genuinely content and dare-I-say HAPPY. Most often she is visably beyond content and merely satisfied when she is allowed to pursue one of her special interests / pssions, learn more about things that fascinate her, control her own fate – if only in small, age appropriate chunks ( she is 8. ) What I want for her,for her future is the ability to somehow have BOTh happiness and interest. I don’t think one is possible for her without the other. Perhaps, this is true for us all – it is just that for some, they are interested in fewer things and do not crave new experience or choice in the same way as others…

    • KateyJane
      KateyJane says:

      There is something to this. As an Asperger’s adult who has struggled with the depression of being an alien on this planet for 40 years, I have to say that there is a measure of true contentment and happiness in being completely engrossed in my current obsession/passion. The ideas of happiness and contentment in my interests are interchangeable for me. So operating on the theory that we all must pursue our own ideas of happy and considering that we are all very different people on this little planet, and that we will all have very different ideas about what that happy is, there begins the problem. Thus fueling the argument about what “happiness” truly means. It seems that intrinsically it’s different for everyone. However, if we follow the idea that there may be some general, if not generic form of “happiness”…ah now we know why there are things like amusement parks and strip clubs and movie theaters and children. These things offer glimpses of that “happiness” for a moment and as humans, we are truly satisfied with that.
      We cannot, as people, separate satisfaction from our happiness. We cannot, as people on the spectrum, separate our interests/obsessions/passions from happiness. Because in reality, that’s what makes us happy.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a great point — that people with Asperger’s are less likely to understand how to

      a. identify the feeling of being happy
      b. expressing that feeling

      I think you might be right.


  10. Sheryl
    Sheryl says:

    I don’t think in terms of “happiness” or “unhappiness”, so much as mental habits that either increase or reduce suffering. Neuroplasticity is a big deal, and if one is in the habit of viewing the world through shit-colored glasses…well, nothing will make you happy.

    The Happiness Project, or any approach that emphasizes happiness, seems to me more about creating good mental habits which allow us to live more content and fulfilled lives, and to build on things that foster that, like connection, service, gratitude, etc.

    But “happiness” is ephemeral.

  11. Anna
    Anna says:

    I may not have raised a kid in NYC, but I was raised by a single mother in NYC, and she made a tiny fraction of what you say made you feel like you were living on the edge of poverty. So, don’t discount people who tell you you’re crazy. You are crazy if you think that $200,000 a year in NYC, even with children, is at poverty level. Maybe you should revisit the official definition of “poverty”…

    • Bianca
      Bianca says:

      Anna…you beat me to it! I too was raised by a single mother in NYC, she was a nanny who earned <20G annually so I'm pretty sure that we were poor. We lived in a basement apt. and I attended public school. My mom made sure that I capitalized on what the city had to offer via school trips and other organizations that offered activities. I think my childhood relationship with NYC helped shape a large part of my adulthood and I honestly don't feel that I missed out on that much even though we were dirt poor. So my rebuttal to PT based on my individual experience: there are parents who can and DO raise children on <200K annually and those children lead rich and rewarding lives.

      • T. Scott
        T. Scott says:

        From what I’ve seen, it should be pretty much impossible to raise a family on less than $20,000 a year in NYC. Hell, raising a family on that much is tough enough in Detroit. I’m just curious as to which borough you lived in.

  12. theWiz
    theWiz says:

    It sounds like in your pursuit of happiness it leads you to feel unhappy. Only in America would we think we need to pursuit happiness so much that we actually put it in our declaration of independence (credit Eddie Izzard). I do not think you find happiness in the pursuit of it itself, but in the pursuit of other things. We find happiness in the pursuit of love, in creating a safe environment for our family, in learning, in teaching, in being social, in being alone, in experiencing life. Happiness isn’t something you can pursue, it is a result from the pursuit of something else.

    Another way to look at it, happiness is the reward you get for doing the things you should be doing, unhappiness and sadness is the punishment for fighting against what you should be doing.

    • meemee
      meemee says:

      I’ve never commented before, but this debate has me very interested.

      I agree with Wiz. I don’t think you can pursue happiness as a goal in and of itself. I think you pursue other things that make you happy…some of the time….as a by product.

