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. J-
    J- says:

    You are crazy for thinking that you could raise kids in NYC for $200,000 a year.

    The more realistic figure would be $275-300k a year. You might have had a decent quality of life in the city on $200k ten years ago, but unless you really like ramen noodles (and you’d pay $1.79 for them where the rest of us pay $0.49), you’re not raising the next generation of Manhattanites unless you have an aunty die on the lower east side and you can get the rent controlled walk up, fuhgettaboutit! It’s called inflation!!

    I also heard it this way: $200k is the new $100k.

    Happy? Unless you can define it in more concrete terms than:

    : enjoying or characterized by well-being and contentment
    : characterized by a dazed irresponsible state

    what’s the use in trying to be that?

    1 : having the attention engaged
    2 : being affected or involved

    That sounds more like what life’s supposed to be. If you are interested in the things and people around you, you probably aren’t going to have the time to worry about being “happy”. Whatever that is.

    This little crisis is probably your fault for not taking your own advice. You probably just need to get <a href="http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2006/08/03/how-much-money-do-you-need-to-be-happy-hint-your-sex-life-matters-more/"title="laid&quot; more.

  2. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I don’t think fulfilled or challenged or interested or any of the rest amount to more than good things to reach for.

    Happy is gratitude. All the rest is just the stuff you do with your day.

  3. Diana
    Diana says:

    Infovore, what a great word. So that’s what I am.

    Happy times are like butterflies flitting by. You enjoy them when you can, and when they are in season.

  4. Renee
    Renee says:

    Opportunity I think is the difference here also… oooh I want to be a “dancer/actor/wall street broker/real estate mogul/fashion editor…” I move to ???? NYC? You have the luxury of already knowing your strengths, knowing what you want and building your own company. I am thinking the people living in NYC are waiting to find all those so they can also live somewhere else:) okay, it’s just an idea.

  5. Gome
    Gome says:

    There’s a universe in an atom – if I have passion for that universe and explore it to my greatest capacity, I’m happy.

    If your passion is being controversial/interesting/interested, including marginalizing happiness and happy people, more power to you. I just hope your readers recognize that pondering questions like “the meaning of life” and “the nature of happiness” is reminiscent of freshman philosophy classes. It’s first rate mental masterbation – it’s fun (for the interested and interesting) but doesn’t really amount to much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for masterbation (mental and otherwise), but I also don’t expect to find happiness or life’s meaning in it – so don’t be disappointed that it didn’t fulfill your happiness quest.

    As an aside, the NY (enter any big city in the world) has more/better than Madison/Wisconsin (enter any rural/small city/state in the world) is a cliched and specious discussion (although always good for a rise out of some). Cliched because it’s usually made by the aristocratic sect and is based on values/culture (the use of eyebrow maintenance and shopping as comparative standards is telling) reserved for the privileged few. Specious because it shows a complete lack of understanding and appreciation of values and passions other than your own. Opportunities/choices are infinite if you find your atom of passion. It’s unfortunate you can’t appreciate that atom exists in NY and Wisconsin. Different elements, but a universe just the same…

    Thanks for being interesting. Odd, I’m craving a cigarette.

  6. kristi
    kristi says:

    Pursuing happiness makes me feel like I’m happy.

    Accepting the results of my decisions and changing things I can’t accept makes me feel like I don’t have any regrets.

    Being fully present and participating in the life I have created by my choices makes me feel fulfilled.

    Identifying what makes life feel hard and what makes it feel easy helps me remember that each one is temporary and fleeting.

    I’m not perfect… so what? Judge me. I don’t make apologies for myself anymore. I learned what I needed to know to realize that my self-worth doesn’t come from my job, a man, my clothes, my car, my house or my housekeeping, mothering, daughtering, sistering, best-friending, or even being female.

    As I have read your posts on happiness over the past few years, this was the one thing I wanted to give you. The gift of knowing that you are worthy. Not because you are a start-up genius, or because you manage to live semi-normally despite horrific experiences and precarious relationships. You just are, and not doing or doing won’t change that.

