5 Reasons to stop trying to be happy

I have been spending my days with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I had to replace my house manager from Madison, and people told me that I should put an ad on the grocery-store bulletin board. That’s how people get jobs where I live now. So I did that. I got two responses.

The job listing said $10/hr and Jeanenne said she’d do it for $20. That’s something I would do. So I hired her. Everyone knows everyone in this town. And when I mentioned Jeanenne’s name, everyone said, “But she’s a Jehovah’s Witness.”

I didn’t really know what this meant. I mean, I knew that they’d probably say something like that about me, being (probably) the only Jewish family in the county. And I knew that when I was a latchkey kid, and Jehovah’s Witnesses would knock on our door, I would often invite them in to talk.

They never made any sense to me.

Now I know why. Jehovah’s Witnesses are all about being happy. They are all about having the answers, knowing the rules, and following them to happiness.

1. The real path to happiness is contentment, and it looks a lot like hell.

Jeanenne recognizes that this is the big difference between us. She took this photo for me. She said, “The cow reminds me of you.”

5 Reasons to stop trying to be happy

I laughed right away. The cow has acres of land with corn and grass to feed on all day long. But she went to the edge of the fence and poked her head through to somewhere else. That’s how I am.

Happiness is not interesting to me. I ask Jeanenne why she does not want to argue with the Watchtower. I ask her why she does not want to try doing bad things to see what it feels like. I say, “If you’re going to make your whole life about living according to the Bible, then why not learn to read the Bible in the original language instead of reading someone else’s translation?”

This is so completely not interesting to her. She trusts the unnamed person who tells her what the Bible says. When I question whether it is okay to use birth control if it’s not okay to masturbate, she sends me a three page, well-reasoned email response.

So here’s where we are: I want to find what is wrong, what is unsettling, what leads to inner turmoil and conflict. She wants to have peace and happiness by believing that there is one way to interpret the Bible, and that the Jehovah’s Witnesses know that one way. She wants to help other people find that.

I want to help people find conflict and self-doubt.

2. Contentment is intellectually boring and creatively unchallenging.

So the happiness in Darlington, Wisconsin is killing me. People are genuinely happy here. They do not want to fly to New York City to see what they’re missing at Annie’s Blue Ribbon. They have better things to spend their money on. Like family togetherness or something.

It’s just not in me to be happy. I love questioning everything. Now that I’m a Jew among Christians, I realize that the big difference isn’t Jesus—the big difference is that Jews are always asking more questions. Jews celebrate doubt, angst, and searching in dark places. We love that stuff.

The other day my son asked the farmer why we can’t use dirty napkins at dinner.

The farmer said, “Don’t ask why. It’s rude.”

I nearly fell over. Really. I had never heard that ever in my life.

3. Uncertainty and disquietude make life worth living, but they don’t make contentment.

This is another thing about living in farm country: If you want to say something nice about someone, you say they are a hard worker.

Apparently, people here have not read my post about how you should never be the hardest worker. Because here, it’s a competition. You know how if you want to go home early, you make sure to send a bunch of emails as the very last thing you do so that everyone thinks you’re working? The farm version of that is cutting hay. Or corn. Or soybeans. Everyone can see how far along you are.

The farmer is always early. He says he’s early because he’s a hard worker.

We pass a farm and I say, “Why do you think the corn isn’t cut?”

He says, “I don’t know. Maybe they’re lazy.”

I say, “Maybe the husband just killed the wife and the kids are trying to deal with a grand jury while they’re trying to get the corn cut.”

You know what is most lovable about me to me? I can find drama in anything.

4. Intense solitude and internal voices are essential to life, albeit an unhappy one.

Now that the positive psychology types are coming out with iPhone apps, we know that people with a lot of free time on their hands are not happy. Those people spend too much time thinking miserable thoughts.

The problem is that this seems so nice to me.

And the problem is that now it all starts to make sense to me that Jeanenne is always busy doing stuff for Jehovah’s Witnesses. For instance, 400 people volunteered their time to build a new meeting place. I don’t think Jews would do that. We would donate money so that we could have more time to think dark, unsettling thoughts. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses keep busy. And anyway, going door-to-door is a lot of work.