      You can’t be happy all the time. If you were, you wouldn’t know it as you wouldn’t have any unhappiness to compare it to. Also, I think my happy is not necessarily anyone else’s happy. It’s subjective. Sometimes it’s subjective for me. What makes me happy one day annoys me on another.

      The real issue is, can you recognize when you are truly happy and what are the things or actions that are making you feel happy? Are you doing what really makes you happy or are you doing what other people think should make you happy? It’s unfortunate that people often only realize they were happy after the moment has passed, and that too many people are doing what they’ve been told will make them happy instead of figuring out what really does make them happy.

      • KateyJane
        KateyJane says:

        Ditto. Happiness is subjective based on who we are as people in a given moment. For example: my husband makes me happy most of the time. He’s so cute when he comes up behind me and snuggles his nose in my neck when I’m just relaxed and watching my favourite show under my cuddly warm blanket in front of the heater. However, it’s just annoying when I’ve just come home from work after finding out I’ve lost my job after 3 years of working my ass off. Then it’s annoying. So, yes, happiness is subjective. Completely.

  13. Joe
    Joe says:

    My favorite piece of wisdom on this subject: "All we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about." (Charles Kingsley in the 19th century).

    Recently I’ve come to believe that one of the secrets to being happy is to be more open-minded about what you find interesting. There are interesting things in even the most mundane life, if you squint just right. Your interactions with other people, for example. (Yes, I know Asperger’s puts a different cast on that issue; I don’t know that I have it, but I definitely identify with its traits.)

    And by the way, in Madison and much of the rest of the country, you have access to nature and the outdoors in a way that NYC can’t touch.

  14. Ulyana
    Ulyana says:

    I think you need to give a clear definition of what happiness is, in your opinion.

    I am extremely happy when I am in New York or San Diego or San Francisco. I am extremely miserable when I am in some boring suburb with nothing much to do. Choice, variety of things to do – make me happy.

    Maybe you mean “comfort” by happiness? Or the “ease” of obtaining those basic comforts we seek?

  15. CJ
    CJ says:

    You know the first thing people ask you when they haven’t seen you for a while or just if they’re your family is “Are you happy?”. I never know how to answer that. Is being happy really the most important thing? Do I have moments of happiness? No one is happy all the time right? I’m usually interested in what I’m doing, sometimes that makes me happy and sometimes it sucks. Maybe a better question is “Are you fulfilled?” Or “Are you enjoying your life?” Happiness is too relative and momentary.

  16. Dana
    Dana says:

    I wonder, being a “neuro-typical” ( NT ) person raising an Aperger’s person, if perhaps the real issue is that the 2 worlds in question here -the NT and the Aspie are engaged in a battle of semantics. I dont’ thing Asperger people are any less capable of feeling happiness than anyone else. I DO think they may be less adept and articulating what it feels like to them, to recognizing it in others, and to understanding what a makes them or anyone else feel it. Emotions are tricky things.

    Happiness is not like physical hunger where the brain sends predicatable signs to the body and where predictable actions ( eating – anything ) will always produce results ( cessation of hunger.) What makes a person happy one day may fail to do so the next. What makes one person happy may frustrate, annoy, anger, or even depress another. So ultimately Asperger’s people may be less adept at figuring out the brains’ messages – at seeing the patterns in the behaviors they engage in, the situations they put themselves or find themselves in, and how these things interact and effect their emotional state. The search for
    “happiness” then, may actually be the search for a kind of predictability even within a seemingly infinite range of options ( of the very sort Penelope is seemingly against in Wisconsin ) – enough so that a person can confidently predict that his or her actions and circumstance will result in a particular outcome. Just the same way we actively choose NOT to engage in behaviors or put oursleves in situations which we know from experience ( our own or vicarious ) will cause us stress, harm, or UNhappiness ( we opt NOT to put our hand in a fire because we know we will be burned… we opt TO stnad close to one when we are cold and wish to get warm, and feeling warmer after being cold makes us HAPPIER than being cold.)

  17. J
    J says:

    Although I love this topic I have to say… the fact that all of us have the time to contemplate what makes us happy? Would we rather be interested in our lives than happy? Are these actually different things – is just well (other than a fun topic of conversation) over-indulgent? That’s not the right word (it’s a bit harsh) but I can’t think of a better one right now.