    You sound bored…maybe it’s time for your next innovation?

  7. mpags
    mpags says:

    I think you’re having a [mid-life, or maybe just general] crisis and are busy justifying the things you think are crappy in your life to make yourself feel better.

  8. Tina
    Tina says:

    I agree in this way: fulfillment is where it’s AT!

    But in my view, this doesn’t preclude happiness at all. I’m also an “infovore,” although I like social interaction even more.

    With those I resonate with, that is, and who value me and treat me that way consistently, as I treat them.

    These are my most fulfilling interactions by far, and some of my favorite parts of my day.

    But this squares strongly with the research that I’ve read on what makes people happy.

    According to the research, which I can cite, if you like, the top 5 qualities of the happiest people are– Curiosity, Love, Zest, Hope, and Gratitude.

    I should know: I gave a talk in Toastmasters on it!!!

  9. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    The first thing I read about happiness research was that six months after a severe disability, people’s happiness returned to their normal range. Since I’m disabled, this struck me as interesting. However, it also struck me that here you have a measure (“happiness”) that can’t distinguish between healthy and severely disabled. No one would pick a severe disability, yet using happiness as a measure, it shouldn’t matter.

    My opinion of happiness as a goal, and of happiness research, didn’t get any better after that.

    I’ve wasted a lot of time in my life, chasing one dream after another. What gripes me isn’t that wasted time, it’s the times I spent doing nothing, and the times I gave up on projects. Yet I was trying for happiness when I gave up on hard projects, or just enjoyed myself. So I also tend to think happiness is a very short-term measure.

    From what I’ve read of your blog, you are never going to be the kind of happy (i.e. contented) that you want. That kind of midwestern simple-life happiness does not go with the restlessness and ambition that you definitely have. You can’t both be content and constantly looking for ways to improve.

    I also think you are fairly status conscious — both in wanting to lead an ambitious life, and in wanting to compare yourself to other ambitious, interesting people. That’s also incompatible with contentment.

    Finally, although people with Asperger’s don’t want to call themselves disabled, take it from a disabled person (wheelchair), you are. Your list of problems, from innumeracy to social blindness of various types, is formidable. I’d rather deal with many of my physical problems than any of your mental ones. So you are functioning at a very high level despite severe handicaps. Give yourself some credit!

  10. Liz
    Liz says:

    I absolutely agree. Sometimes a “happy” life is just wishful thinking. You’ve got to keep it interesting. I love your plan!


  11. brendan
    brendan says:

    isn’t life about balance? if you think of happiness as a high and you keep chasing that fix won’t that move your satisfaction threshold ever upwards? not that people shouldn’t strive for happiness but maybe having those high highs could also yield low lows. some are quite happy to take an emotional rollercoaster ride through life whereas others might prefer things to be relatively basic. ultimately it could all depend on individual preference and deciding on what standards to gauge oneself in comparison to peers or society, if at all.

  12. Elisabeth
    Elisabeth says:


    I enjoy reading your blog and find myself fascinated by your posts regarding Aspergers. In fact, I rented Adam (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1185836/) the other day and thought of you. It’s a romantic comedy in which the titular character has Aspergers and his romantic interest does not. I think I heard somewhere that those with Aspergers sometimes have difficulties understanding movies, but if that’s not as much a problem for you, you should definitely check this movie out.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Great. I’m really glad you posted this. I cannot follow movies because of deficits I have that are common among people who have Asperger’s Syndrome.

      Most movies are dependent on

      1. Recognizing characters by differences in their faces. This is very hard for me. I mix up who is who.

      2. Recognizing plot turns on non-verbal cues. Here’s a great example (Warning: I’m going to sort-of spoil the movie The Reader). The Reader requires you to understand that in a moment where one character simply looks at another character the movie watcher understands that one character cannot read. I did not understand that. (I actually still have no idea how other people understood it.) So I watched a whole movie about reading thinking both lead characters were literate.

