science of us

I Know You Know That Happiness Is Fleeting

My door is open. Photo: Universal Pictures

I’ve been enjoying the recent stories that suggest happiness is like a favorite song that comes on the radio randomly. For instance, the Quartz story encouraging readers to embrace misery: “Happiness arises unexpectedly,” Ephrat Livni writes. “It can’t be planned or pursued. We can only make room for it, but cannot master it.” Also: “Liberating yourself from the expectation of happiness lightens your load.” Yes, although, weirdly, it also feels lightly humiliating to welcome the reminder. What was I thinking? What was I doing that made me forget?

There was a meta-analysis, too, published earlier this week in PLOS One, demonstrating that people are just as happy at work as they are elsewhere. “Classical economic theory suggests that work is a relatively distasteful experience,” the authors write. “However, the current … results partly refute this conclusion and instead show that affect at work is nearly on par with affect during the rest of daily life.” Okay, so happiness comes and goes. It can’t be conjured, and the things that we expect will make us happy rarely do. Utility is pleasure. I want to be like “I knew that, jeez,” but I forget. Sometimes happiness leaves us, and instead of grabbing for its back like a freak, we should let it go and trust that it will return.

There’s a part in the recent New Yorker piece about author Rachel Ingalls and the reissue of her 1983 novel Binstead’s Safari that I keep thinking about. This part wasn’t about Binstead, but about Ingalls’s 1982 novella Mrs. Caliban. I haven’t read the novella, but as critic Lidija Haas explains, it’s about a sea creature who visits a lonely suburban housewife, and they begin an affair. Eventually the creature (Larry) starts to feel bad. It’s because his new life with the woman (Dorothy) has begun to seem too “permanent,” Haas recounts, and because he feels he doesn’t belong. Larry says he would have better enjoyed his stay with her in the suburbs if it felt more temporary. As Haas writes:

“If I had known I was only going to stay a short while, this would have been the most exciting thing I could imagine,” he tells Dorothy. “But to know that it’s forever, that I’ll always be here where I’m not able to belong, and that I’ll never be able to get back home, never …” He lowers his massive head in sorrow; she starts making plans for his return to the sea.

When I first read this, I was moved. I thought, maybe I should try to enjoy life more. It isn’t permanent, maybe I should try to approach it with the same excitement that Larry initially felt about being on land. But then I thought, this is a terrible way to break up with someone, and there must have been a better way for Larry to have expressed this. (Or maybe I just need to actually read the book.) My THIRD thought was: If Larry goes home, he’ll probably just miss being with Dorothy. There is no permanent comfort, Larry — the seaweed is always greener. Being able to remember this, though, is almost as fleeting as happiness itself. “So resistant are humans to the very freedoms they yearn for,” Haas writes, “that it sometimes seems there can be no escape without supernatural intervention.” Maybe, although do other people really know what they yearn for? Why? How?? On the other hand, if sea people were real, I think I would experience lasting happiness.

I Know You Know That Happiness Is Fleeting