    My point is sometimes we need to just slow down, remind ourselves all we can ever know for certain is we have today/this moment and it would behoove everyone to just live in the moment as best we can and try and learn to compartmentalize our overanalyzing.

  18. Katie
    Katie says:

    I have a very hard time with all of this talk about happiness research. It implies that happiness is something that can be studied and achieved by following a list of steps. Perhaps if we stop trying to get the formula right and start living a life that is fulfilling to us happiness will fall into place. Maybe worrying so much about being happy is what prevents happiness in the first place.

    I also don’t buy that we have to make a choice between being happy and being interesting, interested, fulfilled or anything else. Why does it have to be mutually exclusive?

    Also, Penelope, I have to address your NYC theory. I grew up in a small midwest and now live in Chicago. I also have been to New York often and interact frequently with colleagues on the East Coast. At the risk of offending many people here, I am going to argue that you are neglecting another factor in your Wisconsin/New York comparison. Perhaps it is not just city size and choices, but the mentality of Midwesterners to East Coasters. I find that in general, people from the Midwest have an easier time allowing themselves to be happy. Call this complacency if you want, but I think my Midwest attitude would help me to be happy anywhere – including NYC.

    Please take a look at this article if you get a chance (I am an IU alum by the way): I like the last 2 paragraphs especially and I think it sums up my argument nicely.

  19. Carisa
    Carisa says:

    I’ve never actually commented before, but this topic has been on my mind lately. Here’s my stance on happiness and choices:

    For as long as I can remember, everyone in my life has been telling me that I am wonderful and that I can do and accomplish absolutely anything I want in life. (Gen Y, sound familiar?). And it just so happens that most things I’ve ever tried in life, from music to sports, friendships to relationships, writing and languages to sciences and math, have all been successful.

    So one of the hardest things for me is being in a situation where you have too many possible choices, and way too many interests. Because what that means is that so far in life (and I’m only 24), I’ve spent way too much time deciding and analyzing whether the choices I’ve made are better or worse that all the other possible choices I could have made up to this point. Or, what life would be like if I had made different choices. This applies to where I live vs. where I could have lived, what career field I’m in versus all the things I could have done that would have either given me more money, more prestige, more of a challenge, more travel, etc. It’s even applied to my decision to get married young versus being single and having more freedom to change my course whenever I want.

    But one of the hardest things about feeling that way, is that whenever I’ve thought about going a different direction in my life, I stop. Because there are still too many choices and still too many things I’m interested in out there, and I can never decide what to do next or what to change. This drives me absolutely crazy, because I end up not changing anything because I can’t make up my mind.

    So I think having endless choices can create this vicious cycle of unhappiness because it leaves you feeling lost and confused about your purpose in life.

      • Elizabeth
        Elizabeth says:

        I’m a Gen Y (Cancer) with the exact same issue. My family spends their lives labeling me indecisive. If only they could understand that it’s the worry of a lost opportunity rather than the fear of decision making!

    • Rebecca MacDonald
      Rebecca MacDonald says:

      I think your comment gets right at the root of why so many people are unhappy. We live in a goal-obsessed culture where “picking your passion” and living a narrowly defined life (doing one thing, in one place) is exalted as the only path to happiness, while at the same time we’re presented with an endless menu of choices. It’s enough to drive anyone mad, no wonder we’re indecisive!

      The truth is that there are far fewer people who are suited for “just one thing” (and happy about it – just ask Tiger Woods or Andre Agassi) than there are people who could be happy in any number of situations. The trick is not to see your current situation as a life or death decision, but to allow yourself to experiment, try different things, enjoy them, and move on when they don’t fulfill you anymore.

      And P – why is Madison a life sentence? Surely you’re successful enough to go stay in NY with your kids when you feel the urge, share with them all you love about it, then come back to Madison for the peace and quiet you crave? You simply need a little of both.

    • Wali
      Wali says:

      Carisa, you may be only 24 but your comment is very honest, descriptive, and not tainted by age “experience”, or “philosophy”. I say this because I am forty-five years old, and even though I’ve read some wonderful comments in this most interesting discussion, your words describe almost to a tee what I’ve been feeling/experiencing for years.Your comment generated several responses because you touched on something that will help people take a closer look at ourselves and offers the comfort of knowing that there are other people experiencing this peculiar form of alienation. I wish that I could offer a solution, but alas, I’m just a searcher like yourself. Keep your head up, try to stay positive, and just LIVE!