      So. I don’t watch movies unless I can watch with someone who can tell me what’s going on every five minutes. And, at this point in my life, there is no one left who knows me well who will watch a movie with me.


      • Maureen Sharib
        Maureen Sharib says:

        This is a really, really interesting component to throw into all the talk abt social media these days -do the social mediasts get it that there’s a percentage of the population that has no hope of ever getting what they’re trying to say???

      • Belinda Gomez
        Belinda Gomez says:

        I’m not buying this
        “I mix up who is who.”

        Really? You can’t tell Will Smith from Brad Pitt?
        I go to the movies with a guy with Apergers all the time. He can tell actors apart. He’s not great on subtext, but neither are most American filmmakers, so it works out fine.

        I wonder if you can’t sit in a theater and pay attention to just one thing at a time.

        Do you like live theater? Can you tell those actors apart?

        Or is there a problem with sitting and not talking? Do you have to verbalize while you watch TV or a movie?

  13. Brad
    Brad says:

    Your move to Madison was specifically about finding happiness. Now you conclude that it’s Hicksville. You know every statistic about happiness, but you still don’t get it. Because great shopping and perfect eyebrows are in your happiness equation. What you call “complacent” others call “contentment” or “acceptance”. It’s internal. Where you live is irrelevant.

    • Joe
      Joe says:

      Amen. It has occurred to me more than once reading the various posts about happiness in this blog that if a person is unable to find a hairstylist that meets their standards in a city of 230,000 people, is it any surprise that they have trouble being happy?

      As a couple of other commenters have mentioned, I’d argue that there’s a big difference between “complacent” and “contented.” But I’ll agree with you that to a large degree, for someone all of whose basic needs are accounted for, being happy is a decision that you make, not something that happens to you.

  14. Liz
    Liz says:

    People want an “interesting” life because they think that will make them happy. if I am more interesting and have lost of cool experiences, people will like me more and I’ll be happy about that. I think that is the logic behind it. I do believe all people (all living things, really) just want to be happy, or at least content. The quickest way to it is to help other people be happy and stop focusing on your self. That’s about all there is to it!

  15. Liz
    Liz says:

    People want an “interesting” life because they think that will make them happy. If I am more interesting and have lots of cool experiences, people will like me more and I’ll be happy about that. I think that is the logic behind it. I do believe all people (all living things, really) just want to be happy, or at least content and not unhappy or suffering. The quickest way to be happy is to help other people be happy and stop focusing on your self. That’s about all there is to it!

  16. B
    B says:

    I´ve scanned through some of the posts and must say that I too, disagree with how you equate happiness and complacency. I also think your knock on religion was malinformed, especially if you don´t know the long history and details of a religion like Catholicism, which possesses the intellectual infrastructure to respond rapidly to all social phenomena and scientific developments but is always painted as fanatical and unsophisticated by the media.

    Anyway, I was hoping that you could give us more information, perhaps in a separate post, about life in New York. I have lived in Rio for de Janeiro for a year and life is HARD here. I´m willing to guess it is harder than in New York. I agree with the second poster who said that living abroad provides a challenge. This challenge makes life in the U.S. seem easier. Anyway, I was really intrigued by your discussion of happiness as relates to a place like Madison, WI (I´m originally from Minneapolis, another limited town) versus New York City. I was also intrigued by your discussion of salary and motherhood and life in New York being difficult, and how it affected your happiness. Could you please expand or give more information about why daily life in New York is hard, how you dealt with the idea of “happiness” there, and just about what interesting choices you felt you had there? Please let me know!

  17. Yves
    Yves says:

    The rambling post nicely conveyed you are lost, looking for direction and meaning in life.

    Happiness is not equal to complacency and acceptance of what you have. It’s a state of mind. I do believe that people are not happy or unhappy: they choose what they want to be.

    Why does NY look more interesting? All its opportunities are a perfect fit with our innate human desire for freedom. Having the possibility to make all those choices is highly valued by many.