The farmer and I went to visit.

We had to leave after only a short time because we had to pick the kids up from my Ex and I still needed to fight with the farmer about whether or not he can boss me around with my chickens if he won’t let me boss him around with his pigs.

5. Intellectual angst and constant turmoil are so fun and interesting that you won’t miss being content.

My friend came to visit. She is a friend who has been a professional flutist, novelist, gardener, and now I think she’s on her way to professional photography. Here is a random picture she took of the cows and the barn.

Anyway, she has a nose for nuisance, and she took one look at Jeanenne and said, “I can tell she brings a lot of stability to you. It’s good you have her.”

It’s true, really, that you can SEE stability in Jeanenne. That’s how she is. And she has a stable family and her kids are growing up and being good Jehovah’s Witnesses. And she doesn’t care that they’re not going to college because really, what is college about except challenging everything you already know?

This is one of my favorite pictures. It’s my son sitting in a crowd of boys watching my other son play a video game where he kills everyone.

This is a picture of the life I’m raising my boys to enjoy: a tangled life of misery and conflict, and gatherings to celebrate that. I am not crazy for wanting this. We are officially in the backlash period of the positive psychology movement (I am declaring that period beginning: Now.) As a backlasher myself, I’m convinced that you cannot have both a happy life and an interesting life; you have to choose one. Adam Philips recently made a contribution to this backlash in the Guardian with a review of one of my favorite books, Lord of the Flies, to show that people want interesting lives over happy ones. Tyler Cowen was so far ahead of this curve that he had to disguise his diatribe against happiness as an economic treatise. And I credit him with making me understand that an interesting life is a better goal than a happy one.

The farmer and I wake up very early in the morning. There’s a lot written about why you’ll be happier if you wake up early, but who cares? Because the farmer doesn’t want more happiness —if he did, would he have married me? I’m way too much trouble. The farmer wants to be busy. He put in this wood burning heating system and every day he wakes up early to chop dead trees in our forest.

I wake up early to think. Because I don’t want to be happy. I want idle time to let my mind wander because the unhappy result is so interesting. I watch the sunrise through the smoke, then I sip coffee and stress about what I’m doing with my life. Then Jeanenne comes to remind me that the other side’s always there if I change my mind.

166 replies
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    • Remi
      Remi says:

      “Understanding in life is the booby prize”. So the distinction is “understanding/knowing something” or “being someone”

  1. Sarah Bray
    Sarah Bray says:

    I think I would rather be uninteresting and happy. But that’s probably because it will never, ever happen with my analytical brain and tortured creative soul…and I MUST yearn for something that is completely out of reach. ;)

    • arif rohman
      arif rohman says:

      whether it is instead of people who are desperate and we must not despair in this life to live but if we do not want to try to become a better and more advanced I am afraid we’ll actually going to be people who are always desperate and hopeless undergo all this is what is called a life resigned to what was resigned to it a good decision for us ………..?
      hello friends hopefully always sucses and more advanced in survivors struggling through all this
      Baca secara fonetik

  2. Paul Hassing
    Paul Hassing says:

    After 40 years of reading books and quizzing people, I’ve formed the view that organised religion is our most illogical invention and our greatest cause of suffering. The world is wondrous and dangerous enough without crazed veneers. Or so I believe. :)

  3. Brad
    Brad says:

    I’m sure you posted that your move to Madison was specifically and only because your research told you that you would be happier there. Not your wisest decision, apparently.

    The coolest thing about Jehovah Witnesses is they reject all holidays and birthdays. Saves a lot on cards and gifts.

  4. alan wilensky
    alan wilensky says:

    You look very happy in that pic with the farmer. He is so……regular, an you are so hyper. Dear lady, you are prototype of the woman I have been seeking all my life. Rife with angst, seeking, questioning, never settled. All in question – that’s my motto.

    You think it is easy finding a you? The farmer is a fortunate man to be able to suffer with you, dear. May you continue to bring instability and wonderfulness to the farm, and you will even find peace in that, when you realize that you know, that is what you do.