  20. Seth
    Seth says:

    I've thought about NYC and optimization since you first started writing about this somewhat bizarre confluence of personality type and location. I was here on 9/11 and had to wonder if those attacks would transform the city, but it really just solidified the tenor of the city – €“ you come here, and stay here, because of something deeper than a job, or the location, or the best bagels. To stay here you have to recognize that you have a desire to see what happens next before anyone else does. At its heart, I think optimization is about wanting to see the future as soon as it dips the first toe into the present. Why so many of us congregate in NYC is probably because when you have that desire strongly enough that you’ll even put up with high rents and the subway, it helps to be around other people like you, people who feel the same pull.

    And P, just because you are in Wisconsin doesn't mean you aren't just as much an optimizer. In a sense that's what Brazen is, a focused look at Gen Y career and life trends where the top ideas are always bubbling to the surface, and where ideas about a possible future path for this cohort move from thought to practice – with the best ones, the optimal ideas, taking hold. So you're still optimizing work and business, but moved past some of the limitations of geography.

  21. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    Penelope, you don’t like being called a snob. That is what your “eyebrows in Wisconsin” rant is about. The thing is, you are not wrong, that NYC or any other big city usually offers more choices than any place in Wisconsin. The problem is that you depreciate the choices offered in WI, insisting that you don’t have the patience for people who call you a snob – in other words the ones who can’t afford to fly to LA to get their eyebrows waxed. The Midwest is not a fashion-conscious as the coastal cities; but that doesn’t mean fashion isn’t available.

    To that point, in your Sept 29 ’09 post, you mentioned Sarah, who helps you shop – incidentally while utilizing shopbop, which is “actually based in Wisc. so you could even go to the store and clearly nordstrom and american apparel are everywhere.”

    I moved from Minneapolis to a huge metropolitan area in Southern California months ago, and I have yet to find a decent (clean, with an extensive collection) used bookstore in the entire city. And I’ve looked. In Mpls, there were two within five minutes walking distance. More choice does not guarantee quality.

    People also live in big Midwest cities because (yes, it’s easier, but also) they think that they can get something as high quality as in NYC or LA, but at a much lower cost.

    **You should’ve moved to Minneapolis instead of Madison.**

    “New Yorkers love that they can get the best of everything – they want that more than they want to be happy. And if you can't understand this you merely reveal how little you know about the world.”

    It’s not that they can get the best of everything. It’s that they think you can *only* get the best of everything in NYC.

    But I guess if you are determined to believe that this is my ignorant rube-ness talking, then so be it.

    • boots
      boots says:

      I totally agree with Amanda about the tendency to depreciate the choices offered in a place with less choices. I do it too–all the restaurants in my small Texas town are assumed to be not that great until proven otherwise, but I didn’t have that attitude about trying restaurants in New York.

      The other side of that “best of everything” coin: yes, New Yorkers have their choice of many really amazing things–food, fashion, art, etc. But first of all, once you’ve lived there a while, how often do you really take advantage of it? I love the opera, but I think I went one time in the last two years I lived in NYC. You just get too tired from working all the time, knowing you have to take public transportation, etc.

      Second, it gets a bit overwhelming after a while. Even when I’d want to go to a museum or something, I’d look at the three full pages of museums in Time Out New York and then have to decide which one was the *best* one, the *most important* one for me to see, which wore me right out.

    • Claire
      Claire says:

      I live in NJ…a 20 minute train ride into NYC. I also spent 2 weeks in Minneapolis a year ago. Granted, I was staying at the Hilton, and had the benefit of the walkways to make it the best commute ever, but nothing is like New York City. I think Penelope does not fit there. She is lucky Madison puts up with her.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hold it. I don’t mind being called a snob. I’m such a snob about eyebrows that I actually think I lose sleep over it.

      Have you noticed the changes in George Cloony’s girlfriend’s eyebrows since she’s been with him? I worry that if her eyebrows could be improved, then mine definitely could be, but I can’t figure out how to do it: Panic.