  18. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    I think the title of this post could have been "Do you overthink happiness?"
    I live in Mexico, where a lot of tourists converge with locals, and from my vantage point as manager of a hotel, I hear so many city dwellers say with awe: "The people here seem so happy and yet they have so little." They say this, because the locals live differently from how the visitors live. There may be two families crammed into a small, covered space with hammocks strung from wall to wall and kids running around with dirt on their faces.
    But they are all smiling, so they are all happy. Right?
    Well, is ignorance bliss?
    It can be. But these locals see evidence of how the other half lives, because the other half comes wearing nice clothing and with coiffed hair and they can afford to rent golf carts and stay in high rises and go out to eat. So, it is not necessarily that the ones smiling are ignorant; they have perhaps just not thought about anything beyond the fact that they are alive and have people that they love around them.
    Complacency is not going to make you happy, though, Penelope, because you know better, just like those tourists in Mexico think they know better. They know what they have and they think that if that were taken away from them, they would not be happy. Why? Maybe because it was taken away. They did not give it up willingly. Thus they had no control. But if it did happen to them, they would have the choice to ask, "Why me?" and do nothing, except feel like crap, or they could ask, "What am I going to do to get out of this situation and bring it back to how it was?"
    And I bet that they would feel better already just by putting the outcome in their own hands. Then imagine how they would feel when they did get back to how they were. It would mean so much more than it did the first time.
    You've talked about things like breaking To Do lists down to make them more manageable. You've talked about the locus of control, and how a feeling of being controlled from the inside, rather than letting external factors control you, can lead to happiness. I think you have all the tools you need. You just need to use them. Do you feel like you have control in your life? If not, how can you get some?
    You can do this, because being happy does not have to mean that you give up interesting. If interesting pleases you, then it makes you happy. What's wrong with that? Make a choice and stick to it. That will help make you happy.
    Finally: why is everyone saying IMO? What does that mean?

    • Margaret
      Margaret says:

      And um, sorry. I didn’t mean to be mean by suggesting you make a choice and stick with it, because I realized after I said it that making choices is part of the problem here but have you ever tried starting with easy ones? Like, you could order grouper instead of salmon, or pick up the first Power Bar that is not vanilla or chocolate, and don’t worry about whether or not you’re going to like it until you’ve tried it. Then, if you don’t like it, you can decide what to do about your choice after you’ve made it, not before.

  19. Ken Wolman
    Ken Wolman says:

    The last thing I’d have expect on this blog is navel-gazing. But there is is. Back in the 1960s I read a book by A. Alvarez called The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. Its last chapter was a description of Alvarez’ own “failed” effort on Christmas night 1960. He came around to the idea that many of us buy into the Hollywood vision of happy all the time, and that the pursuit of happiness itself is an invitation to disillusionment or worse. Finally he suggested that letting go of wondering whether one is happy is the beginning of true happiness, nonconceptual happiness, life on life’s terms.

  20. Chris Norris
    Chris Norris says:

    As a fellow Madisonian, I have no urge to argue with you. I agree with most things you’ve said about Wisconsin, but I’m not quite the maximizer you are.

    I think I’m concerned with happiness in most parts of my life, but not all. In my passion, photography, I’m more of an optimizer/maximizer. I’m not interested in photography because it’s “fun” or makes me happy, although at times it certainly is fun and makes me happy. But I’m interested in pushing myself artistically, getting my work seen, connecting with people, and advancing myself. To do that in all areas of my life seems exhausting and unnecessary. But perhaps that attitude is exactly what landed me in Madison.

  21. H to the Izzo
    H to the Izzo says:

    I never thought about it this way, so thanks for the post. I think you have a point here about choices and interesting and that interesting often means more challenging and therefore not easy/happy all the time.

    “This makes me think that people put a higher premium on choices, because choices make life more interesting.”

    I’d like to see what my friends think about this idea. I think I’ll write about it on my blog and link back to you.

  22. H to the Izzo
    H to the Izzo says:

    I never thought about it this way, so thanks for the post.