    • lynnevon
      lynnevon says:

      I agree that you look so happy in the picture, positively beaming. Maybe you’re happy to be different, and who could blame you? Everyone’s idea of happiness is different! For some, like the Jehovah’s Witness lady, “ignorance is bliss”. Some people are addicted to drama and can’t stand living without something to bitch about. In the final “Matrix” movie the architect explains that the original matrix was designed to be a perfect world, with everything completely blissful at all times. People died. Humans need to question, strive, and explore. I don’t think its a bad idea to try to let go of some of the anxiety all that questioning brings. But when we stop questioning we die. Seriously. I would have answered your son’s question with “We use clean napkins every time we eat the same way we use clean toilet paper every time we go to the bathroom.” I love the questions kids ask.

  5. Stephani
    Stephani says:

    You soooo belong in Boston! The outskirts, NOT Boston proper. Far enough away to nurture a certain malaise, say 30 minutes outside. An uppity suburban area might be best. Aim for just west of Boston. I’m sure this would fuel your angst and you will be miserable like everyone else around you. Seriously, you will fit right in. There are no “Hellos” or “Hiyas” from strangers, no chicken pot pie from welcome wagon, no nosy neighbors. Everyone is trying so hard to seem just “okay” that they keep to themselves and it’s all accepted as perfectly normal.

    It’s funny that you’re in Madison writing this. I always joke that Boston is basically the polar opposite of Madison. So, this post REALLY struck a chord and I had to respond to roll out the unwelcome mat. That’s the other thing, no matter how long you live here as a transplant it will take decades for you to feel like it’s “home”. And the people (neighbors, co-workers, whatever) will help you feel that raw disconnection and make you earn any sense of contentment or comfort.

  6. IslandEAT
    IslandEAT says:

    Penelope, this is one of your best posts, as far as I’m concerned. If the positive psychology movement is movin’ on out, that’s fine with me; all it does is to create anxiety and stress among those who feel they have to force themselves to be happier, with the opposite result.

    I, too, am a product of a non-religious Jewish background as well as an education in critical thinking, so I understand your frame of reference. How can anyone begin to understand life by not questioning, examining, and analyzing? All such enquiry is beyond the realm of mindless happiness.



  7. Richard Sher
    Richard Sher says:

    Wow. Great, it’s true, I’m wired to be drawn to the interesting at the expense of happiness but this puts it in focus for me Penelope, thanks.

    In Neil Young’s song “Now a days Clancy can’t even sing”
    The second verse begins(I love Neil’s music):
    Who’s all hung up on that happiness thing?

    I am, I am!

    Richard Sher

  8. Maria
    Maria says:

    Oh,dang it P. you KNOW I’m gonna respond to this one.

    #1: I”m interested in learning the Bible in the original, even if Jeanenne is not, and I’m still a Witness. We’re not cookie cutter. When I have time, I’ll do it. We do like research and questions.

    #2: If you only find happiness and no angst in Darlington you are not looking hard enough.

    #3: The hard worker as compliment and competition is SO a Mid-West thing. I know you weren’t pegging it as a particular Witness thing, but just for the record it’s not.

    #4. Studying psychology and the deep inner workings of the mind including dark unsettling angst ridden thoughts fascinate me. I love social psychology. But if I dwell on it too much and it informs all my perceptions, no it doesn’t always make for happiness.

    #5. You think Witnesses don’t go to college? You think that because many don’t it’s because they are afraid of their world-view being challenged? Really??? I know Witness kids who go to college. I know a TON of non-Witnesses whose kids don’t go to college. They *choose* NOT to go to college. Radical Self Education, Whole Life Learning, Unschooling, Unjobbing, Appreticeships, On the Job Training, Auto Didactics?? Google, P. It’s not a Witness thing. I’d be happy to send you links.

    #6. I’m starting a backlash to the backlash of the positive psychology movement. Starting NOW. I believe in neither the positive psychology movement (Bright Sided by Barbra Ehrenreich is really good if you haven’t read it) nor do I believe in the idea that the road to an interesting life comes through angst. I gave the later idea up after the angst -ridden- listening- to -The -Cure- all -day teen years.