      • Joe
        Joe says:

        Again, if something of so little consequence causes you so much anxiety, is it any surprise that you find happiness elusive?

      • Mascha
        Mascha says:

        I’m still looking for the right eyebrow person in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Took me 6 months already. I’m frantic by now. There’s only one eyebrow place, and that is NYC.
        If you have to raise your eyebrows at something or someone at least let them look good while you’re at it.

        Happiness is not a place. It’s a state of mind, It’s when and where you feel you belong and it’s almost certainly not a perpetual thing but more an overall feeling and pretty much almost always with 20/20 hindsight.

        * Only 200.000 and scrambling? Twice that and it can still be a struggle. And only Manhattan based parents can relate to that.

      • amy in chicago
        amy in chicago says:

        you are funny. i am going to find some photos to compare! then i need to find an eyebrow person. and in chicago, contrary to popular opinion, there are no Anastasia’s to be found

  22. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    I find the optimizer discussion interesting. I grew up in the mid-west, have lived in NYC and LA and am now in a smaller city in Virginia. I have to say that I enjoyed living in NYC and LA the most and would categorize myself as an optimizer. What I have found surprising is that I have learned to appreciate how easy it is to live in a smaller city.

    I still miss living in “the big city” because of all that those cities have to offer. For me the trick to happiness has been to learn to appreciate and optimize what is special about the place that I currently live.

    That said, I definitely miss the hair and nail salons of big cities – I’m sorry, but small towns just can not compete! :-)

  23. LPC
    LPC says:

    Again, what do we mean by happiness? I feel happy right now. I am on my sofa. Music is playing on my computer. I had carnitas for lunch. But is my every dream fulfilled? Hardly. Am I still happy? Absolutely. Is that what you mean by happy? The actual sensation of an actual person at an actual moment in time?

  24. Dan Owen
    Dan Owen says:

    I blinked and you substituted “fulfilled” for “interested.” You’re good, but slippery.

    In 1998, Harper’s published a great article called “Going Broke on $100,000 a Year,” about living in NYC. Like a lot of self-inflicted disasters, it was clear that a basic belief led to a chain of choices and consequences that had devastating results. I suppose you could blame NYC, and obviously that’s overly-simplistic, but you like these kinds of decision shortcuts. I guess that’s served you well enough, but to read some of your posts — those you write when you’re writhing in pain — it’s hard to understand why you take such absolute positions.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Interesting question about choices people make living in NYC. I think people live like the people they live near, and there’s not point in asking someone to live in NYC but not live like other New Yorkers.

      Customs are different in different cities. In NYC I ate out nearly every meal. That’s what you do in NYC. In Wisconsin I never go out. It’s not that I’m a different person. It’s that you become the people you hang out with.

      This is shown to be true in law firms as well, by the way. People who go to law school to save the world: They think they will work for the ACLU after they spent a few years at a big law firm earning enough money to pay back school loans. But then they become like the big law firm lawyers who care a lot about money, and they never get to ACLU.


  25. ejly
    ejly says:

    Dan Ariely makes similar points in his research, and I know you’ve written blogs on him before – I bring him up to ask whether it might be irrational to value an abundance of choices over a predictably comfortable existence.

  26. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Finally, I have a label for myself that fit’s: “infovore” – thank you for that. (See, everyone gets something different out of your posts, which is why they are so widely read.)

    And I think Tyler is correct in that infovore’s feel fulfilled processing information (I do). It used to be, the best information and data could only be found in a big place like New York or London or Washington or at a big research university. But now with the internet everyone can access it, and share their ideas and thoughts (by blogging), which somewhat broadens city choice for many infovores.

    That said, I still believe that social interaction and cross-pollination of ideas generates better ways to interpret information, so many infovores will still want to live in a place with lots of other infovores and non-infovores. We just may see more of those places — microhubs if you will — around the world.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hm. Not sure where the comment went. You have to have one or two swear words in the comment to tip off the spam filter, and even then, I approve almost every one of those by hand :)


  27. Jennifer F.
    Jennifer F. says:

    My $.02:

    I consistently meet ambitious people that go out of their way to take lots of risks that make their lives harder, but ultimately better or more interesting. It’s a struggle, but it’s a sense of purpose.