    I think you have a good point about how interesting often means challenging and that might not be the same as easy/happy.

    “This makes me think that people put a higher premium on choices, because choices make life more interesting.”

    I’d like to know what my friends think about this idea. I’ll probably write a post about this idea and link back to you.

  23. Madgeylou (that's me!)
    Madgeylou (that's me!) says:

    Happiness seems to be a bit like a skittish cat, in that the more you chase it the more it hides. I’ve found it works a lot better to do things I’m interested in, everything from knitting to talking with my boyfriend to strategizing on how to make a meaningful contribution to human culture. Then the cat can and does come curl up in my lap.

    There are more than a few levels of happiness. One is a sensory thing, felt after you’ve been in a good flow state for a while, engaging yourself on all cylinders and feeling the power that’s inherent in your own mind and body. Then there’s what I guess you are calling fulfillment, which is a broader sense of being pleased with where you are in life. Broad strokes, you are growing and contributing and you feel good about it.

    Couldn’t agree more with theWiz and other commenters above that happiness itself is not and really can’t be the goal — happiness is a by-product of creating the life you want and contributing the way you think is most meaningful. There’s been such a focus in the blogosphere about pursuing happiness and getting happier and it strikes me as pretty ego-centric and self-absorbed. Really, in the grand scheme of things, how important my happiness? Far more important is the contribution I choose to make with my limited time in this body.

  24. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    It seems to me that right now, you do not seem to be particularly interested OR happy. I know that you can list the specific reasons why you moved to Wisconsin, it was a “good on paper” decision. But did you move there because you WANTED to, or because it was the best decision? Madison offers many choices that New York does not… for instance, would you have had the choice to date a farmer who lived outside the city while in New York? You probably would not have had that option, yet in WI it has brought joy and love to your life. I think you should focus on the choices you DO have, versus the choices you don’t. And if you need good shopping or eyebrows, Chicago is a short ride away.

  25. Katherine
    Katherine says:

    What about focusing on excitement vs. happiness? Or excitement instead of happiness. Some people say that they are synonymes. If you are excited about life, you are happy. Do you think being interessed in things and being excited (about things) correlate? Maybe they are the same thing?

  26. Billy
    Billy says:

    Words that should never be allowed in an interesting world: nice, good, fine.

    I’ve always maintained there are two types of people in this world: those that ask why, and of course those that don’t. Those who accept are happy, those that aren’t are in the pursuit of happiness.

    I’m with you Penelope, interesting trumps happy every time.


  27. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Several people have asked how should we define being happy. Matthew Kelly, author of “Perfectly Yourself: 9 Lessons for Enduring Happiness”, notes that, "Happiness is a feeling at home with ourselves, with who we are, where we are, and what we are doing. I suspect that if we can foster that feeling of being at home within ourselves, the rest is just details. Only then do we come to the stunning realization that: Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you."

    I thought this was a great quote and relivent to the discussion.

  28. Naomi
    Naomi says:

    I love the feeling of processing lots of information (frequently over the internet), sometimes to my detriment of socializing with other people. I think knowing a lot and learning a lot make me happy. But I don’t think I have Asperger’s.

  29. Jill
    Jill says:

    I find happiness pretty elusive. So elusive, in fact, that I realized I don’t know anything about life and happiness whatsoever. In an act of desperation, I followed some advice in a horoscope that happened to work out pretty well. Now I’m following my horoscope’s directions every day, and blogging about it at http://jillpr.wordpress.com .

    I’ll let you know if that turns out to be the true path to happiness.

  30. Caren magill
    Caren magill says:

    In my graduate research on positive psychology, I’ve looked at the quest for happiness closely. I don’t think there is a choice between seeking an interesting vs. happy life. I believe one begets the other.

    People who report having interesting lives have higher level of engagement and flow. The more often we are completely focused on our work to the point where time stops (flow), the happier we are.