    #7. Contentment is boring and creatively un-challenging. First of all, I don’t know how people in the here and now can be truly content with all the angst ridden stuff going on in the world. Contentment is really hard to find for anyone. That having been said BORING and UNCHALLENGING? P, that made me totally laugh because my husband and I were talking tonight saying that we felt pretty content right now (given the fact we will loose our house in this economy… we found that ironic). And yet, we feel very creative and stimulated right now. My husband has joined three other guys he knows to start a weekly jam band who are playing his original songs. He finds that creatively stimulating. He has an agent and publisher for a kids book he just wrote, and I have never felt more creative and full of self expression than I do in my current obsession (hooping~ya,I know that sounds weird, but that’s another story). My daughter obsessively draws, creates and writes poetry for the sheer love of it all. We love to read all sorts of books, fiction and non fiction, I follow what is going on in the world at large as my interests dictate. We feel like we are growing intellectually and creatively all the time, while we also volunteer by going door to door to tell people about the Bible. Life is SO far from boring and without challenge. I don’t need a trough full of angst and turmoil to stimulate an interesting life (to use a farming reference)

    #7. Oy. I HATE waking up early and avoid it at all costs.

    #8. P, you really have to get out more. I mean, you know I love Jeanenne, but maybe you should meet more Witnesses. Broaden your horizons, girl. It’s like me saying that all Jews are angst ridden, turmoil driven, uncertain, disquiet and discontent just because I read this post.

    Was that too intense of a comment?


    • Lorri
      Lorri says:

      Thank you Maria, you put it so well. I was mentally composing a reply to the original post, then read yours and realised I can’t say it any better. I am a Witness too (hello my sister) and very definitely NOT cookie cutter. My eldest daughter went to university, my middle daughter is also undertaking tertiary education, my youngest (son) most likely will too. Jeanenne doesn’t represent us all. Kinda reminds me of a couple of sisters witnessing here a while back, they both happened to have the same coat, and a householder asked if it was a ‘uniform.’

  9. Kris Costello
    Kris Costello says:

    God, I love reading your stuff.
    “Jews celebrate doubt, angst, and searching in dark places.” Us Lutherans love that too! And don’t laugh, your writing almost always ‘cheers me up’! So, thanks…

  10. Tre ~ (Tresha Thorsen)
    Tre ~ (Tresha Thorsen) says:

    i like how you write and share openly sans apology, regret, angst. I like how you ‘be’ just as you are. I adore sippin coffee and thinkin too. I haven’t judged the thoughts yet if they’re unhappy ones or not. :)

  11. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    Most people are not happy, there are happy enough. They’ve settled with what they have , because exploring and being interesting requires a lot of hard work. Also there are already set standards & templates on what ‘happy’ looks like. There are none for ‘interesting’

  12. Michael
    Michael says:

    Hi, I just wanted to say that when I check your blog and see that there’s a new post, in that moment I am happy. Moreover I’m happy entertaining the idea that there is a trade off between the interesting and the happy.. I think you may well be right but it takes some further thought to explain the way we behave.. some of the happiest people I know are really interesting. But perhaps I just find it interesting that they *can* be happy.

  13. michael
    michael says:

    Pretty sure Create Your Own Economy wasn’t “a tirade against happiness.” Most of it was about how to find happiness.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah, you’re right, Michael. This is why people should not send books to me to review on my blog. Just kidding. Sort of.

      But this is what happened: The book arrived in my mailbox and I thought, forget it, I’m never going to be able to understand an economic treatise from a economics professor. But I love Tyler’s blog, Marginal Revolution. So I decided to interview him about the book so I wouldn’t have to read it.

      I have a very hard time on the phone. And Tyler made it harder for me by challenging everything I was thinking about why personal fulfillment.

      I was thinking I’d be fulfilled if I were socially connected and likable. And Tyler told me maybe I just need to be consuming information and spitting it out in interesting ways and that’s what’ll make me fulfilled. Not the social stuff.

      So I hung up on him and didn’t review his book.