    Think about botany, or even life in general. Procreation is dependent upon having many “choices.” In conception, millions of sperm will attempt to fertilize an ovum – €“ with most failing in the process. Plants will disperse scores of spores and seeds, knowing that many will fail – €“ but some will flourish. They take many chances for their future and allow for some mistakes but trust that their efforts will pay off.

    If someone is hooked on trying to be happy, perhaps they are looking for a way to rationalize their survival when our fight isn’t as hard as the Oak tree.

    Just a thought.

    • Judy
      Judy says:

      “I consistently meet ambitious people that go out of their way to take lots of risks that make their lives harder, but ultimately better or more interesting. It’s a struggle, but it’s a sense of purpose.”

      I meet people like this, too. They think their complicated lifstyle gives them permission to complain. It’s annoying. It may be more “interesting” to them, but not to me.

  28. Alice Bachini-Smith
    Alice Bachini-Smith says:

    I find Penelope’s position on Asperger’s generally too negative, though not different from the conventional medical line, but that doesn’t mean there is no defensiveness or exaggeration in the Aspergers community- we’re all people, mostly flawed, IMO!

    But the idea that there is *no* fulfilment for Aspergers people seems both pointless and self-fulfilling. It makes a lot more sense to assume that all people with disabilities, and all people who are neurologically atypical, and all people who are considered physically perfect (not sure who that would be, but back to the point…)CAN find fulfilment, in the sense of living their best possible lives, even though most of us need at least half a lifetime just to figure out the beginning part of how to do that, surely.

    It’s not easy to measure fulfilment till you have it- I’m 42 and can honestly say there are one or two areas of my life where I genuinely feel completely fulfilled. For now. And one or two others where I don’t. But I think there are principles for how to achieve it: be honest with yourself, strive to improve, forget trying to conform to social convention, forget trying to fit into generalisations (without being an egomaniac obviously), live what you believe, etc. Anyone can do those. Living a good life is fulfilling.

  29. mrh
    mrh says:

    1) If the whole point of the article was that both social connection and information processing can bring fulfillment, and that they’re just *different*, then why the value judgment against social fulfillment that’s inherent in your statement: “I want to be as complacent as the people I live with, in Wisconsin.” This implies that you don’t see them as “separate but equal” choices for various people to choose from, but your way as better and theirs as worse.
    2) I believe, and I’m guessing you’ll agree with me, that social connection is harder for a lot of people than information processing. This is not true only of people with Aspergers. My friends have often been books (non-fiction, mainly). It’s much easier for me to enjoy learning than it is to enjoy another person’s company, but that’s because of me and my personality. However, I’m not going to take a position of superiority here and say that my way is better. I’m also not going to assume that people who value and are fulfilled by social connection are taking the easy way out because, shit, if it’s not easy for me, how do I know it’s easy for them? My close personal relationships are a huge struggle for me and not some sort of mental break when my eyes get tired from reading or watching Planet Earth.
    3) I, too, would rather be interested in my life than carefree, assuming both are equally achievable (I don’t think they are, but I’m talking desire here and not possibility).
    4) Because of this, to me fulfillment == happiness, an enormous part of which is intellectual fulfillment. I have an impossibly-low tolerance for boredom. I will end relationships if we have the same fight more than a few times because it bores me to take 15 minutes to go through the same tired dialogue again (see above about relationships being a struggle). I’m “happiest” when I’m not bored. I *do* think it’s ridiculous to chase around having a warm, fuzzy feeling inside all of the time or having no cares in the world, etc., but maybe that’s just me. However, I also don’t feel that this is what most people “searching for happiness” are searching for. Perhaps I’m wrong, because I mainly surround myself with people who also equate fulfillment with happiness. But if I say I’m happier now than I was 20 years ago, it’s because I’m more fulfilled now, I know myself more, I have a greater understanding of and respect for the complexity of the world, and I’m less judgmental (although definitely not un-judgmental) about other people’s choices. I don’t give a shit if what makes them happy (fulfilled) is different from what makes me fulfilled (happy) and I don’t really give a shit if their definition of happiness is different than mine. I “wasn’t happy” at my last job because I felt my brain atrophying there. I’m “happier” now because I’m learning stuff, constantly, and am surrounded by other people I can bounce ideas off and learn from. So, I don’t know where this puts me. And I think it’s an interesting question, where this line is drawn, but I don’t think assuming we’re all using the same conceptual language here will bring about any meaningful answers.