    Highly engaged and interested people are considered “autotelic”, and are typically measured as far happier than non-autotelic individuals. I would bet that this is the camp you fall in. My advice to you is to accept your info-hoarding as part of what makes you feel fulfilled and seek out like-minded people.

    Don’t fight it.. It’s actually a good thing.

  31. Richard Sher
    Richard Sher says:

    Lately I ‘m thinking that happiness is relative to the last moment one asses their situation. If you have ten million dollars and lost eight million you most likely “believe” your situation to be greatly diminished and “feel” unhappy. Having one million and Acquiring or earning another million would presumably feel great. It’s all relative, Yes? No?
    I can speak from experience although It was never ten million.

    Richard Sher

  32. Jennifer Louden
    Jennifer Louden says:

    I was thinking about just this thing last night when I couldn’t sleep – but then I think about it all the time. How do we make a meaningful life so we want to get out of bed in the morning? What allows us to feel we are really alive? That’s what people want – and to be loved, to feel loved. In my own life, I have to balance my desire to create an interesting life with being an hungry ghost: always on the look out for the new and better rather than enjoying what’s here. It’s a tricky balance. In general though, happiness as a word has always made me do the head tilting “Huh?” thing as in “Why would I work for that? Rather work for being alive, engaged, entranced curious. Thanks for another truly interesting post.

  33. Rich
    Rich says:

    A great post, but asking a new yorker if they are happy is like asking a star athlete if she is too hurt to play, you will get the answer they want to tell you.

    I don’t believe that New Yorkers are less happy than anywhere else. I do believe that they like to tell you what a chore it is to live in the city. They love to tell you how small their apartment is, how much they money they make and that it is not enough to live in the city. They love to tell you about the weirdos they encounter on the subway, crazy taxi rides and how the tourists ruin the city. They love it. The people that aren’t happy there leave, just like every other city.

    Human psychology is far to complex to define happy. Those that say they are happy are written off as crazy and those that aren’t happy claim it is unattainable. Everyone needs to get over themselves.

  34. T Davis-Merchant
    T Davis-Merchant says:


    I think you have a fascinating blog, but honestly can you please quit the New York hate. I get it. You hated your time there. Move on!! I lived in Boston and hated it for the time I lived there, but I unless I am asked directly I don’t offer up my opinion about the place. Sometimes I think it takes away from your blog and your ability to convey your ideas. I have not read the comments to this post, nor will I read the comments that come after this one, but I just wanted to say that. Good luck to you, and may you find peace about your past.

  35. Paula Duarte
    Paula Duarte says:

    “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…”

    Wow. That’s a pretty high standard for happiness. It sounds more like you’re fed up with the word and all the cultural baggage that comes with it. I am happy a lot, and unhappy a lot, and I’m okay with that. I like it, actually. I don’t think that makes me a “happy” person, but we are all so much more than that, don’t you think?

  36. Tina Esparza-Luna
    Tina Esparza-Luna says:

    Penelope — I disagree with so much you said here! First, I believe that happiness does exist. It is a feeling of contentment or fulfillment. It does not mean that you are no longer interesting (or interested), but I think as Tyler says fulfilled. You say that people who value choices never defend their choices, that’s not true. You are defending your choices here and you say that you value choices/opportunties over happiness. The reason you perceive that people who are happy have to defend their lifestyle is because they are being attacked by people (like you!) who are attacking their decision to be happy. People who are unhappy/unfulfilled are often trying to make others unhappy. Even when you are happy, it doesn’t mean that life is without challenges & frustrations, but it does mean that you are better able to weather those challenges & frustrations because at the core of your life you know you have good things happening. You sound very unhappy to me, and yet you seem to crave happiness and fulfillment. I wish you luk in finding whatever it is you are looking for to have a happy & fulfilling life. And just because you’re happy doesn’t mean that you’re not interesting.

  37. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I never went looking for information on how to be happy until I fell into a deeply unhappy well and found I couldn’t get out by myself. Suddenly people writing and talking about how to be happy was very interesting. It’s how I found this blog. Being an infovore, I gathered all this information. It didn’t get me out of my depression but it gave me something to do while I was working on the root causes. Now I find I’m interested in other things. I’m calling it progress.