      But what he told me really stuck with me. And actually made me want to try reading his book again. So my experience of his book is a tirade against happiness.

      We each have our own experience of each book. Lord of the Flies. For me that’s about social skills. Maybe for Tyler Lord of the Flies is about game theory.


  14. Irving Podolsky
    Irving Podolsky says:

    With the name, Irving Podolsky, how could I possibly be happy?

    Okay, so it’s not my name. I’m still not happy. But bored I’m not.


  15. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    You need to better define what interesting means to you.

    Because from my perspective, if interesting means sabotaging my relationships with my partner, sons and colleagues in the name of some wanky quest for personal fufillment, then I’ll opt out.

    I don’t want to be a complete ass to everyone I come in contact with so I can pursue an ‘interesting’ life.

  16. le
    le says:

    howdy P, happiness is just a state of mind and your choice at that. Happy works for me. I’m happy you have the new house manager – stable might be a nice change – and you’ll always have room for caos, best le

  17. R H
    R H says:

    You are a humorous person! Also gets one thinking, “do I want to be happy….or am I happy being miserable? As the late George Carlin put it, “If you try to fail and succeed, which have you done?”
    We forget that Jesus was a Jew. He had a lot to say about happiness: (Sermon on the Mount)Also created a lot of angst as he challenged those who misrepresented God, his father.
    Those who follow in his footsteps may also cause a lot of angst unintentionally just trying to set the record straight on the true source of happiness. The people like Jeanenne do just that!

  18. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of happiness and Asperger syndrome. A lot of Aspies are “unhappy” but I think that’s because of bad definitions of the word.

    I look at my son, and he doesn’t do any of the things that he’s supposed to do to be happy. And yet, in his own way, he is. He’s most miserable when we try to help him be happy.

    I think that happiness for introverts is the opposite of the happy-happy, toothpaste-commercial-smiliness of religious literalists. (Never mind that their veneer of uber-happiness might just be part of their struggle to believe that they believe…)

    Aspie happiness must be more like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow. Flow means being in the moment, living it deeply, to the point that you don’t even realize time is passing. It means digging deeply into what you’re doing because it’s part of who you are.

  19. Perry
    Perry says:

    Maybe it’s all less about finding happiness or contentment than it is about finding balance. Jeanenne “works” for you because her happiness and contentment are a counter-balance to your angst. Same for the farmer.

    Just a thought. But I agree though that this was a really good post. Thank you.

  20. Helen
    Helen says:

    Wow-I always wondered why I never really and truly in my life felt happy despite having those things that are supposed to make one happy – a stable marriage, a great son, a seemingly decent career. I think it is because of my constant questionning and searching out of the darkness, the “is this it”ness of the life apparently well lived. I have been toying with the idea of chucking that career to start my own business which will be a sure fire way to find angst and worry. Those around me will think I have gone bananas. Boy I am that cow too – but all in all, it is interesting that I am seeking, not contentment. This post has made me see that.

  21. Margaret Goerig
    Margaret Goerig says:

    Totally off topic, but the wood burning heating system is cool. I couldn’t figure out why it would be outdoors, apparently heating the neighborhood, till I clicked on it and saw how you connect it underground to the boiler or sauna or whatnot. Is that your only source of heat in your house? Or do you have the option to switch back and forth between that and a more standard central heating system?
    And on a side note, the farmer is not Jewish; right? So, as long as we’re talking stereotypes, I thought it was kind of funny that he would be the one to put in this efficient, cost-saving system, while you would be the one to agree to paying the house manager double, just like that, seemingly with no quibbles.

  22. Tim
    Tim says:

    First time visitor to your blog. Enjoyed this post on many levels. I only disagreed with the statement that one cannot have both a happy life and an interesting life. Then again, I realize that is a very subjective thing since everyone’s version of happiness and interesting differs. Thanks!

    • Chris M.
      Chris M. says:

      I agree with you, Tim. I think it is possible to be happy and lead an interesting life. For some people it is simply not possible to be happy if things are not interesting, so it’s not like you necessarily have to choose one or the other.