    • Wali
      Wali says:

      mrh, I don’t know if you’re male or female, but, hey dude/dudette, your little profile here is ME all the way!!! Point#4 is definitely the bomb and I can definitely relate!!!

      All bets are off when I become bored or disinterested!

      Because I have an appetite for knowledge for it’s own sake, I have very little patience for ignorant and shallow people or mundane and silly conversation,entertainment, etc. It feels good to know that there are people out here with similar things on their mind and that I’m not just some cranky, sometimes overly sentimental,intellectual snob!

      Great topic and conversation here, by the way.

  30. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I didn’t read the other comments so forgive me if I am repetitive. “May you live in interesting times” is an old Chinese curse. I think you are right that seeking out an interesting life is in many ways in direct opposition to a happy life. But I don’t really think people that choose easy or complacent are really happy. Many people derive happiness from conquering challenges. If it weren’t for the challenges and risk, they’d be bored and unhappy.

  31. Liza
    Liza says:

    The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. :)

    Be happy that you can choose to live in Wisconsin and limit your choices.

    I think you’re right. I went to college in Morris, MN (farmville) and everyone was happy there. There was 1 grocery store, no mall-unless Pamida counts and 1 nice ‘fancy’ restaurant. Maybe it’s simple=happiness.

    Either way, I’m never happy. I don’t have a problem of always needing interesting, I always need to have a goal in mind, something to plan for.

    It’s a daily struggle for those who can’t accept live as it’s handed to them. :) But through that, they find enjoyment (something much better than happiness).

  32. Michelle Dawson
    Michelle Dawson says:

    1. Tyler Cowen makes a science- and ethics-based point of not segregating Asperger’s from autism. In case anyone is interested.

    2. Reducing the possibilities for human neurological variation to either a “deficit” or a “merely a difference” is missing the point. Differences, including the differences between autistic and nonautistic cognitive phenotypes, can be profound without being pathological.

    3. Sharing information in areas of interest, at least when this is done between or among autistics, is a very social thing. I don’t see how reducing the possibilities to either/or in this area (you interact with information or you interact with others) is useful or accurate. Or that’s my view, and experience.

  33. Connie
    Connie says:

    You might try reading Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich (of Nickel & Dimed). I don’t think she has it all right, but it’s an interesting read when you’re wondering where all of this “happiness-talk” is driving from.

    Best with your interesting life!

  34. Theresa
    Theresa says:

    I usually ignore all this “happiness” talk because I used to believe you were happy if strived to be happy. If being constantly interested in things that happen around you makes you happy, then why try and separate it from the term happiness? The topic of happiness is so huge and it is different for so many people. I don’t know HOW people are able to break it down. I’ve thinking about happiness lately also. Tell me what you think:

  35. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Tyler. If you feel fulfilled by leading an interesting, choice-filled life, then you will be a happier person if you lead that kind of a life.

    With regards to where a person lives (and I haven’t been to the US, never mind lived in either NYC or Wisconsin), what about the people who (like me) move to a foreign country, something that is very interesting and involves loads of other choices (such as how native you’ll actually go, etc), but do so to lead happier lives?

  36. ginevra
    ginevra says:

    I’m quite happy to say I want to live my life processing information. It is indeed what gives me pleasure (hence the 3 Bachelor’s degrees I’ve done).

    But how to do it outside an academic context, that’s my problem. And in a way that contributes to my community/county. Any advice, Penelope?

  37. melanie gao
    melanie gao says:

    I think happiness is like a cat. The more you focus on it, the less likely it is to come to you.

    So IMO, good call to focus instead on an interesting life. Then you might find that happiness and interestingness can indeed co-exist.

  38. neko
    neko says:

    I want to be happy, dammit. All happiness/all the time. I’d give up my perfect eyebrows in exchange for happiness anyday.

    I’m just waiting for everyone out there in the ether to figure out The Secret Of Happiness (and then let me in on it) ….