  38. Corrie
    Corrie says:

    I think that “acting” like you are happy is a way to make others like you and simply getting along with others can make your life easier in a way. My grandmother, who grew up in the Depression, shared this verse she learned from her mother: “It’s easy to be happy when life rolls along like a song. But it’s the girl who’s worthwhile who will smile when everything goes wrong.”

    • Lisa
      Lisa says:

      Be careful with this one. I’m just starting to realize all the damage I’ve done acting like I’m happy when I’m not.

  39. Doug K
    Doug K says:

    Agree entirely on the question of happiness. I think happiness is a unicorn – chasing after it will always fail, but if you wait quietly patiently and don’t think about it, it may yet come and lay its head on your lap. Keeping busy and staying interested will at least stave off the black dog, which is much more than half the battle.

    Disagree violently with the assertion “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.”
    The IT business is full of socially dysfunctional people who are focused on information. Their jobs have been exported to countries where they can be done far more cheaply. They are most assuredly not flourishing. This is the fantasy of symbolic analysts that we were fed in the 90s, and it’s as false now as it was then. It turns out (see link above) that what matters is not your skills of symbolic analysis/information processing, but your social connections.

  40. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    I love your definition of an interesting life. Being interesting to other people is exactly the sort of behavior society places a premium on yet those of us with Aspergers have so much difficulty with. An interested fulfilled through information consumption appeals very much to me! But then I’m an engineer so maybe I’m biased :-).

  41. Doug K
    Doug K says:

    Two more ponderables on happiness:
    Dr. Seligman of the Authentic Happiness site in one of his books, quotes Wittgenstein on his deathbed, “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Wittgenstein was famously morose and miserable, entertained suicidal thoughts on most days of the week: but also worked continuously on what interested him.

    In an interview on the Harvard study the researcher concludes:
    “In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, "What have you learned from the Grant Study men?" Vaillant's response: "That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people."

  42. Mira
    Mira says:

    Hmm, I think you always succeed in being interesting. Speaking of which, I think you have a very interesting point. I’ve read Seligman and I’ve read “The Paradox of Choice” and I’ve read a bit of everything. Because I was struggling with my own depression. Happiness is a state of mind. It comes from the bigger picture questions, of doing the big things that satisfy you on a very core level. So says the woman who’s unemployed, separated, and poor but is very happy to be home in NYC again with friends and family after 10 years of following her ex around and is in school and pursuing job opps to do exactly what she has wanted to do since 2001. Go figure.

  43. Ben
    Ben says:

    Your conception of happiness makes it hard for me to believe that you’ve spent the the last three years “enthralled and ensconced” in positive psychology research. Seligman and others reference the “meaningful life”–roughly equivalent, in my opinion, to Socrates’ definition of “the good life”–all the time, and that is totally inconsistent with your idea of the pursuit of happiness being vacuous.

  44. Taryn
    Taryn says:

    I grew up here in WI, but moved to Lake of the Ozarks, MO for 3 years-but now I’m back. I left everything here…my good job, my family, my friends which was also considered my ‘support group’. I LOVED it in Missouri…after moving back I was devestated for quite some time. Like Penelope was saying: people that have lived in WI all their life are so content here, but they have no idea what they are missing out on. No one here (even though they are so close to me) do not understand why I loved it there so much more. All of my family on my mom and dad’s side all live within a 15 mile radius of each other and they all just love it. Me on the other hand, I could care less. They want nothing more than their family close by, which isn’t a bad thing-but in the back of my mind I can’t help but wonder what else is out there….I have to be happier and able to succeed some place else? I’m torn, I would love to move back-but it is my 2-year old daughter that keeps me here. If I took her away from my family, I swear they would never forgive me. Back to the topic: there are so many more choices when you go elsewhere…WI in my opinion is mediocre and at ease here and really have no reason to “try something new”. Me….I’m all about it!!!

