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Are You Happy?

We value happiness highly in our culture, so depression often means failure. This is especially true in spheres which fetishize success -- at Yale, unhappiness is simply unacceptable.
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According to polls, most of us say we are. We value happiness highly in our culture, so depression can often mean failure. This is especially true in those spheres which fetishize success - at Yale, where I go to school, unhappiness is simply unacceptable.

So my fellow Yalies will be happy, by golly, whether we like it or not. After all, if you aren't happy, what are you spending all that money for? Yale is the best place on earth, we're constantly told; it's your own fault if you aren't happy there! So sure enough, most of my classmates tell themselves they're happy and try as hard as they can to make it so.

But as it turns out, we aren't as adept with happiness as we are with our SATs.

A few years ago, I came back from a hard run early in the morning, and as I collapsed on the couch in a disgruntled heap of aching limbs, my roommate was just waking up. He began to sing aloud to the same song he played every morning ("Mr. Bobby," by Manu Chao) and this was just about the last straw. At that moment, singing "Mr. Bobby" was equivalent to hitting me over the head with a cinder block.

"Why are you so [expletive] happy all the time?" I screamed. It was a bit of an overreaction. That's what happens when you run to violent rap music. Live and learn, I suppose.

Anyway, it turns out he wasn't happy at all; like most Yalies, of course, he was trying really hard -- but the pieces of the puzzle just didn't fit. You have to admire his dedication to the cause; he drank a lot, but not so much that he couldn't do his work. He slept with a lot of women, but not so many that people cast a disapproving eye. He had eclectic taste in music and tortured his roommates accordingly. He was at a good school, had a good job, and good friends. He was always the life of the party, and he constantly projected the image that he was having the time of his life. I'm sure you know the type.

By any objective standard, he should have been a happy dude. But he wasn't.

One of the hardest things we have to learn about happiness is that it doesn't fit the pattern of all our other goals. It's a skill that must be constantly nurtured, not a milestone that may be achieved once and for all. No one realization about yourself, spawned from a great book or a deep conversation, will suddenly reveal to you the truth about your existence, and the secret to everlasting happiness.

Now, you might ask: people develop skills all the time. Why is this one so elusive?

Because we don't approach it the right way. We see happiness as something to accomplish, like getting a job, or finishing a degree; something you can collect and spend at will, like money or connections. We make it contingent on certain events in our lives, and when those things occur, we are happy -- for a while. But that sort of contingent happiness never lasts.

Rather, true happiness is a habit that involves constant thought and attention, and not the kind of thought or attention you're used to giving to your goals. Normally when you want something, you ask: "What can I do to get it?" or "What hoops do I have to jump through?" or "What drugs can I take?"

This isn't the case for happiness. It's a disposition of the mind, which keeps at the forefront of its attention the triviality of the bad and savors every moment of the good. It takes people on their own terms and seeks to understand rather than judge. In every way, it sets expectations high, but not so high that they can't be met.

We are exceptionally adaptable creatures; this is our greatest strength. But like desperate Yalies trying to land jobs in a shrinking economy, our greatest strength also happens to be our greatest weakness. We are such good adapters that our happiness levels naturally adjust to any material changes we face. Our circumstances -- good and bad -- don't matter nearly as much as our approach to them and the expectations we have set.

If your happiness is contingent upon some form of success, be it political, artistic, academic or otherwise, then you will never be fully content. Whatever expectations you meet, they will almost certainly rise again, and satisfaction will remain forever just out of reach. You start to think, if I only got one more promotion, had one more vacation, took one more wife, then I would be happy. But the chain never ends. There will always be someone more powerful, more talented, or more intelligent than you: there can be only one Obama, one Beethoven, and one Einstein. If you keep raising the bar necessary for happiness, you'll never measure up and you'll be doomed to perpetual frustration.

Instead, expect the best from yourself, but don't stake your happiness solely on your achievements. Push yourself to your limits, but keep in mind what's important: not that you achieve your goal, but that you value your experience.