  39. Bianca
    Bianca says:

    @ T. Scott

    It’s not impossible and it happens more frequently than I’d like to see (teaching at an inner city school). We lived in Queens and Brookly in the 80’s-early 90s in an immigrant community and that’s just the way I thought life was. I was quite pleasantly surprised when I got to college. I’m really grateful for my upbringing because it taught me the value of being cognizant of the difference between relationships w/people and relationships w/things.

  40. Heather
    Heather says:

    I don’t get why you have to separate happiness from interesting. You seem to be going around in circles with that Penelope. It seems to me as if you see happiness as settling for something less than perfect and interesting as looking for the next best thing (and maybe never finding it). You won’t feel happy very often or even notice when you are if you are always looking for something better. Satisficer versus Maximizer?

    • KateyJane
      KateyJane says:

      This is valid. As Asperger’s people we see what other people call happy and it’s not exactly what we think is happy. So, we spend our lives observing others, doing what they do, pretending to fit in, however, we never quite get it exactly right. So, I think this leads us into a land of confusion. We look at others and their “happy buttons” and wonder how to make our “happy buttons” perform the same function. For us interesting does equal happiness. Not always so for others.

  41. Retired Syd
    Retired Syd says:

    I’ve read that people’s happiness is in large part, influenced by that individual’s “happiness set point.” I tend to agree with this theory, and am one of those with a very high happiness set point. I feel happy much more often than I feel unhappy. But of course, I do experience both.

    Do I think it’s a waste to try and maximize the frequency of happiness and minimize the frequency of unhappiness? Nope. Do I think it’s possible to feel happy all the time? Nope.

    For me, the secret (actually shared to me by a wise commenter on my blog) is ENGAGEMENT. You may call it “lots of choices” or “having an interesting life”, but I’d say it’s being INTERESTED IN your life, being engaged. And sometimes having lots of choices helps to engaged you.

    Each year I spend a month in Manhattan, and that is a month when I feel happiness with the most frequency. Just going about day to day things is harder than in my usual suburban life. Figuring out how to get from point A to point B is harder. Deciding among the various choices is harder. And that makes me feel more engaged. That engagement with my life makes me feel amazingly happy.

    When I’m on autopilot (for me that was before I retired: get up, go to work, go to the gym, cook dinner, watch tv, go to bed, get up and start it all over again), I’m not engaged in my life, and I feel unhappy.

    The trick is figuring out what engages me when I’m not somewhere else like New York. I don’t need to relentlessly pursue happiness, I just need to focus on what engages me. That’s different for every person. But I think if you seek out what engages you (whether that’s information, relationships, or yoga, or writing, or whatever), the happiness follows.

    When you’re engaged, you’re paying attention. And what’s the point of having the life you really want if you’re not even paying attention?

  42. Dana
    Dana says:

    do what makes you happy as often as possible. It’s not always possible – sometimes we have to choose between several less than optimal options, the lesser of several “evils” etc. So… be as happy as you can with what you DO as often as possible. Accept the choices you make. Accept that sometimes there are limitations on options. Accept that things don’t always NEED to be better than they are to be good, that you don’t always need more than you have, and that one is always missing out on something – the act of making ANY choice automatically rules out at least some other simultaneous options. But CHOOSE not to regret the things ( or people, or opportunities )you are missing – celebrate what you are choosing. That about sums it up.

  43. Derek
    Derek says:

    As one of my professors put it: I don’t want to be happy in life.

    I want to experience what it means to be human, and that involves a whole range of emotions aside from happiness. A purely happy life is a boring one (imagine watching The Notebook every time you see a movie) because sadness, anger, etc., play just as vital a part of being human as happiness. Maybe this seems so intuitive to me because I am in the interesting life camp.

    • Amy
      Amy says:

      Yes! I say the same thing. As did my older child when she was 7, explaining why ‘heaven’ (which I don’t believe in) didn’t sound that great to her.

  44. Dr. G
    Dr. G says:

    A post on this topic was always going to get strong responses! My view is that, for many men, happiness stems from success at work. It’s a bit of a primeval thing. A man who is successful at work is much more likely to come home in a good mood and to interact well with the family that one who is not. So, having a good fit with your job role (certainly as a male) seems to be an aspect of the happiness “formula”.

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