      I wonder if the difference is between “creative types” vs. other types of intellectual interests? I mean, writers, and other artists, frequently suffer from depression, many even commit suicide. It doesn’t mean though that people who aren’t religious and choose to live an adventurous life, full of questioning, challenging the status quo, leaving family to pursue professionals interests, etc. can’t be extremely happy. I know many scientists, for example, who are happy, even with all the questioning and need to be involved in interesting things all the time.

  23. chris Keller
    chris Keller says:

    Amazing! I asked you for something about boredom–and on the same day, you write about “interesting” v happy! My supplication, answered!

    You say, effectively, that contentment is boring. Happiness can get boring. Being even-keel is boring after a while. And a challenging marriage is just the ticket–no boredom!

    “Interesting” is edgy, like you . . . Carry on!

  24. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think there should be a new poll – e.g. this post could have a poll for which photo is the best. A lot of good photos to choose from here. I would pick the first one because I immediately LOL at first sight – very insightful of Jeanenne.
    Also on the subject of happiness, interesting, or contentment – I never thought of choosing one or the other before reading this blog. I think for me that learning is the single most important thing I enjoy doing. And that activity usually involves angst, doubt, happiness, contentment, and a few other states of mind. Maybe that’s why I read this blog. :)

  25. Jean Gogolin
    Jean Gogolin says:

    Fabulous post. I’ve always thought the trouble with the pursuit happiness for its own sake is that it’s so self-focused. It’s about getting rid of angst and wanting somebody else to answer the tough questions. No way to live.

  26. Tina Portis
    Tina Portis says:

    Great title. We can not try to be happy. Either we are or we are not. I always use the example “Try to touch your nose.” Happiness is simply a state of being we choose to have or choose to hope for. I am happy with my life because when I wake up early, I spend a lot of time studying and seeking ways to maintain my positive outlook on life. Besides, Penelope, happiness is not absolute. I believe it is more like the temperature outside. It varies in degrees. Cool post and thanks for sharing so much of who you are with us. :)

  27. Maria Giovannoni
    Maria Giovannoni says:

    I follow you because I get you someway. Scary I know … ha-ha! Anyway, you spun a post on my blog today. Thank you! I linked you to the post too, not like you need it BUT hey what the heck, right :). Again, thank you!

  28. Monique
    Monique says:

    “My friend came to visit. She is a friend who has been a professional flutist, novelist, gardener, and now I think she's on her way to professional photography.”

    A bit off topic, but I want you to know that this description of your friend’s professional pursuits brought me great comfort. I find myself dabbling in different careers — journalism, college teaching, running retreats for burned out teachers, photography, etc. I have some measure of success in most of them, but never manage to commit to just one — that just seems too boring. Maybe it’s because I’m seeking angst over contentment? Maybe ….

  29. jim
    jim says:

    Please don’t confuse hooking up with a ready-made, spoon-fed belief system with happiness or contentment. It’s actually a form of slavery.

  30. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Hi Penelope……….I LOVED seeing that picture of you & the farmer. You look so happy!!! It makes me happy to so you look so content. I’m thinking our Darlington way of life agrees w/you.

  31. Karen
    Karen says:

    Love your blog and how much you go for it, saying what’s on your mind. Gotta say I don’t agree with your conclusion though. I feel like people can have interesting lives AND be happy. You just have to realize you create your own happiness, learn how to do it and practice it. Interesting and happy, much more fun! :-) Carpe diem! Karen

  32. kolin
    kolin says:

    Wow you have got a lot of attention already this morning! This must make you “happy”? I find your comment about the difference between Jews and Christians insulting and inaccurate. Especially because you appear to base you statement off of one person, your “house manager”. Really, are you too busy to pay your own bills and grocery shop? Yikes! Anyhow, if you want to learn about dark places try reading the book of Revalations in the new testiment and in whatever language you so desire. Christ followers don’t seek happiness, they seek truth. Jesus/God never said “I want you all to be happy”. In fact those who have followed him most memorably in history led very tragic lives here on earth. Its not about what WE want in this earthly life. It’s about what comes after. Thanks for getting me thinking this morning.

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