  45. Carol
    Carol says:

    It’s amusing to me because I originally found your blog from Gretche’s Happiness Project. I got bored with her blog after a few months and I’m still reading yours several years later!

  46. Holly
    Holly says:

    I am late in the comments, hoping someone actually (“hi, Penelope!”) reads this far…but I feel a little better knowing that so many others find it hard to put a finger on “happy”. There are only so many things we can focus on at one time…so I liked best the comment that we should live in the present and try to stop overanalyzing.

    I doubt that I have ever been happy. I remember writing suicidal notes to myself (throwing them out after writing) even as a young child (age 10?). I have also dealt with a tragedy of sorts and more stuff that’s personal. We ‘sufferers’ are not ill, just challenged more than the cheesemakers, I believe.

    Penelope, you are strong! YOU ROCK!

  47. Jana
    Jana says:

    The question your raise seems made for a maximizer. It’s almost like, “Wait a minute… what if there is something BETTER than happiness?” Because, you know, us maximizers always have to get to the best. Instead of being content in the moment. The irreparable discontent of a maximizer is one of my most defining features, but I’ve also begun to realize how exhausting it is to me and those around me.

    So I’ve been trying to, for lack of a better description, be zen. I certainly think there is something to what you are saying– I often ended my review of the psych literature out there wondering if “satisfaction” is a unit we needed to look at separately from “happiness,” since it’s the difficult tasks that cause a great deal of unhappiness but bring the most satisfaction in the end– but I am trying to train myself to stop dissecting my decisions on every front and to go with what feels good/right in the moment. The other day my mother asked me why I was acting so differently (the hamster wheel in my head wasn’t spinning as visibly as usual) and I explained that I was, you know, just trying to go with the flow for a little bit. Reading the Tao Te Ching. All that good stuff. Her unimpressed response: “Oh. Can’t you just start being a dissatisfied American again?”

  48. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    I happened to read this post while listening to Gordon Lightfoot singing “Seven Islands Suite.” Holy cow!
    Lightfoot, of course, was saying the exact opposite of what you wrote.
    After putting up with the shark tank that was the big city (in California), I moved to Montana in 1991. I’ll never go back. Every time I go down there to visit or attend a family funeral it’s worse.
    I agree with several posters who have noticed that you seem to think of happiness as bovine contentment. Some of us have to be challenged to be happy. I love puzzling out a layer of Eocene volcanic rock or figuring out the geochemistry of a lake. It’s hard work, and it’s fun!
    Sure, I miss things like Indian or Ukrainian food, but Calgary is an easy day’s drive away. Once a year is enough. (And my wife and I are learning to cook Indian anyway — and having fun doing it.)

  49. Sara
    Sara says:

    I think the root of the problem is you have to figure out what makes YOU happy, particularly about a place to live. You’ve been in Madison long enough now, that if it’s not home to you, I seriously doubt it ever will be. I’ve lived in Boston, NY, San Francisco and currently a college town in the mountains. I decided to leave the city for one reason – I wanted a less stressful life for my kids. All the negative energy in NY and SF about who had what and what was the best, was not for me. It’s the reason someone making $200K feels like they can’t make it there. Hell I made almost 7 figures in SF and STILL felt like I was scraping by. Many cities’ culture is about MORE and the BEST – and hell if you don’t have a ski house in lake tahoe, you’re deprived and if johnny isn’t on the waitlist for the $35K preschool they’ll never succeed – good grief!

    I did make sure that the town I chose had great choices for things that were deal breakers for ME – ie great schools, outdoor choices (hiking, skiing, etc) and I also made sure that the general community was a good match. If you’re a strong conservative and choose Berkeley or Portland to leave, it;s a lot harder to feel part of the community. Similarly, if you are progressive and find all your neighbors and coworkers have different values etc. you’re going to feel isolated.

    I think Penelope’s rants about eyebrows and shopping are actually just hiding the fact that she doesn’t feel like she fits in there –

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